.Poet, Protestor and Pot Activist: Remembering John Sinclair

Activist, poet and music manager John Sinclair died on April 2 at 82. Everybody concerned about cannabis reform, of any age, should know his name.

There’s no doubting Sinclair’s place in the history of American counterculture and the fight for legalizing weed, but for all the lore surrounding him, the best story in which he was involved—if only tangentially—is also perhaps the greatest story in rock-and-roll history.

Between songs during the Who’s set at Woodstock, Abbie Hoffman leaped on the stage and started ranting into a microphone about Sinclair having recently been convicted for possessing a couple of joints and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Hoffman called Woodstock “a pile of shit,” presumably because he thought nobody should be having a good time, what with Sinclair in prison and everything.

“Fuck off my fucking stage!” Who guitarist Pete Townshend yelled at him. What happened next is subject to some dispute, but in the most widely accepted version of the story, Townshend unstrapped his Gibson SG and thwacked Hoffman in the noggin with it before booting him into the crowd with one of his Doc Martens. That job done, Townshend strapped back up and moved on to the next song.

Sadly, none of this was captured on film—supposedly, the makers of the Woodstock movie were changing equipment or something—but audio exists of Townshend yelling. Hoffman always insisted Townshend hit him with his guitar accidentally, but there’s no doubt that Townshend was fuming. To be clear, Townshend also thought Sinclair’s conviction was unjust, but, well, at that moment, it was his fucking stage, and he has never been known for suffering fools.

Two years later, Townshend released what many believe to be his magnum opus, the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” This song can be interpreted as a backlash against the hippie worldview, which Townshend never fully embraced, or at least against the kind of groupthink and sloganeering that had by that point made the hippies insufferable to a good number of Americans, and not just the straights. But Sinclair was no mere sloganeer.

Also two years later, Sinclair was released from prison after having served two years for offering a couple of joints to an undercover cop. He wasn’t selling them.

His release was in part a result of the outpouring of protest his conviction had sparked, including massive rallies and a song, “John Sinclair,” by John Lennon. Like Townshend, Lennon was something of a hippie skeptic despite being largely aligned with the movement’s goals.

Sinclair never stopped fighting for legalization. He claimed a kind of victory in 2019 when he became one of the first buyers of legal adult-use weed in Michigan.

But a much bigger victory came in the Supreme Court in 1972. Sinclair, the leader of the White Panther Party, was accused of conspiring to blow up a CIA recruiting office. Sadly for Michigan prosecutors, the high court ruled in the landmark case that warrantless wiretaps were illegal, and the charges were dropped.

Sinclair’s accomplishments and activities are too numerous to list here, but among the highlights: He managed the proto-punk band MC5 in the ’60s, hosted a radio show out of Amsterdam for years, worked on numerous anti-racism campaigns, and became a renowned and prolific poet.

His victory on the pot conviction proved to be a landmark case in that it came thanks to the Michigan Supreme Court declaring the state’s cannabis laws to be unconstitutional. New laws were enacted before the War on Drugs reached a fever pitch, but soon after that ruling, Sinclair helped organize the first annual Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, a pro-legalization event that continues to this day.

While “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was well-targeted at figures like Hoffman who were mostly all about self-aggrandizement, it’s important to remember that the movement also included people like John Sinclair, who walked the walk. His life also offers an object lesson for the many people who seem to think cannabis reform is the only important issue.


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