Grateful Dead ‘drug bust’ at 50: Nothing left to do but smile ...
Is it time for San Francisco city leaders to draft an official apology to the Grateful Dead?
As the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love comes closer — The Chronicle debuts its commemorative magazine on Sunday, March 12 — events of the year come into a different focus.
It’s clear the mayor and supervisors, who debated placing a “Hippies Not Welcome” sign at the city limits, should have shown more compassion to the young people following the call into San Francisco.
It’s clear that the music, art and other culture from the era was more than a passing fad.
And it’s clear that local authorities — and the media — overreacted on Oct. 2, 1967, when police raided the Grateful Dead’s crash pad at 710 Ashbury St. and hauled 10 handcuffed band members and associates to the police station on questionable marijuana charges.
“The Grateful Dead — ROCK BAND BUSTED,” the San Francisco Chronicle headline read, above the banner on the front page on Oct. 3, 1967, in a giant font generally associated with declarations of war and deaths of presidents.
“The raid — on The Dead’s way-out 13-room pad at 710 Ashbury street — also led to the arrest of the group’s equipment manager, two business managers and six girls, variously described as ‘friends,’ ‘visitors’ and ‘just girls,’” the second paragraph of The Chronicle story began. It was typical of both the article’s sensationalism and awkwardness in trying to appropriate the lingo of the time.
The media was clearly tipped off to the police action. Photographer Barney Peterson took photos inside 710 Ashbury as confusion ensued in the house. Band co-manager Danny Rifkin can be seen in one photo pointing at the camera.
Five state agents, two city inspectors and at least a half dozen uniformed police descended on the band’s home to confiscate a pound of marijuana, The Chronicle reported.
The arrested Dead family members walked down the steps two at a time, handcuffed in pairs, like a wedding party walking down the aisle. Only two band members were there — Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan — although police suggested that others including Jerry Garcia could still be arrested. (They weren’t.)
Despite the handcuffs and gravity of the situation— prison time was reported as a possibility — the photos show an occasionally jovial atmosphere. Weir looked more amused than the others, smiling and making a grand gesture with his hand as he reached the foot of the stairs.
Police suggested the band were distributing the drugs. Even with the relatively small amount of marijuana involved, state narcotics bureau head Matthew O’Connor made himself available to the media, offering seemingly minute details.
“They were processing some marijuana in the kitchen, by running it through a colander to get rid of some stems and seeds,” O’Connor told The Chronicle.
Members of the band were originally charged with felonies. But by the time the case wrapped up in 1968, all had been reduced to misdemeanor charges of “being in a place where marijuana is used” or “maintaining a residence where marijuana is used.” No jail time was served, and the largest fine was $200.
Rifkin called a press conference two days after his arrest, and his speech — excerpted in The Chronicle the next day — was a masterpiece in logic and foresight.
“Almost anyone who has ever studied marijuana seriously and objectively has agreed that, physically and psychologically, marijuana is the least harmful chemical used for pleasure and life enhancement. ... The president of a company that makes defective automobiles which leads to thousands of deaths and injuries can face a maximum penalty of a minor fine.
“A person convicted for possession of marijuana can be sentenced to up to 30 years in jail ... the law is so seriously out of touch with reality. If the lawyers, doctors, advertising men, teachers and political officeholders who use marijuana were arrested today, the law might well be off the books before Thanksgiving.
“Police prefer to concentrate on individuals who have been manufactured by the mass media into a group that typifies the now-popular image of the drug-oriented hippie. The mass media created the so-called hippie scene. This way, the American people are protected, by the police and the media, from the fact that the law is a lie.
“But the ‘hippie’ as created by the media is a lie as well ... the law creates a mythical danger and calls it a felony. The result is a series of lies and myths that prop each other up. Behind all the myths is the reality. The Grateful Dead are people engaged in constructive, creative effort in the musical field and this house is where we work as well as our residence. Because the police fear and misinterpret us, our effort is now being interrupted as we deal with the consequences of a harassing arrest.”
The Grateful Dead, in the decades that followed, made good on Rifkin’s promise. The band stayed in the area and became celebrated, law-abiding and downright patriotic citizens.
They performed at charity events, starting the following year in 1968 at the San Francisco Symphony’s charity Black and White Ball. They contributed countless renditions of the National Anthem at Candlestick Park and AT&T Park. (Surviving members of the band continue this tradition at Grateful Dead Night at the Giants.)
Meanwhile, Rifkin’s manifesto proved prescient. Not only is it legal to smoke weed with the Grateful Dead in 2017, but any politician who came out against the drug now would probably render themselves unelectable.
So once again, does the city owe an apology to the Grateful Dead?
Portrayed as dastardly criminals, they turned out to be a half century ahead of their time.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
[This story first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle]
The Chronicle’s Summer of Love commemorative magazine can be purchased here.