Panics, then & now
Published: September 28, 2011
I'd like to start by saying what a pleasure and a privilege it is to have been alternating in this space for almost a full year with one of my favorite writers, Larry Gabriel, whose column last week was particularly informative and told me everything I wanted to know about what's been happening in Michigan since the shit hit the medical marijuana fan last month.
The August events that rattled the cannabis community certainly seem to have been designed to throw a massive scare into smokers and suppliers, leaving patients and their caregivers trembling in fear of arrest or serious disruption of their medicine delivery systems.
In a way, the latest panic took me back almost 45 years to January of 1967, when the Detroit Narcotics Department staged a mammoth invasion of the local bohemian community centered on the Detroit Artists Workshop and the neighborhood around Wayne State University. A total of 56 citizens were arrested in a "lightning campus dope raid" that cast a serious chill on the entire scene that was beginning to cohere around the Grande Ballroom and the burgeoning local rock 'n' roll movement that was showcased there every week.
The 56 arrestees in 1967 ended up being subjected to little in the way of legal prosecution. Most were released without drug charges of any kind, suffering only for their presence in one of the places where 11 felony warrants were being served on persons who had been identified by the narcotics police as users or possessors of small amounts of marijuana.
This writer appeared to be the central target of the operation. I was accused of having given two joints to an undercover policewoman at the Artists Workshop just before the previous Christmas. Since this gift came under the "distribution and sales of narcotics" section of the Michigan drug statutes, I was charged with Violation of State Narcotics Laws and, if convicted of this heinous crime, was subject to a sentence of a minimum mandatory 20 years with a possible maximum of life imprisonment.
More seriously, I had been a vocal opponent of the state narcotics laws and a proponent of marijuana legalization since founding Detroit LEMAR two years earlier and had suffered two previous convictions for possession. As a confirmed marijuana smoker looking forward to a lifetime of arrest after arrest under the existing law, I decided to dedicate myself to fighting back and, with the unswerving support of a fearless legal team headed by attorneys Sheldon Otis and Justin Ravitz, mounted a serious challenge to the constitutionality of the Michigan marijuana laws.
Marijuana was classified as a narcotic. We contended on a pre-trial basis that it was not a narcotic and had been defined as such without any scientific basis. The penalty for simple possession of marijuana in any amount was 1-10 years in prison, with a minimum sentence of 20 years to life for sales or distribution. We contended that such treatment constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Other legal issues were raised and, for the first time in Detroit Recorders Court history, a three-judge panel was appointed to evaluate our argument and decide whether the case should proceed to trial.
Eventually, the panel ruled that the constitutional issues could only be adjudicated upon conviction in Recorders Court and appeal to a higher legal body, the Michigan Court of Appeals. So, in July 1969, I went to trial, sustained a conviction for possession of two joints after the dispensing charge was dropped, and received a sentence of 9-1/2 to 10 years in the Michigan prison system. An appeal was promptly filed based on my constitutional challenge, but the Detroit judge, Robert J. Colombo, denied my petition for appeal bond and sent me to Jackson Prison to begin serving my sentence while my legal appeal worked its way through the Court of Appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Another two-and-a-half years of legal struggle ensued while I was held under maximum security conditions for a year in Marquette Prison in the Upper Peninsula, and then in Jackson, "the world's largest walled prison," awaiting the results of my appeal and taking spiritual sustenance from the concerted efforts of my family, friends and supporters to gain my release. Countless benefits and rallies involving scores of bands and speakers were staged on my behalf while the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against me and my case was argued before the Michigan Supreme Court.
To make a long story just a little bit shorter, my ordeal came to a sudden conclusion on Dec. 13, 1971, when I was released from Jackson on appeal bond. That was three days after John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, Bobby Seale and an incredible cast of fellow performers and activists came together with 15,000 frenzied supporters at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor for the John Sinclair Freedom Rally. And it was only four days after the Michigan Legislature passed a new drug law that removed marijuana from the narcotics list and reduced the sentence for possession to one year and for sales to a maximum of four years in prison.
This salubrious outcome provided somewhat of a happy ending to the ugly sequence of events that had started with the "lightning campus dope raid" of Jan. 24, 1967— almost five years before. I will always believe that it was our open defiance of the marijuana laws, our overt advocacy of marijuana legalization, and our sustained legal challenge to the constitutionality of the marijuana laws that helped create the climate in Michigan that we are beginning to enjoy now, and I take considerable pride in having been a key participant in the process.
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