The first documentary on the emerging hemp movement

Modern life is evolving so fast it’s hard to imagine the vibes going down 30 years ago. Which is why it’s so entertaining to check out a documentary I produced early in the 1990s titled Let Freedom Ring: the Origins of the Hemp Movement. It came out just after my discovery of 420, but three years after I’d created the Freedom Fighters with the help of Rodger Belknap of West Virginia, who quickly became our organization’s chief funder and spiritual advisor.

The Freedom Fighters went from a handful of High Times staffers to the biggest cannabis legalization group in the world in two years, while the Ann Arbor Hash Bash went from a dozen hardcore devotees to many thousands cramming the diag at the University of Michigan. Marching into rallies in our Freedom Fighter outfits was the ritual that helped galvanize a national movement.

Shortly after the film was released, however, Rodger was railroaded into jail, while High Times forced me to disband the group, allegedly because NORML was unhappy about the competition, which seemed weird since our newsletter had been recognizing and supporting NORML chapters from inception, and many Freedom Fighter state groups were also affiliated with NORML, including the chapter in Boston that created the Boston Freedom Rally.

Our big campaign was bringing activists together for major rallies. We organized free campgrounds with free food and a free bus ride to the rally. When Rodger asked me what was needed for the organization, I told him we needed a school bus and council tipi. Within a few weeks we had both and took off for the Rainbow Gathering in Ocala, Florida, where I flew a High Times flag and nobody cared.

The PI pins have arrived…..

When the Freedom Fighters started (the first national hemp organization), I enticed the membership to attend pot rallies, starting with the Ann Arbor Hash Bash in early April, with free campgrounds and free food, but the kicker was the medals. For every rally a member attended, they received a really cool Freedom Fighter medal and wearing these soon became a great badge of honor for cannabis activists across the land.

The Freedom Fighters not only ushered in the hemp movement, they brought life back to the rally scene. Because media coverage of rallies was usually intensely negative, and because photos of hippies smoking pot were considered non-productive, NORML had pursued a policy of allowing public pot events to die a quiet death, and instead concentrated on pressing Congress for legal reforms. It was the beginning of a suits versus stoners divide that continues today. My plan was to get everyone to dress up in Colonial-style outfits and waving Betsy Ross flags so we could recapture those sigils to our cause. On the left is the very first Freedom Fighter pin ever forged and Terry Michell made a flag of it and carried that flag around Alaska for a superb counter-intelligence operation resisting attempts to re-criminalize in that state. It was just one of many outstanding missions carried out by our short-lived movement. For a few years every April we met after the Hash Bash for 4:20 council, where we would select the Freedom Fighter of the Year by voice vote. We also threw 4:20 events when we traveled to Rainbow Gatherings, but those Hash Bash 420 councils were probably the first major 420 events outside the three that had happened on Mount Tam in the late 1980’s. And after the park police shut down that event, the Freedom Fighters took over the center of gravity on 420 celebrations. After we were disbanded, that energy moved over to the Cannabis Cup. Within a decade, 420 went global.

Sometimes magic starts itself

Before I arrived at High Times, I’d spent over a year working on a book about the East Village art scene, examining the art clubs. Art After Midnight goes for around $100 today, although you can buy an updated digital version on smashwords with new illos and photos for under $5. There was a lot of hybridization going on in the 1980s, with punk meeting hip hop and both invading the art world from different fronts. Both styles emanated out of the 1960s counterculture and both found the mainstream too soft.

So I was in a Club 57 frame of mind, where camp becomes a wilderness of mirrors, when I arrived at High Times and just to pass the time, started a column called My Amerika by Ed Hassle, a tribute to Ed Anger of the Weekly World News. I always thought the supermarket tabloids were run as propaganda tools by the CIA, but Anger was an obvious comedy act who made fun of right wing views by taking them to their illogical conclusions.

Bill Kelly, my favorite deejay used to read from his column on his Sunday show. Funny thing, Bill was a big reason I diverted into forming the Soul Assassins. I was hanging out with the first generation of hip hop and inspired by their do-it-yourself energy. I could have formed a rap band I guess, or just become a hip hop journalist for the rest of my life and made a fortune like Nelson George. Instead I veered into garage rock? Maybe because I’d been kicked out of my first garage band for doing LSD in 1967 and never got to finish perfecting my garage rock set. Then I met Brian Spaeth and he’d been kicked out of the Fleshtones, the reigning garage kings of NYC. So I guess we both had something to prove.

Funny thing, after Ed Hassle called for the formation of a new movement called The Freedom Fighters, a hemp movement that would bring back the big pot rallies from the late 1960s (most of these events had died out) it began as a joke really, but when the issue came out, the concept took off like wild-fire, and I realized I had a tiger by the tale. Before long, I was touring around the country, playing with my band in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, and giving speeches about legalization with Chef RA and Jack Herer at every stop. And afterwards, we’d head back to the campground and eat Ra’s Rasta Pasta, sip Budweiser and pass spliffs until late into the night while the Assassinettes danced around the fire with a full moon beaming down. See, I was trained in “Happenings” by the likes of Jasper Grootveld, Julian Beck, John Cage, and Ken Kesey, so I had a sense of the magic involved in changing people’s perceptions on a massive scale, as well as the techniques for manifesting that sort of magic.

Funny how the natural elements always seemed to be working against us, not to mention all those undercover cop cars that dogged us everywhere. The first time we left New York in our magic bus, we got stranded by a freak snow storm high in the Pennsylvania mountains. Much later, returning from the first Freedom Fighter National Convention, we got lost in a monsoon and a screaming fight broke out about which way to go. When the bus finally got back to our motel, I kissed the ground. But we lost Rodger, who had all the weed, as he couldn’t take the smell of hard liquor on some of us and disappeared never to trust us fully again. And then the party turned into a binge drinking bash with no weed in which our energy unraveled and we lost harmonization. We’d broken up and lost our Assassinettes, not to mention Brian, Bob and Rick. And the vibe just wasn’t the same without them.

Origins of the Hemp Movement

When I came to High Times, most of the pro-marijuana rallies originally organized in the seventies had died out. There was one flame left, however, in Ann Arbor, and it was flickering.

Soon after becoming editor, I got a plea from some students living in a dorm at the University of Michigan, asking High Times to come out and rejuvenate the annual event, which had shrunk to a handful of die-hards. I’d recently been introduced to an unpublished manuscript, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and soon flew out to the valley where Jack lived. I wanted Jack to co-found a new legalization group with me. (NORML was not really interested in rallies at the time, as the images of old hippies created an image problem for them. NORML had also passed on Jack’s manuscript, which he’d offered to let them publish, and thought Jack’s claims were exaggerations.)

Of course, I wanted High Times to publish the book and Jack agreed I was the ideal editor. Jack also agreed to my plan of creating the Freedom Fighters. The idea of wearing tricorner hats as a publicity stunt to draw attention to hemp and away from recreational cannabis use was a big part of my initial vision. It also solved the “image problem” and added a fun element to the rallies. I wanted the Freedom Fighters to march into the rallies in a ceremonial fashion, in an attempt to take the flag back from the right wing. It was a very obvious attempt to flip the switch on the sigils they had been working by claiming the founding fathers as ours. At that first meeting, Jack and I discussed a Hemp Tour across the Midwest, that would start with the Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, and include my ala mater, the University of Illinois, once the center of hemp processing in Illinois, and then home to a very strong NORML chapter led by Debby Goldsberry, (current Freedom Fighter of the Year).

Jack and I created the organization and held our first national convention a day before the next Hash Bash. How many attendees can you identify? And how many of the state chapter heads from the convention went on to do big things in the cannabis reform movement?

Who is Steven Hager and what did he have to do with 420?

I’m a writer, journalist, filmmaker, event producer and counterculture and cannabis activist, and was born and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

My first start-up was in 1965. I created The Cap’n Crunch Courier, a humor xerox zine given away free at Urbana Junior High. Three years later, I created The Tin Whistle, a monthly newspaper eventually distributed in four high schools in Central Illinois. I obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater (Playwriting) and a Masters of Science in Journalism, both from the University of Illinois. After graduation, I moved to New York City, worked for a number of magazines before becoming a reporter for the New York Daily News. During this time, I began researching the hip hop movement of the South Bronx and sold my original story Beat Street to Harry Belafonte, and the film with the same name was distributed by Orion Pictures. In 1984, St. Martins’ Press released my book, Hip Hop, the first history of rap music, break dancing and graffiti art. I followed that book with Art After Midnight, an examination of the New York club scene and its influence on artists, primarily Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf.

In 1988, I was hired as editor of High Times magazine where I created the Cannabis Cup, the world’s most famous cannabis awards ceremony, and the Freedom Fighters, the first hemp legalization group. I also created a garage-rock revival band called the Soul Assassins (check out the music at http://theoriginalsoulassassins….). In 1990 I began promoting 420 as a counterculture ceremony and played a leading role in spreading the 420 phenomenon around the globe. For 15 years, I regularly appeared at college campuses as part of a debate on the legalization of cannabis, alongside former New York DEA chief Robert Stutman. The event, known as “Heads versus Feds,” began in 2001 and visited more than 350 colleges in fifteen years, regularly drawing standing-room crowds. Bob and I became known as “The Ultimate Odd Couple,” and have became friends despite the cultural gap between us.

The national hemp group I created in the late 1980s, The Freedom Fighters, held council at 4:20 PM for years before the numerology caught on and we successfully snatched the flag and Liberty Boy spirit from President Reagan (until the Tea Party snatched it back decades later). I blogged very little for the first year or so, but a couple years into it, I began using the blog primarily to share my deep political research. Some recently told me my title had become misleading because it’s not a blog about cannabis per se, although the disappearance of cannabis from religion is the major conspiracy I’m currently researching. Just a long-winded explanation for why I changed the blog name today. The tin or penny whistle was one of the most inexpensive melodic instruments invented and sold for a penny in England in the nineteenth century. It’s appropriate because I am a whistleblower on intel’s Tin Foil Hat Patrol. And please don’t get scared by the truth. The oligarchies have been running the show since the dawn of civilization, and true democracy may never appear in our time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t chart a course for future generations to follow. Without an understanding of political realities, there is no enlightenment. And enlightenment is fun.