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From the Archives: Hemp Tour ’90 (1990)

By Steve Bloom

“The bus was busted!” HIGH TIMES Executive Editor John Holmstrom informed me as I walked into the office, only hours before my train to Toledo was scheduled to leave. It was March 28th—just four days before the Hash Bash, the main event on the spring Hemp Tour. My plan was to meet up with the bus at Toledo, Ohio and then ride along to Lansing (Michigan) for a rally that day.

“What happened?” I asked. John had spoken to Ben Masel, the Hemp Tour’s primary organizer. “They tried to search the bus in Bowling Green [Ohio]. Someone was arrested and they towed the bus away,” John explained. “That’s all I know.”

The white Hemp Tour school bus had made the rounds during the previous fall’s Hemp Tour.

It wasn’t exactly psychedelic, but it certainly stood out. The bust could have a devastating effect on the Hemp Tour’s three-month duration. One of my close friends was arrested, which I also worried about. With all this information, I left the office and went to Grand Central Station. From there, I boarded my train. Toledo is my next destination.

March 30,

Before leaving, I call a number in Toledo that was given to me by Doug McVey, who along with Rick Pfrommer and Debbie Goldsberry (one of the Hemp Tour’s key coordinators) wrote up the Hemp Tour ’90 Organizer’s Manual. Lara, a woman from the Tour, answers my call and assures me that she will be waiting for me at the station at 7 AM. This is difficult for me to believe. Believe it or not, I am greeted by a familiar VW van as I exit the Toledo station in the rainy morning. Ben, Monica Shan, Kevin, and Shan are driving. Sort of a guest of honor, I’m given the passenger seat.

It turns out that Debbie and Red Fly Nation are responsible for the bus. This is a new Kentucky band that was on the Lexington Tour a week ago. But there’s another problem: The bus won’t run. Fortunately, Amazin’ Dave (from last year’s HIGH TIMES psychedelic bus trip to Ann Arbor) is on the scene, fixing the transmission so the bus can at least make it to Ann Arbor by the 1st.

What happened in Bowling Green then? Shan Clark, a veteran of the fall Tour, explains: “We had to park pretty far away from the rally, near a school. Cowboy was a Bowling Green cop who wore a cowboy hat and watched as we unloaded our materials. Paul [Troy]Two cops came to the doorstep at 2:45 pm after finding that the driver was still asleep in the bus. The cops said that they would be coming to the bus. Paul said, ‘No, you’re not. I’m afraid you need a search warrant.’ They threw him out of the bus, onto the ground, and handcuffed him—when we saw him, he had a bloody nose and his hands were purple from the cuffs. The bus was impounded and searched. The bus had been vandalized when we reached the towyard the following day. Two seeds were found in the van after they ransacked it. That’s been the low point so far.” Paul was freed on $100 bail (he pleaded no contest and accepted a year’s probation); the bus was fined $10 for a crack in the windshield and charged $50 for the tow. The rally at Bowling Green State University saw 500 people attend to hear about the benefits of hemp and the reasons why it should be legalized.

As we drive north to East Lansing for today’s rally, the rain subsides. Ben somehow finds Valley Court Park, the location of today’s rally. Large black-and-white banners proclaiming HEMP FOR THE OVERALL MAJORITY OF EARTH’S PAPER * FIBER * FUEL * FOOD * PAINT * VARNISH * MEDICINE AND TO LIVE LONGER, OR THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT-CHOOSE ONE and the simpler HEMP FOR VICTORY (as well as a huge American flag) are already hanging from a baseball cage. The signs only signify that Jack Herer is present.

A burly, gruff-voiced writer No Clothes for the EmperorHe waited for us half an hour before arriving. Maria Farrow (with Willie Nelson and J.S. Brenda and Maria quickly put up signs, selling stickers and books as well as hemp clothing and other products. Shan presents Jack to the spring break crowd in an especially passionate fashion. Wave a copy The Reign of Law, which was printed on hemp paper, Jack ignites sparks with this fiery commentary: “We only have to be committed to the ideal that no human being on earth will ever go to prison again for a natural substance. People aren’t aware that the government has outlawed vegetables. It is wrong to have laws that prohibit natural products. We have to drive a stake through the heart of prohibitionism.”

NORML’S National Director, Don Fiedler, also speaks, as do Ben and several locals. 47 Tyme, a band from the area follows the speakers. This creates a problem. Seems that just beyond the park is a senior citizen’s residence. Police arrive at the scene after several complaints about noise. After a brief conversation, Ben is informed that somebody must be charged with disturbing the peace. Ben falls instead of taking the charge from the organizers, just like an Hemp Tour trooper. He’s driven to the stationhouse, pays a $25 fine, and returns to the rally. No big deal. But it’s another reminder that there’s always a price to pay in the rally business.

31 March

It’s Hash Bash weekend, and Freedom Fighters from all over the country are beginning to converge on Ann Arbor. When we get out of our hotels, the first thing we notice is a purple shiny bus in the lot. We decide to investigate. The West Virginia Freedom Fighter contingent is inside, led by Roger the driver with a shaggy beard. Kind bud they call “hackweed” is being passed around. It’s a coughing match. We now know the reason they call it hackweed.

Good news is in the morning newspapers. “Judge OK’s U-M Pot Rally Permit-Says U-M Violated Free Speech,” reads the front-page headline of the Ann Arbor News. In October, the University of Michigan granted NORML a permit to hold the Hash Bash at its traditional location—on the campus’ Diag. The permit was revoked by the school in February. However, Washtenaw County Circuit judge Donald Shelton saw the errors in that decision and restored it literally at the last minute. “The University’s mishandling of the NORML permit application completely undermines its contention that any danger presented by the NORML rally is ‘clear’ or ‘present,’” the judge ruled.

Let’s start with the basics. Saturday’s reserved for the first annual Freedom Fighters convention. Roger’s purple bus carts dozens of FFs to the picnic-style meeting, where spliffs are smoked, state chapter heads are elected, Chef RA’s rasta-riffic eats are chowed, and networking and partying are generally accomplished.

April 1

The Hash Bash begins at noon—without amplification. Thanks to Red Fly Nation boys, there is a PA. Herer, Fiedler, Masel, Hash Bash organizer Rick Birkett, and Gatewood Galbraith, who introduces himself as the next governor of the state of Kentucky (he’s running in the 1991 race), all speak. Red Fly Nation will play a few songs until the PA stops at 2PM. Even a midday downpour and numerous arrests can’t dampen the spirit of the 5,000-plus ralliers.

At 6 PM the rally is over. The scene then shifts to Heidelberg, where HIGH TIMES hosts a high-energy benefit concert in aid of NORML. This will feature the Soul Assassins, Nozems and antifolk artist Bobby Belfiore as well. The party continues throughout the night. It’s a great time at the Hash Bash.

Chronic News

April 2,

The backdrop for the Hash Bash was today’s pot referendum in Ann Arbor. A $5 fine was imposed on marijuana users and owners in 1972. Though the $5 fine was repealed the next year, it was written into Ann Arbor’s charter in 1974. A 61 percent majority voted against another attempt at repealing it nine years later. A referendum that would have raised the penalty to $25 per offense was put on the 1990 ballot. We hope that the Hash Bash spirit will inspire the voters. Voting no on Proposal B will keep the fine at $5.

Meanwhile, Jack, Don, and Gatewood leave for Detroit early this morning to appear on the morning show Kelly & Company. The next stop is Wayne State University’s 10 AM rally. (Herer’s crew handles that one.) Back in Ann Arbor, we’re moving rather slowly. Our only hope is to get to Detroit in time for a 1 PM legalization debate at the University of Detroit’s Student Union. We load up the bus, and get on the road.

Everyone on the panel is wearing a suit except for Jack, who’s wearing his tan hemp shirt (he never leaves home without it) over a tie-dyed t-shirt. Zolton Ferency, a Michigan State prof who’s running for the State Senate on a legalization platform, is there along with Rep. John Conyers and several others. Ferency cites the following National Institute on Drug Abuse (1988) figures: Deaths from tobacco, 346,000, alcohol, 125,000, alcohol and drugs combined, 4000, cocaine, 2000, marijuana, 75 (HIGH TIMES might tend to doubt this number). Ferency cites Conyers as his source:

“Deal with the drug problem as a public-health problem. It should be kept out of criminal justice systems. It is not going to be solved by police, prosecutors, criminal courts, or prisons.”

Conyers, who is black, explains that he’s “against the way William Bennett runs the anti-drug strategy because it’s racist. If you concentrate on crack you tend to focus on the blacks. Average drug users are white, suburban, and middle-class. The laws that regulate the drug prosecution must be changed. Why don’t we get a justice system that really works—in which we get the drug dealers and the government out of it, rather than making it legal? I put treatment as a higher priority than making it all legal.”

Thisr continues to hammer away at the hemp argument. “The greatest tax on earth is the harm to the environment that the fossil fuels and synthetic fibers are causing to this planet,” Jack offers. “There is one single plant on earth that replaces 100 percent of our need for any of those—something that can be grown by American farmers, not mined by oil companies. We’re talking about hemp—the safest therapeutically active substance known to mankind.” At this point, Conyers picks up a copy of No Clothes for the EmperorIt is a leafy green.

Ben, from the audience, challenges Drug Bizarre William Bennett and any other prosecutor, officer in narcotics, or person who feels that marijuana can be harmful to intelligence. “I’ve been smoking it for 23 years,” he says. “If it causes permanent brain damage, I must be in bad shape—so prove it.”

Fiedler, who sits on several House drugs committees, walks up to Conyers and addresses him. “We’re not asking you to legalize marijuana at this point, but if you’re holding hearings…”

Conyers stops. “Would you like to be a witness?”

“I’d love to,” Fiedler says.

“I would love to discuss the matter with you—here and in Washington,” Conyers adds.

Ferency informs me afterwards about his plans to legalize pot. “I’m not for taxing it. We don’t tax liquor, we sell it. In Michigan, you’re allowed to make 200 gallons of wine for personal use; I’m suggesting the same thing for marijuana. You want to grow your own pot, fine—it’s the same as wine. This plan deals with Michigan’s merchandising of marijuana.

“I did that in response to our Drug Czar’s suggestion that it couldn’t be done. It can be done—very easily.”

Ferency ran in 1966 for the office of governor. He headed the state’s Democratic party for five years and was the liquor commissioner 30 years ago. He’s a lawyer by trade. “I’m the state’s best known liberal. I’ve been all over the road. I’ve been at this for 40 years. This is how I see it. I have been in every anti-war movement. Middle-of-the road presentations are what you need. People are convinced that we’re losing the War on Drugs by just reading the daily papers. They’ll listen to anybody who comes along and tells them, ‘Here’s one way we might be able to get out of this mess.’ That’s been my experience.”

Ferency’s opponent has the support of the governor. “It’s a tough struggle, it’s uphill. Governor wants this seat. Only my opponent has to sit in that seat. The governor’s raising $400,000 for her. For a seat in the state legislature, four hundred grand? Unheard of!” If you’d like to contribute to Zolton Ferency’s campaign—the primary is in August—send a donation to: Ferency for Senate Committee, PO Box 6446, East Lansing, Ml 48826.

Following the debate, we’re invited back to an off-campus party house. That evening, Herer is feted at a book reception at Alvin’s, a club near Wayne State.

April 3-4

Tuesday’s a rare off day for the Hemp Tour. I’m hanging out with Jack, who usually goes his separate way from the bus. His hours are spent on the phone doing interviews and managing business. He’s a bundle of creative energy and never seems to relax.

Jack loves to see himself in print, whether he’s doing the writing or is being written about. Today’s Detroit Free Press runs a profile of Jack entitled, “Rebel With an Illegal Cause.” He’s pleased. Reporters seem to be gravitating toward the hemp issue; Jack’s book and his tireless efforts to promote the plant are the primary reasons why.

But there’s bad news, too; Ann Arbor voters, by a 53 to 47 percent majority, have decided to raise their town’s pot fine to $25.

A call from Fiedler, who’s returned to Washington, swings the mood back in a positive direction. Rep. Conyers requested that Jack testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee. It’s cause to celebrate. Jack takes a bite and then kicks back for a while.

“We’re gonna win this thing, Bloom,” he barks. “No fucking way we’re gonna lose.”

Jack enjoys converting people to the hemp message. One convert is David Hamburger, an otherwise conservative fellow who met Jack last November at the “Just Say Know” rally in Athens, Ohio. Marvin Surowitz invited Hamburger to Athens as the organizer for the Detroit events. “Before I met Jack, I was totally on the other side—talk about quick political conversions,” says David, who is a private investor and former Bush supporter. “After the conference, I saw things differently. Cannabis in moderate amounts is a great natural relaxant. It should be legalized. It helps me to reduce tension and increase productivity. But, to be honest, I find marijuana politics much more stimulating than marijuana.”

Around midnight, Jack begins mobilizing his troops for an early-morning trek to Cleveland—the next stop on the Hemp Tour. He’s scheduled to appear on The Morning Exchange TV program at 8 AM. Jack has designated me the driver. It’s an excruciating ride, but we make it right on time. Bernie Baltic, a middle aged man, is the one responsible for setting up this morning’s debate. He takes us to a hotel, and then rushes Jack into the studio. Except for a change of tie-dyes, Jack’s dressed the same as he was two mornings ago. We switch to channel 5, and wait for the debate.

The first question asked is: “Can hemp really reverse the Greenhouse Effect?” Jack rattles off all the glorious uses for hemp. The anti-drug advocate weakly challenges Jack’s hemp information and then begins reciting the standard litany about marijuana: it kills brain cells, it’s a “gateway drug,” and so on. Jack dismisses all of these arguments like a pile of marijuana ashes. From my point of view, the debate’s not even a contest.

There’s hardly any time to catch a few minutes sleep before the noon rally at Cleveland’s Public Square. It is surrounded by tall offices and well-trafficked. No one complains. The rally runs five hours—Red Fly Nation plays for nearly two—without a hitch. What makes this event special is the turnout—not so much the numbers (about 400 total), but the mix of people who stop by for a quick listen. “In many ways, this has been our most successful date yet,” Ben says. “We were in front of the whole city, not just a student crowd—we had business people coming through, it was a much more mixed reception.” Even blacks, who are notably absent on the Tour, were in attendance. Thank Red Fly Nation’s funkadelic sounds for that.

John Hartman, Ohio NORML’s North Coast coordinator, who along with Ohio NORML leader Cliff Barrows organized the rally, is also excited about the “variety of people” who turned out. Where does the people who came to the rally go? “I want them to write their representatives, take some of our literature and xerox it, pass out 100 copies here, 100 copies there—just get it out,” John says. “There’s nothing illegal about going door-to-door or standing on a street corner and handing pamphlets out. It’s a standard way of soliciting people—and the cheapest. Right now we don’t have the dollars, so it just comes down to getting out in the streets and informing people—leafletting or making calls or taking opinion polls, any contact with people.”

John invites John to host the Hemp Tour at his house for a party and to spend the night. John is a great example of hospitality. Without John the Hemp Tour might have to pay hefty hotel bills. This is because the Tour relies on sales of T-shirts and other products for its income. It is therefore extremely grateful for their hospitality.

Chronic News

April 5,

Today’s headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer reads, “Hemp is Given a New Twist—Fair Promotes Pot’s Many Uses.” In the article, a botanist from Case Western Reserve University admits he doesn’t know much about hemp other than its fiber is tough and it grows at a phenomenal rate. Flax, used for making linen and oil from linseed, is suggested by him.

During the ride down to the next stop—Kent State University—with Ben and Cliff, Ben says, “I want to reach the farm press and the farm researchers on this tour—make a particular effort to touch base at the agriculture schools, find the professors who might be motivated to take a closer look, and meet the kind of people who can convince the agriculture departments to give them permits to study the plant.”

Ben Masel has been a professional activist. He is the Hemp Tour’s director. He also runs The Zenger, an underground newspaper based in Madison, Wisconsin. Ben’s style is more academic and less charismatic than Jack’s. He’s an expert polemicist and quite a good storyteller (his country twang and ironic outlook reminds me of Arlo Guthrie). Ben was the HIGH TIMES’ 1988 Counterculture Hero of the Year. He tells me the date he became active politically.

“One turning point was during the fourth grade, when we did Take the Wind into your lifeIt was a class production. I was the teacher who was on trial for teaching evolution,” he laughs. “In the sixth grade, we were the first kids in the country to be bussed to integrate a black school. This happened in Teaneck New Jersey. In the 10th Grade, we were segregated. While we were all in the same building, the classes weren’t integrated anymore. This led us to occupy the principal’s office in the spring of 10th grade. It was held for three days and we won the majority of our 13 unconditional demands. After three days, the principal decided to resign.

“Upon hearing about the shootings at Kent State, we got together a meeting of 150-200 students in the auditorium after school and we decided to call a strike. The Student Council was also interested in joining us. After that, the principal came to our aid and suggested we call it a teacher-in rather than a strike. A couple of days later, the Board of Education wanted to can the principal because one of the speakers at the teach-in had referred to ‘that motherfucker Nixon.’”

Appropriately, we arrive in Kent as Ben’s discussing his reaction to the events that devastated this small college town 20 years ago. Ben’s personal background is closely tied to Kent State University. The May 4th Coalition joined Ben’s efforts in late 1970s to block the University from building its gym on the same area as the victims of the 1970 shootings. This battle ended in defeat. Vielleicht today will be another.

Hemp Tour could not get sponsorship from students for this rally. In fear of losing its registration, the Progressive Student Network refused to register. In addition, the school only allows use of a PA system in the plaza outside the Student Center for one hour a day—from noon to 1 PM. Ben turns on the PA at 12:20 and then begins speaking into a microphone. About 100 people congregate. At 1PM, local police have arrived to shut down the area. Debbie cautions Ben about the dangers of the local police, but Ben insists that they are serious. Ben raced to the PA and plugged it back in. He is grabbed by the police and it’s off to battle.

Ben resists clearly. They tug at his hair. Four cops are needed to take Ben to the car. The curb is 200 yards away. The crowd chants, “Bullshit!” and “Let him go!” The cops don’t listen. A female frosh called Sharon Burns is caught in all the action. Both she and Ben are taken into custody and brought to the police station nearby.

Sharon is charged for disorderly conduct. She was released on her own recognizance. Ben faces three charges, including resisting arrest and obstruction of official business. He also faces assault, where he is accused of dragging a police officer in his groin. At first, we’re told that bail will be $1,250. After we make the necessary arrangements to pay a bail bondsman and drive six miles to Portage County, where Ben has been taken, we’re told the bail has been raised to $12,500. It’s fairly common to require 10 percent of the bond, but because of Ben’s long “rap sheet” and the fact that he’s from out-of-state (no doubt his previous run-ins at Kent State are also a consideration) they refuse to reduce the bond—at least until the morning. Ben is sentenced to stay in jail for the night.

The Hemp Tour folks are still waiting at the gallery on Water Street for Debbie and I. Later on, Red Fly Nation and some local bands are supposed to play across the street at J.B.’s. There’s some anger over Ben’s decision to get arrested, but some good smoke mellows everyone out.

Water Street is where, according to historical records, the tragic events at Kent State occurred almost two decades ago. Nixon made the announcement that the US was invading Cambodia on May Day 1970. That night students poured out of J.B.’s and other clubs and into the streets; then they lit a bonfire and began smashing store windows. Next day, firebombing was done to the ROTC Building on Kent State’s campus. Two days later the National Guard opened fire upon the students.

Alan Canfora was also present. He was hit in the wrist. Jeff Miller, his friend, was 50ft away. Miller received a gunshot to the head. “As the guard got to the top of the hill and they stopped and they started to fire, I heard the guns go off and took a step away from them,” he tells me. “I thought, ‘Well, just in case they’re firing live ammunition, I’ll get behind a tree.’ I got behind one at the last possible second before a bullet went through my right wrist. This tree was the only one in the fire line. I’m convinced that that tree saved my life, because it was hit by several bullets and I could see many other bullets zipping through the air and ripping through the grass.”

Canfora puts today’s confrontation with the police in perspective when he explains: “Kent State remains now as it has been during the last 20 years—a very repressive institution which is controlled by the Republican interests in Ohio.”

April 6

Ben is scheduled for a 9:00 AM hearing. Bill Carroll is a public defense attorney and requests that the bond be reduced to $5,000. A judge accepts that request and allows for 10% payment. Debbie pays $500 to Ben, who is also free.

Ben doesn’t exactly get a hero’s welcome when he returns to our Kent crash pad. There’s a noon rally slated for Athens in Southern Ohio at Ohio University. Herer is running the rally. Cliff, Ben, Ben, me, and the rally will continue together.

This is my first Tour. I see beautiful country. Southern Ohio has many rolling hills. Ben does the navigation and we take small roads. He regrets the arrest. “Only that I resisted,” he says, proudly noting that it was his 106th arrest.

Just as Jack is finishing up, we arrive in Athens. He applauds Ben’s arrest—’That’s how Ben teaches the kids,” Jack says. It also got positive press.

That evening, the University’s history and political science departments are sponsoring a debate/teach-in. It’s Jack and Gatewood versus Lois and Robert Whealy, a husband and wife prof team. It turns out that the debate is quite entertaining.

The profs aren’t all that opposed. One point is well-taken: Don’t look for simplistic answers to our environmental problems. Gatewood proclaims, “I don’t apologize to anyone anymore about smoking pot. Any society that can accommodate alcohol and tobacco has room for pot.”

Vicki Linker, a local artist invites all of us to her home in the backwoods. It’s a party that will be well-deserved. Red Fly Nation sets up in the living room and jams (I even get to play percussion on my fave songs—”Do the Feelin’” and “Strictly Wet”). Gatewood untie his tie, and raises his collar. Maria makes the most horrible joints. Ben attempts to get me to immediately leave for Indianapolis where Farm Aid will begin in just a few hours. He is keen to attend the concert. Good idea, bad execution (the van barely made it to Vicki’s). Everybody sleeps it off.

April 7,

Last stop for me—Columbus, Ohio. Everything I’ve been told to expect about the Columbus rally is right. It is the one stop that required little to no preparation. This rally was hidden on Ohio State University’s campus and failed to succeed. The Hemp Tour had to be a failure.

I’m ready to head home.

Tomorrow, Dayton hosts a rally, and then it’s off to a swing through Indiana (the Tour runs through May). Jack has everything he needs and is ready to go. “C’mon, Bloom, you’re driving to Dayton,” he yells. Sorry, Jack, I’m booked on a flight back to New York. However, he got me to thinking. Do I need to spend a few days more on the Hemp Tour

At that moment, the bus pulls up; it’s being tailed by a cop. Dean seems to have jumped on a curb. He is now being investigated. What do you mean? This is one of the most nuthemp tours.

Chronic News MagazineJuly 1990

This article appears in the July 1990 issue of Chronic News. Subscribe here.