MORE THAN 1.4 million people have been killed by guns in the US since John Lennon was shot and killed on December 8, 1980. I know that for a fact because I follow Yoko Ono on Twitter and she recently paid tribute to her dead partner with the moving words: “The death of a loved one is a hollowing experience. After 39 years, Sean, Julian and I still miss him. Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

It was a short but moving tweet that took my breath away. Yoko was not commenting as a Japanese artist nor as a superstar of the sixties countercultural movement but as a widowed mother remembering her loved one.

By sheer coincidence, the tweet that followed it was a feature on the first day of trading at a legal marijuana shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the surface the two tweets were entirely unconnected but their content links back to a quite remarkable concert that Lennon took part in, sharing the stage with Stevie Wonder, in order to protest the imprisonment of John Sinclair, on petty drug offences.

Sinclair was a Detroit radical who was one of the leaders of the short-lived White Panther Party and lived under almost persistent police and FBI harassment.

The concert was organised under the banner of ‘‘Free John Now’’, a day of protest in Michigan to demand the release of Sinclair who was in jail serving a draconian 10-year sentence for possessing two joints of marijuana.

Curiously, only last month Sinclair bought his first legal marijuana in a local regulated shop called Arbor Wellness, after a campaign he had fought throughout his remarkable life trying to convince legislators in America of the benefits of cannabis.

By 9:30am about 200 people were waiting in line to order bags of Head Master Kush and Mint Milano flower. Many camped overnight to be the first customers but the shop had agreed in advance to give pride of place at the head of the queue to Sinclair and another early pioneer of decriminalisation of marijuana Ryan Basore, who also served a long jail sentence for smoking dope. Their first symbolic joint-purchase was 10 pre-rolled joints of GG #4 and Forbidden Jelly totalling $160.35.

The National:

The recreational sale of cannabis in Michigan became possible when the state allowed licensed marijuana businesses to transfer 50% of their inventory from the medical side of the business to the recreational side. The sales come more than a year after voters approved legalising marijuana for adult recreational use. Under the ballot proposal, use, possession and sales of marijuana are now legal to anyone 21 or older. People also can grow up to 12 plants for personal use.

In the USA, marijuana legalisation is slowly carving out victories on a state-by-state basis. Illinois recently became the eleventh state in America to legalize weed for recreational use, a law which becomes effective on January 1, 2020 and includes the populous city region of Chicago.

READ MORE: Stuart Cosgrove: Who will capture the history of the Yes movement?

But local legislation is not reflected in federal law, where marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug with a “high potential for abuse”, along with heroin and ecstasy.

Canada, meanwhile, has legalised marijuana in all its provinces leading Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to proclaim it would “keep the money out of the pockets of organised crime”.

The shift in public attitudes is nothing short of remarkable and one of the people most associated with changing attitudes is the Detroit campaigner John Sinclair, a giant of a man fascinating on a whole range of counts not least that his name and ancestry connects him back to Scotland.

His grandparents were among the generation of Scottish migrants who took the anchor line passage to work in the car plants and engineering foundries of Detroit and Sinclair’s hometown, Flint, Michigan Back in the sixties when he first smoked dope, Sinclair was a jazz obsessed journalist who for several febrile years was the manager of a Detroit guitar band, the Motor City Five. The bearded Sinclair spoke in hyperbole, and his writings were a hybrid of gonzo journalism, revolutionary rhetoric and jazz homage. In his prison writings, which to this day are one of the great insights into the sixties counterculture, he vowed to change America “by the magic eye of LSD and the pounding heartbeat of music”.

HIS musical tastes shifted eclectically from day to day, jumping restlessly from free-form jazz to gutbucket R&B. By the end of 1967 the Motor City Five were re-christened MC5 and were part of the vanguard of the Motor City musical sub-culture that paralleled the story of Motown – insurrectionary garage rock.

The National:

The band’s name was deliberately vague, designed to sound like a car component. Although technically short for Motor City Five, the band sometimes claimed that MC5 stood for the Morally Corrupt Five or the Much Cock Five – whatever the band members made up in the presence of gullible journalists or arresting police officers.

Sinclair added to the hyperbole, describing the group as “a raggedy horde of holy barbarians, marching into the future” and shaping the provocative title of their most famous songs Kick Out The Jams. Sinclair’s vision for the group was disruptive and troublesome anticipating the rise of punk rock by nearly 10 years.

READ MORE: National writers pick their top songs, films, TV shows and books of the decade

It was not just false posturing either. Within two years MC5 became most notorious band in America, and Sinclair would be back in jail, this time as an international cause célèbre accused of conspiring to blow up the Michigan headquarters of the CIA.

After a string of cannabis busts, Sinclair was ultimately sentenced to nine and a half to 10 years for “possessing two cigarettes containing 11.5 grains of Cannabis sativa contrary to Sections 2 and 3 of the Public Act 266 of 1952”.

With the support of his attorney and the LEMAR organization, Sinclair triggered a legal counterattack, challenging the constitutionality of Michigan’s marijuana laws and becoming a countercultural martyr in the process.

Sinclair’s long sentence shocked the American left and several campaigns were launched in his defence, most significant among them a free concert and rally styled on Woodstock under the banner Free John Now. With the help of sympathetic student organisations they were able to secure the use of the University of Michigan’s recently constructed Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor. Initially the focus was on convincing local groups such as MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges to participate until the day Lennon called the organiser’s office offering his services.

There was significant doubt about whether Lennon would show up or not but to reassure the organisers he recorded a promotional clip to be sent out to local radio stations. “Hello, this is John with Yoko here,” began the recorded message. “I just want to say we’re coming along to the John Sinclair bust fund rally to say hello. I won’t be bringing a band or nothing like that because I’m only here as a tourist, but I’ll probably fetch me guitar, and I know we have a song that we wrote for John. So that’s that.”

The three dollar tickets sold out in hours and on the days of the show John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Stevie Wonder headlined. It was one of Lennon’s few solo shows after the break-up of the Beatles and before his untimely death. Still incarcerated in a Michigan jail, John Sinclair sent his greeting a recording through speakers slung around the Arena.

Stevie Wonder won over the crowd with a fiercely political address: “We are in a very troublesome time today in the world. A time in which a man can get 12 years in prison for possession of marijuana, and another who can kill four students at Kent State and come out free.”

“What kind of shit is that?” he asked the crowd. It was a line with many meanings in the angry days of counterculture.