The 50-Year Road To Pot Legalization In Michigan Recapped In WWJ's New 'In Depth' Podcast

It includes voters, protests, laws, and even John Lennon.

WWJ News
December 03, 2019 - 5:17 pm

On the first day of December, the first legal recreational marijuana sales happened in Michigan.

Outside the shop Exclusive Provisioning – one of three shops licensed to sell in the state, all located in Ann Arbor -- WWJ's Rob St. Mary met a senior citizen who along with her friend wore colorful hats and toted large buckets of soapy water as hundreds of people waited in line.

Call her the Bubble Lady.

She was one of several people who talked about the long and winding road to marijuana legalization for WWJ's first episode of 'In Depth,' a podcast that takes a deeper look at a topic of interest in metro Detroit.

How did we get here, and what’s next?

In many ways it was fitting that Michigan’s first marijuana sales started in Ann Arbor.

Activist Jesse Riggs talked to St. Mary about the political end of the marijuana debate and Ann Arbor's choice to get the first licenses by design. To understand the role Ann Arbor played in the marijuana effort, you have to go back 50 years ago to the start of the push for legalization.

Like many great stories, it started with an arrest.

Less likely, a member of the Beatles helped to change Michigan’s marijuana laws. 

Ann Arbor and the Beatles came into play in December 1969 when John Sinclair, poet, writer, activist, and manager for Detroit rockers the MC5, found himself on the wrong side of the law.

Sinclair talked about it in a 2011 interview included in In Depth where he described his arrest and his plea to change the laws to allow for his freedom.

You'll hear the details in the podcast, but basically peace activists and a former member of the biggest rock and roll band in the world -- John Lennon -- got involved for a concert to highlight Sinclair’s case in December 1971 after he spent almost 2 years in a maximum security prison.

Between the concert, the attention, and the former Beatle's plea, which included a song named aptly "John Sinclair” by John Lennon, Sinclair went free on time served. How could there be any other ending when one of the most famous songwriters in the world wrote on his behalf the lyrics, "They gave him ten for two, What else can the judges do? Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta ... set him free."

After Sinclair’s release there was some back and forth. But, starting in 1971 the city of Ann Arbor passed an ordinance and added it to the city charter in 1974 to making it a $5 fine for marijuana possession. That ordinance was one of the first of its kind in the nation and paved the way for the hash bash, an annual pro-pot event in Ann Arbor every April.

So, when legal recreational sales started on Sunday December 1st the first person to buy at Arbors Wellness in Ann Arbor was John Sinclair – a little nod to his efforts over the years to see legalization become a reality.

On Sunday morning, Dec., 1, there were three stores ready to go, all of them in Ann Arbor. A few others had been licensed but they either were not ready to sell yet or had to prepare. So, Ann Arbor was one of about two dozen communities that set up their own regulations to allow sales and it became the first city to allow its licensed shops to start selling, making Michigan the first state in the Midwest to legalize.

As for the first day in Ann Arbor, about 2,000 people bought about $221,000 in recreational cannabis.

And as more shops start selling, the question of local control will remain a constant. Clinton Township is expected to have a local ballot question in the spring about allowing sales. Other communities -- about 80% of them -- have already opted out in Michigan.

Regardless, the state's new marijuana regulator Andrew Brisbo says his job is to make sure the will of the voters who decided is followed while working with communities and businesses to create a well-regulated state market.