John Sinclair, a marijuana activist who was immortalized in a John Lennon song, dies at 82

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — John Sinclair, a poet, music producer and counterculture figure whose long prison sentence after a series of minor pot busts inspired a John Lennon song and star-studded 1971 concert to free him, has died. He was 82.

Sinclair died Tuesday morning at Detroit Receiving Hospital of congestive heart failure following an illness, his publicist Matt Lee said.

Sinclair was sentenced to 9 1/2 to 10 years in prison in 1969 by Detroit Recorder’s Court Judge Robert Colombo for giving two joints to undercover police officers. He served 29 months, but was released a few days after Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and others performed for 15,000 at the University of Michigan’s Crisler Arena.

“They gave him 10 for two/What else can Judge Colombo do/We gotta set him free,” Lennon sang in “John Sinclair,” a song the ex-Beatle wrote that immortalized its subject.

Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, performed at the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” December 10-11, 1971, held at the basketball arena in Ann Arbor. They took the stage after 3 a.m., about eight hours after the event started.

Earlier in the evening, Sinclair’s wife, Leni, had called her imprisoned husband, and the conversation between the couple and their four-year-old daughter, Sunny, was amplified in front of the crowd, who chanted “Free John!” chanted.

‘I’m trying to get home. I want to be with you,” a sobbing Sinclair told the crowd that evening, a Friday.

And on Monday he was there.

At the time of Sinclair’s arrest, possession of marijuana was a misdemeanor punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He was arrested in Detroit while living as a poet and activist and co-founder of the White Panther Party. He received the maximum sentence.

The day before the concert, the Michigan Legislature voted to reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison.

Because he had already served 2 1/2 years, Sinclair was released from prison three days after the concert.

“For me it is like entering a completely different world than the one I left in 1969,” Sinclair wrote in “Guitar Army,” a collection of his writings published in the early 1970s.

Sinclair continued his advocacy for marijuana, helped usher in Ann Arbor’s symbolic $5 fine for pot possession, and celebrated when his home state legalized recreational cannabis in 2018.

“I am the pioneer. I was the first in Michigan to say marijuana should be legal, and they said I was completely crazy,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2019. “I am proud to have played a role in this. I spent almost three years in prison because of marijuana.”

Sinclair was born in Flint in 1941. His father worked for Buick for more than four decades and his mother was a high school teacher who left her job to raise John and his two siblings. Sinclair grew up in Davison, a town not far from Flint, and graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint in 1964 with a degree in English literature.

Over the next six decades, Sinclair did a little bit of everything: he dabbled in performance art, journalism, and cultural and political activism. And of course poetry.

“You have to live it, not just say it or play it, that’s what it’s all about,” Sinclair wrote in a 1965 poem.

After the dissolution of the White Panther Party in 1971, Sinclair formed and chaired the Rainbow People’s Party, which embraced Marxism-Leninism and promoted the revolutionary struggle for a “communal, classless, anti-imperialist, anti-racist and anti-sexist system.” ..culture of liberation.”

Sinclair proudly and aggressively fought for progressive policies as part of the burgeoning “New Left” movement.

“At that time we considered ourselves revolutionaries,” he said in 2013. “We wanted an equal distribution of wealth. We didn’t want 1 percent of the rich running everything. Of course we lost.”

Sinclair often kept a foothold in the music world, for a time managing Mitch Ryder and perhaps most noticeably MC5, a Detroit quintet known for “Kick Out the Jams” and as a hard-rocking precursor to the punk movement.

In “Guitar World,” Sinclair described “the crazy guerrilla war we waged with the MC5.”

Sinclair’s death came just two months after the death of MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer.

Sinclair also promoted concerts and festivals and helped found the Detroit Artists Workshop and the Detroit Jazz Center. He taught blues history at Wayne State University; presented radio programs in Detroit, New Orleans and Amsterdam; and wrote liner notes for albums by The Isley Brothers and Harold Melvin, among others & The BlueNotes.

Sinclair has never stopped promoting – and participating in – the use of marijuana.

He helped start Hash Bash, an annual marijuana celebration at the University of Michigan, and served as state coordinator for the Michigan chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“The only topic I’ve really focused on is marijuana, because it’s so important,” he told the Free Press. “It has been an ongoing war against people like you and me for 80 years. They have nothing to do with us because we get high.”

Sinclair had two daughters from his marriage to Leni Sinclair. They divorced in 1988. In 1989, Sinclair married Patricia Brown.