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Detroit's longtime marijuana, counterculture activist John Sinclair dies at 82

John Sinclair, a poet, champion of legal marijuana and counterculture activist of 1960s and '70s Detroit, has died at the age of 82. Speaking of Michigan residents who eventually were able to legally purchase marijuana in that state, he once wrote, "I've been able to get weed every day since 1962. I'm glad for the average person, that they don't have to worry about it anymore." Photo courtesy of Wayne Dabney/Wikimedia Commons
John Sinclair, a poet, champion of legal marijuana and counterculture activist of 1960s and '70s Detroit, has died at the age of 82. Speaking of Michigan residents who eventually were able to legally purchase marijuana in that state, he once wrote, "I've been able to get weed every day since 1962. I'm glad for the average person, that they don't have to worry about it anymore." Photo courtesy of Wayne Dabney/Wikimedia Commons

April 2 (UPI) -- John Sinclair, a poet, champion of legal marijuana and counterculture activist of 1960s and '70s Detroit, has died at the age of 82.

Sinclair died Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure while under care at Detroit Receiving Hospital, according to his representative Matt Lee. Lee said Sinclair had been in poor health for several months and had been hospitalized for the past two weeks.

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"He was on the ropes for the longest time," Lee said. "He went in with blood poisoning and he bounced back, but then he went under again. But he just couldn't rally. There were just too many things wrong."

Sinclair was born in Flint, Mich., in 1941. He gained a following as a poet and musician known for his radical politics and his utopian dreams, as he led a decades-long fight to legalize marijuana in Michigan. Sinclair also performed with a live jazz band and released several albums during his career.

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"He was on the forefront of the marijuana movement, that's for sure," said Lee. "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."

Sinclair managed the legendary rock band MC5, which was formed in 1963, and founded the anti-racist White Panthers, which was modeled after the Black Panthers and later renamed the Rainbow Peoples Party.

MC5 often appeared on stage wearing cartridge belts and unloaded rifles. The band performed as part of the protests against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

While the White Panthers only used weapons in photo ops, the FBI called the group "potentially the largest and most dangerous revolutionary organizations in the United States."

Sinclair's leadership of the youth rebellion during the psychedelic era ultimately turned Detroit and Ann Arbor into counterculture hubs.

"I came to Detroit as a refugee from white American society attracted to this teeming center of African American culture," Sinclair once wrote.

As a counterculture activist, Sinclair made headlines during the 1960s and early '70s for calling cops "pigs" and parents "squares" or "plastic people." He rallied young people to revolt, encouraging them to drop acid and join what he called a "new order."

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"The pig-death machine is anti-life by definition," Sinclair wrote in 1969. "Our culture is a revolutionary culture, a revolutionary force on the planet, the seed of the new order that will come to flower with the disintegration and collapse of the obsolete social and economic forms which presently infest the earth."

"LSD was the catalyst which transformed rock and roll from a music of simple rebellion to a revolutionary music with a program for living in the New Age of post-industrial, post scarcity abundance which will come to flower with the final collapse of western civilization," Sinclair wrote.

As a marijuana activist and daily cannabis consumer, Sinclair was influential toward legalizing marijuana in Michigan and states throughout the country. Sinclair was among the first people in line to purchase marijuana in 2019 when Michigan's first cannabis dispensaries opened for adult use.

"He thought it was great. He would say 'we finally got the squares to come around,'" said Lee.

"To me, this is all for other people," Sinclair told reporters in 2019, as he waited in his wheelchair. "I've been able to get weed every day since 1962. But I'm glad for the average person, that they don't have to worry about it anymore."

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Before starting his battle to legalize marijuana, Sinclair was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1969 for possessing two joints. More than 15,000 people protested his arrest and sentence in 1971 in a 14-hour freedom rally at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena that was headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon wrote a song titled "John Sinclair."

"They gave him 10 for two. What else can Judge Colombo do? We gotta set him free," Lennon sang at the rally.

The "Free John Now" rally, which was the start of the city's annual Hash Bash in which attendees smoke marijuana in the open at the University of Michigan, led to Sinclair's release from prison in 1971. Sinclair moved to Amsterdam, where marijuana was legal, before ultimately returning to Michigan and Hash Bash.

"When people like ourselves vote, we win," he told attendees in 2012, as they fought to legalize marijuana in the state. "We can make it happen."

Notable deaths of 2024

Whitey Herzog
Former St. Louis Cardinals manager and member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Whitey Herzog is introduced to Cardinals fans in St. Louis on April 7, 2022. Herzog, who led the Cardinals to a World Series in 1982, died at the age of 92 on April 15. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

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