Marijuana activist and ‘Detroit’s resident radical’ John Sinclair has died at 82

A champion of legal marijuana, counterculture hero and poet, John Sinclair died Tuesday morning at age 82.

His representative, Matt Lee, confirmed he died at Detroit Receiving Hospital of congestive heart failure.

Sinclair was an influential activist who was best known for his fight toward legalizing marijuana and for his role as band manager for the MC5. The Davison native was also a champion of civil rights and co-founder of the radical anti-racist group the White Panther Party.

“He was on the forefront of the marijuana movement, that’s for sure,” Lee said. “But I don’t think people realized how knowledgeable he was in American music and he was a certified expert in all forms of American jazz and rhythm and blues.”

More: The power of rock: 50 years after the John Sinclair Freedom Rally

Sinclair was famously arrested for felony possession of two joints in the late 1960s and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The arrest and sentence galvanized counterculture activists and many came to his defense with a 1971 freedom rally at Ann Arbor’s Crisler Arena, headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with performances by Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder. The 14-hour event drew 15,000 people and Sinclair was released from prison in Jackson three days later after serving fewer than three years.

Lennon, who had been arrested for marijuana possession himself, wrote a song for Sinclair, which appears on the John Lennon and Yoko Ono album “Some Time in New York City,” released in 1972. “They gave him 10 for two/What else can Judge Colombo do/We gotta set him free,” Lennon’s lyrics say.

The song “John Sinclair” was covered by 1990s rock band Blind Melon, which may have exposed a new generation of pot activists to Sinclair, including former Hash Bash organizer Nicholas Zettell, who heard the song at age 14. His dad took him to hear Sinclair speak in person a year later.

“That was a very inspirational event in my life that led me to passionately pursue cannabis legalization activism … something about the injustice of his story lit a fire in me,” said Zettell, who was inspired to go to school in Ann Arbor after learning about the Hash Bash and Michigan’s medical and legal cannabis movement. “I wanted to keep the radical spirit thriving.

“I and many, many others owe a lot to John and his righteous ways.”

In a Detroit News interview in 2021, on the 50th anniversary of the freedom rally for Sinclair, the activist said he was surprised it took Michigan so long to legalize marijuana.

“The truth prevailed,” he said. “People didn’t quit using it, you see? And more and more people got on the side of the felons and pretty soon they had to remove the felony. It just didn’t make any sense.”

Sinclair had been living in the Cass Corridor in recent years. He was able to see marijuana not only be legalized in his home state, but become so available that dispensaries dot the entire landscape from county to county.

“He thought it was great. He would say, ‘We finally got the squares to come around,'” Lee said. “He was definitely on the cutting edge of counterculture. When you look at how other towns had their Abbie Hoffmans and their Jerry Rubins and those people, he was the Detroit equivalent to them. He was definitely Detroit’s resident radical.”

Sinclair was scheduled to speak Saturday at the annual Ann Arbor Hash Bash, a rally and festival that is held at noon the first Saturday of April on the University of Michigan Diag. The first Hash Bash happened in 1972, just months after Sinclair’s historic freedom rally.

Instead, this Saturday’s 53rd annual Hash Bash will partially be a de-facto remembrance event for Sinclair. Event coordinator Jamie Lowell said there was already a portion of the Bash earmarked to pay homage to other legalization activists who have recently died, including Rick Thompson, Brad Lemke, Gersh Avery and Rhory Gould. Several politicians and cannabis activists, including John’s ex-wife, photographer Leni Sinclair, are scheduled to speak Saturday.

“He and Leni Sinclair, in my mind anyway, they kind of kicked off the modern movement that led to where we are now in Michigan and it’s taken tens of thousands of people over decades to get here,” said Lowell, adding that he was grateful Sinclair was able to speak at the Hash Bash in 2023, in spite of bad weather.

“He decided to stick it out anyway and offer up his wisdom and he did, and people really, really appreciated it. It was really special,” he said. “A lot of people were there for the first time, so to hit a Hash Bash and get an address from John Sinclair is pretty cool.”

Sinclair leaves behind a huge body of work in the form of books and recorded poems and essays backed by blues and jazz musicians. His last book, “Collected Poems 1964-2024,” is currently at the printer, set to be released next week by M.L. Liebler at Ridgeway Press.

“John Sinclair was my hero poet in my youth, and then he became my good friend,” said Liebler.

Sinclair is survived by his daughters Celia Sinclair and Sunny Sinclair, granddaughter Beyonce and his ex-wife, Leni Sinclair.

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