Marijuana Activist John Sinclair Tied Politics to Rock & Roll

The John Sinclair Rally poster from 1971 and Sinclair from that era

It ain't fair, John Sinclair
In the stir for breathin' air
Won't you care for John Sinclair?

John Lennon, who wrote those words in 1972, certainly cared. Sinclair – the iconoclastic poet, quasi-Beatnik, deep-voiced radio DJ, MC5 manager, White Panther Party provocateur and longtime loyal supporter of marijuana legalization – passed away on April 2 in Detroit at 82. He'd been wheelchair bound for several years; his death may have been heart related.

Let him be, set him free
Let him be like you and me

The Flint native was arrested for selling two joints to an undercover cop in 1969 and sentenced to 10 years in jail. He became a cause célèbre when Lennon and Yoko Ono got involved with his case. Lennon wrote the song "John Sinclair," quoted here, and even more famously headlined the John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor on Dec. 10, 1971 that also featured Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs, Archie Shepp, David Peel, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The concert prompted Sinclair's release three days later.

They gave him 10 for two
And what else can the judges do?

Sinclair brought the MC5's high-energy act ("rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets" was the band's motto) to a bigger audience (though they're still not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame). His activities with the White Panther Party, which included being charged with a bombing, are chronicled in Sean Hayes' Agents of Chaos: Tom King Forçade, High Times and the Paranoid End of the 1970s.

It was heady time. Sinclair wanted to "unite and build revolutionary consciousness and move to abolish the paid system." He was staunchly anti-capitalist. "The point is now to start building up our alternative social order so we can start moving," he wrote then.

The bearded boho lived off and on in Amsterdam and New Orleans, but would always return to his beloved Detroit. Sinclair's political activities subsided and he focused instead on a live act that was part beat poetry, part New Orleans-style jazz and blues. In fact, his group was dubbed the Blues Scholars. He surely was one.

If he was a CIA
Sellin' dope and makin' hay
He'd be free

Years later, Sinclair was excited to vote for marijuana legalization, which passed at the ballot in MIchigan in 2018. I heard he wanted to open a legal pot shop in Detroit, but that never happended.

I met John a few times in my capacity as an editor at High Times from 1988-2007. I saw him perform with the Blues Scholars, listened to his radio show from New Orleans and enjoyed the occasional chat during my visits to Amsterdam for the Cannabis Cup. He had an unforgettable gruff voice.

The outpouring for John is a bit surpirsing, I didn't realize he'd touched so many lives, from the cannabis world to music to politics. 

They gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta
Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free



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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.