Walking across the campus of the University of Michigan, it's not out of the ordinary to see large groups gathered on the Diag1 to hear political speakers. The number of street vendors on the first Saturday in April might seem slightly odd, especially when their wares consist of ceramic and iridescent glass pipes, the kind that no one really uses for tobacco. The thing that will definitely catch your attention though, is the smell of pot wafting out of the crowd at noontime in spite of the police presence all around.
To locals, it's just another Hash Bash. This annual 'smoke-in' began in 1972 to protest against marijuana laws. Ideally, the Hash Bash takes place at high noon (get it?) of April Fool's Day. But if the first lands on a weekday, the planners yield to practicality and schedule the event on the first Saturday of the month to draw larger crowds.
Many years of minor lawsuits between protest groups and University of Michigan officials have resulted in a predictable pattern. The University agrees to rent public announcement equipment for precisely one hour, noon to one PM. The power is then shut off while speakers try to hold the crowd's attention longer.
The event has been as flighty and unstable as you would expect of anything organized by - and for - pot-smokers. Some years attendance has run to the thousands. Some years it's been almost non-existent. In fact, they may have skipped a few years, and it's hard to find much of an historical record for some reason - it is as if the memories of those people who know best about the event had been damaged or slightly fogged by something. They've had bands some years, and semi-famous speakers or singers some years, like that guy who wrote the song 'Legalize Marijuana'.
How to Pay a Smaller Fine and Avoid Getting Arrested
Your best bet would be to avoid smoking anything illegal at the Hash Bash. A few brave or ignorant souls pass joints around the middle of the crowd every year, but uniform police do patrol around the outskirts. Plainclothes police supposedly mill about in the middle of the crowds watching for criminals. But there is an uneasy tension between the crowds of 300, 700 or 2000, patrolled by maybe 30 cops. The sheer weight of numbers emboldens people.
Anyhow, there's an odd quirk of jurisdiction whereby state laws are followed on the property of the University of Michigan. Being caught on the Diag could get you 0-90 days in jail and $100 fine2, if you aren't holding a big full baggie. But if you walk off the Diag onto a city street, you enter Ann Arbor city jurisdiction where possession of one joint is only a 'civil infraction' carrying a $50 fine.
Less Obvious Things to Do at Hash Bash
Not in the market for a two-foot tall, ceramic dragon bong? Hash Bash offers plenty of activities for those of us who don't 'partake.'
Listening to Guest Speakers
During that crucial first hour, you're likely to hear from one member of the editorial staff of High Times magazine, one representative of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), two radical politicians in favour of legalising, and at least one person with a major disease who controls some of her symptoms by smoking pot. Occasionally some group will pay to fly Tommy Chong3 to Ann Arbor. The one hour limit imposed by the University is just as well, you couldn't expect much more than an hour long attention span from these crowds.
By the first of April, the long, harsh Michigan winter is over. Young revellers feel the first hints of summer and shed several layers of clothes. Even if your hormones aren't fluttering about like the returning robins, it's fun to see all the punks and hippies and weirdos who turn out with their most dazzling plumage, tall green and red mohawks, T-shirts freshly tie-dyed, brightly polished spikes and rings poking through their lips and eyebrows and nasal septa.
Some years, the beat waits anxiously for the P/A to shut off at one o'clock. Other years, the beat starts early and plays late. Dozens of people every year bring congas, bass drums, bongos, drums of all sizes and nationalities, flutes, ocarinas, didgeridoos. The drum circle is a living entity that evolves throughout the day, growing as more participants join. The crowd pushes close to the drummers to better feel the beat. The beat grows and fades and shifts as drummers emphasize different rhythms. Only when your shoulders start to ache and your forehead tingles from sunburn will you realise that you've been hypnotized, listening and watching them for five hours.
Watching People in the Drum Circles
Did anyone mention the hippie chicks? As soon as the drumming begins, there's always one woman who flings herself into the group of drummers as if possessed, dancing for hours, flailing and sweating and tripping over drummers. This territory is often a crossover where hippie culture meets Hare Krishna culture. Some drummers dress to match their exotic drums, in robes and rags and sarongs. Wondering how to get Caucasian hair to form dreads? Ask one of these dudes next year. And sometimes old homeless men will join in the dance, although it's not always easy to distinguish between homeless people and hippies...
Posing for News Photographers
Detroit must not have enough freaks of its own, because they always send photographers and news crews to film people at Hash Bash, and to check how many arrests are made this year. If it's a slow news day, you may spot yourself later on the local TV news. Don't count on being in the foreground of any footage or photos unless you get arrested or have a bone through your ear, or unless you're a nubile hippie chick thrashing through a drum circle.
Dissing the Crass Commercialism of Recent Years
Hawaiian leis in the form of plastic pot leaves, endless designs of T-shirts celebrating the hookah-smoking caterpillar of Alice in Wonderland, or comic strip characters like Charlie Brown or Calvin & Hobbes toking up, turning blue and sprouting dreadlocks are some of the objects on offer. There are sidewalk displays in front of every book store, head shop, in fact, every store within three blocks of the epicenter. Complaining about all this capitalism is the activity to engage in as you walk back to the parking structure, past all the silly baubles, as if you never bought them in the past4, and as if you could keep yourself away, no matter how many more vendors will be hawking their stuff next year.
1 A public square in the middle of the University of Michigan campus, crisscrossed diagonally by sidewalks.
2 Fines according to NORML's State Guide to Marijuana Penalties.
3 Half of the comedy team 'Cheech and Chong', star of such major motion pictures as Up in Smoke, Still Smokin', and Cheech and Chong's Nice Dreams.
4 This Researcher's long-sleeved T-shirt commemorating the 1977 Hash Bash is surely not the oldest memorabilia around, but it is proof that anyone criticizing the 'recent' commercialism of Hash Bash has a clouded memory.