Legalise It: Classic Rockers Who Were Arrested For Drugs

Over a short period of time, it’s incredible to see what would have been considered a fringe, out there, possibly even radical position like “legalise all drugs” actually be talked about in the mainstream for once and people don’t call you a secret drug addict or crazy. At least in America and Canada (where weed has been legalised – in all of Canada and a lot of US states), I’m happy to see the discourse on drugs liberalising. Still has a ways to go in many parts of Europe and the world and I hope as younger generations take over seats in the government and get politically active that we have more people talking about this issue.

There’s no doubt that the War on Drugs has been a failure and it’s racist and classist. You see the double standards all the time. White stoner college kid, oh they’re just quirky and having fun! Lawyer does cocaine to destress after work? Let them have their coping mechanism! Homeless person injects themselves with heroin, disgusting junkie, lock them up! When rock stars or actors do drugs, it’s glorified and no one really calls them criminals. Obviously, rock stars aren’t criminals for being addicted to drugs. Neither are average people down the street who are addicted to drugs. Drug addiction is a medical condition, not a crime. Throwing someone in jail for an addiction isn’t going to help them. Instead, it might turn them into a criminal because they will have a hard time getting a job after being released and what else can you do to survive? You turn to crime. Treat them as patients and get them help, not as criminals who need to be locked up and kept away from society.

The point that if we don’t consider musicians criminals because they do drugs, average people are not criminals because they do drugs. In order for people not to be considered criminals because of drug use, the laws need to change.

Why legalise all drugs, and not just marijuana:

Why stop at legalising marijuana? Most of the mainstream conversation stops there: legalise weed and that’s it. But why not other drugs? LSD? Shrooms? Even harder drugs? The last one may be a bit crazy, but stick with me and I’ll tell you why I think the way I do.

As a libertarian, I firmly believe in a couple of things: 1. No victim, no crime; 2. The government doesn’t have the right to tell you what to do with your body as long as you are not violating the rights of other people. I believe the government’s purpose is to look out for people’s material well being, make sure no one falls through the cracks and ends up in abject poverty and to ensure people’s rights aren’t being violated. That’s about it. I differ from traditional libertarians (read: people who are members of the Libertarian Party) in that I believe that healthcare and post secondary education is a right and that capitalism has to be regulated in order for companies to not become monopolies that essentially run the government and kill small businesses and therefore competition.

Lots of things are bad for you like drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Those are perfectly legal though because of the lucrative lobbies. Did we not learn from the disaster that was prohibition? Legalising drugs will destroy the black market and make our cities safer. Why stop at substances? Fast food is bad for you, but I don’t see anyone trying to ban that. Tanning beds are bad for you, but no one’s banning those? Why ban a bunch of plants? It’s as ludicrous as banning bananas!

This year, there’s been a lot of talk about defunding the police. You know what would defund the police? Getting rid of dumb laws and victimless crimes! Police enforcing these laws is a waste of time. Locking people up for non-violent drug offences is a waste of money and time. Police could be going after real criminals, like I don’t know… violent criminals and people who scam the public? But instead they waste their time on stoners who aren’t hurting anyone. Dumb. Are stoners and hippies tripping on psychedelics a threat? No. At most, maybe a bit annoying. But very rarely are they a threat to public safety.

America spends way too much money on locking people up and a lot of people are in jail for non-violent drug charges. If we free them, give them a clean slate so they have a fresh start in life, that would make a huge difference to so many people. We can put the money that would have gone towards jailing people for victimless crimes to things that benefit the people like healthcare, education, parks/recreation, public transport, libraries, etc.

Decriminalisation isn’t enough. I’m not an incrementalist who thinks that’s good enough. If people have to pay a fine for something, that’s just a fee for rich people to do a thing and it’s still a classist system. What’s the harm in someone doing drugs? Let people have control over their bodies and what they put in them. Legalise it. Tax it. Regulate it. Just go the whole nine yards and legalise it.

Only medicinal marijuana or psychedelics being legal is also not enough. What counts as a bad enough medical condition? Why isn’t severe treatment resistant depression considered a serious enough condition? Why do governments limit the scenarios in which it can be prescribed and make people jump through hoops to get prescribed something that can help their medical conditions? Certainly the people in the government aren’t doctors, and definitely not *your* doctor even if they went to med school. In my opinion, in the case of medical marijuana or mushrooms, that should be between the patient and their doctor, all on a case by case basis. There’s a reason we don’t have robot doctors. Medicine is all about the human side of people. There’s no formula and people need to be examined by a trained human. Regardless, people should be free to smoke marijuana or do shrooms or LSD recreationally. If you want it recreational or want strains that aren’t medicinal or whatever, you pay privately. If you want it medically, then it ought to be covered by Medicare For All.

One last reason here is a tongue in cheek reason. You want stoners to stop being annoying and bang on about weed not being legal? Just legalise it and then people will shut up about weed.

Europe there’s no excuse! America’s moving quickly towards legalising weed. Get with the programme and legalise it already across the continent! It’ll bring in a lot of revenue and create jobs.

The Musicians

Finally, let’s talk about some musicians who were arrested for drugs. When you read this portion, I want you to ask yourself, “Do I consider this person a criminal?” I hope the answer to that question is no. Obviously these musicians are not criminals. Their class privilege is what make people think of them differently. But what if they were just an average person in your neighbourhood? Would people think of them differently? Yes. Stop the double standard. Destroy the idea that people who use drugs are criminals because of their drug use.

Louis Armstrong – Marijuana, 1930

One of the first popular musicians to be open about his love for cannabis, he was arrested in 1930, decades before the War on Drugs was even started or coined as a phrase, while smoking a joint with his drummer, Vic Berton. When he was arrested, the cops, who were fans of his music, spilled the beans that it was a rival who ratted him out. It could have killed his career because even in the 30s, there was anti-weed propaganda.

In the end, he spent 9 days in county jail and received a 6 month suspended sentence. Still, excessive for just a joint.

However, the police went after his wife in 1954, when she was arrested in Hawaii for possession of marijuana. Many suspect it was actually Louis’s.

Below is a clip from The Simpsons, referencing Satchmo’s love of pot:

Donovan – Marijuana, 1966

The first British pop star to be arrested for drug possession, he was busted in 1966 for 2 ounces of pot after a documentary called A Boy Called Donovan aired, showing him and friends smoking. Below, he talks about his arrest and how the government wanted to bust the rock stars for drugs and he was the first in a string of arrests of rock stars. In the end, Donovan didn’t get any jail time, but had to pay a £250 fine.

Mick Jagger & Keith Richards – Various substances, 1967

One of the most famous rock star drug arrests was the infamous Redlands bust and it’s a lot to unpack. Tabloid News of the World published a three part feature called “Pop Stars and Drugs: Facts That Will Shock You”, let’s just say this was the Reefer Madness of the 60s, promoting paranoia and fear over a bunch of entertainers who aren’t even hurting anyone and to make an example of them and send a message to the youth. Rock stars like Donovan, The Moody Blues, Pete Townshend, Ginger Baker, and Brian Jones (the article named Mick Jagger instead, which we’ll get into) were talked about in it with claims of LSD parties and use of amphetamines.

When the sensationalist feature was published, authorities were hounding Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones over their drug use. Mick Jagger sued the tabloid because he was mistaken for Brian Jones. Marianne Faithfull believed that the mistake was deliberate because Jagger is the face of the band and would therefore sell more papers. These allegations could jeopardise their chances of getting a visa to tour the US. There was no privacy for the Stones, the eavesdropping was aggressive, easily in stalker territory with band members being followed, vans parked outside their homes spying on them, and the band believed that their phones might have been bugged.

In February 1967, Keith Richards threw a party at his house and a lot of drugs were there, as you can expect from a party thrown by a rock star. Someone snitched on Jagger and Richards and the police raided the party while they were high on acid. While no arrests were made at the time, Jagger and Richards were charged with drug offences. Of course, being snitched on scared them and they became paranoid and questioned everyone around them. Manager Andrew Loog Oldham ran away to America. The Rolling Stones took a holiday in Morocco. Anita Pallenberg broke up with Brian Jones and Jagger and Richards left Brian Jones behind in Morocco, penniless.

Jagger and Richards got arrested and were put in jail. The Who helped them out and recorded covers of “The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb” to help them make bail, but they were quickly released. Had they both been in prison longer, The Who intended to keep releasing Stones covers in solidarity.

Jagger for a £200 fine and was sentenced to 3 months in jail for possession of amphetamine tablets and Richards was fined £500 and sentenced to a year in jail for allowing people to smoke weed on his property. A very harsh sentence that even conservative editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg said was too far and said that the sentences were unjust and idiotic, saying:

“Nobody else would have been sent to prison for what was essentially a sea-sickness tablet. If I had landed at Dover with those pills in my pocket, or even if it was the Archbishop of Canterbury, we would have been given no more than a fine.”

In the end, Richards’ sentence was overturned and Mick Jagger got one year probation. The court of public opinion sided with the Glimmer Twins, they thought the British government looked absurd.

That wasn’t the last of their arrests though.

Brian Jones – Marijuana, 1967 and 1968

Just after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were arrested, Brian Jones was arrested too for possessing marijuana and allowing friends to smoke it at his home. He was sentenced to nine months in prison. The arrest though really hurt his mental health and he became a loner. His friend Stash de Rola said that he ended up using downers and became paranoid and his relationship with the Rolling Stones became strained.

I blame the police, as a tool of stupidly conservative reactionary climate, for provoking this crisis that led to his estrangement from the Stones and his ultimate demise” – Stash de Rola

He was once again arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in 1968. He received a fine of £50, but no jail time, since the judge felt bad for him. Mentally, he took a turn for the worse and this second arrest made it even more difficult to get a visa to go to the US. His behaviour became even more erratic and problematic.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Marijuana, 1968

The Drugs Squad arrested Lennon and Ono on 18 October 1968 for possession of marijuana. Before the police arrived at the place they were staying, a friend tipped them off that the police were coming for them and they better clean up the flat to ensure it’s free of drugs. A bunch of cops came in and thoroughly searched the home and found pieces of cannabis resin and took them to the police station, where they weren’t just charged with possession, but also obstructing the police in execution of a search warrant all because John Lennon knew his rights and tried to get the police to read the warrant through the window and asked Yoko to call their lawyer. They appeared in court the next day. In the end, Lennon pleaded guilty and paid a £150 fine. He pleaded guilty to prevent Yoko from potentially being deported, but these charges made it hard for him to get a visa to live in the US.

Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Jim Messina – Marijuana, 1968

Eric Clapton was chilling at Stephen Stills’ then girlfriend’s house in California, smoking and jamming with members of Buffalo Springfield, when suddenly the cops arrived and in a hurry, they tried to flush weed down the toilet, but it got backed up. Everyone there was arrested, except for Stephen Stills, who jumped out a window, hid, and called a lawyer for his friends. When Eric Clapton was arrested, the police made a fool of him, making fun of his long hair and pink boots. Clapton and Young weren’t deported, and everyone arrested was only found guilty of disturbing the peace. This incident led to Buffalo Springfield breaking up.

Bon Scott – Marijuana, 1969

Bon Scott was the first Australian rock star to be busted for drugs. While with his band The Valentines, the police got a tip off from a rival band that the band were stoners and Bon Scott was arrested in September 1969. Bon Scott being the rebellious rock star he was, he said that the police shouldn’t persecute people for being different and that…

“The Australian government deserves a few ripples. They’ll be the last to legalise homosexuality, and pot will be the same.”

Was he wrong? Well, marriage equality became the law in Australia in December 2017, after The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, Brazil, France, Uruguay, New Zealand, Great Britain, Luxembourg, The US, Ireland, Colombia, Finland, Malta, and Germany. Australia still has yet to legalise recreational marijuana. At this time (January 2021), it is not legal in any state recreationally, but it is decriminalised in the Northern Territory and South Australia and personal use is legal in the ACT, but not sale. Federally though, it is legal for medicinal purposes.

In the end, each band member was fined $150 and the band broke up.

George Harrison – Marijuana, 1969

On the 12th of March 1969, police raided George and Pattie’s home, Kinfauns. That day so happened to be the day Paul and Linda were to get married. Like with John Lennon, a bunch of cops and a drug sniffing dog came to the house and searched it. The notorious Sgt Pilcher allegedly planted some hash in George’s shoe and claimed it was George’s, but George denied it saying that he would never put drugs in his shoe. Both George and Pattie in the end were fined £250. As a result, George Harrison had a few issues getting a visa to go to the US.

Jack Casady – Marijuana, 1969

The Jefferson Airplane bassist was arrested in New Orleans for possession of marijuana and given a suspended sentence of 2.5 years.

Jimi Hendrix – Heroin and hashish, 1969

When Jimi Hendrix flew into Toronto on 3 May 1969, customs agents detained him after finding what they thought was hash and heroin and a field test confirmed their findings and he was arrested and released on $10,000 bail and he was to return for arraignment in two days and his trial would be 7 months later. He played a show at Maple Leaf Gardens and seemed to be in good spirits, joking with the audience, but in reality, the incident was very stressful for him and weighed on his mind for seven months. He told his friend, journalist Sharon Lawrence, that he would never do heroin and the encounters he had with junkies convinced him he would never do it. He had a fear of needles.

Wayne Kramer of the MC5 said that what happened to Jimi was almost definitely a set up to make an example of a successful rock star:

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that the right-wing government forces were behind all of that … There was an effort, a movement, to stop this threat that rock and roll represented.”

After the arrest in Canada, the FBI had a file on Hendrix and there was a growing anti-American sentiment in Canada because of the growing number of hippies and draft dodgers who settled there during the Vietnam War.

Jimi Hendrix referenced the arrest in Toronto in the songs “Stepping Stone” and “Room Full of Mirrors”

Roky Erickson – Marijuana, 1969

In 1969, he pleaded insanity over a drugs charge and spent three years in a mental institution after that to avoid prison time. He was facing 10 years in jail over one joint!!! Because the 13th Floor Elevators were a very 420 friendly band, the authorities paid a lot of attention to them. While in mental hospital, Erickson wrote poems and his friends and family snuck the poems out and published a book of them to raise money to hire a lawyer.

Scott Gorham – Marijuana, Early 70s (unknown year)

Before Scott Gorham moved to England and joined Thin Lizzy just before his visa was to run out (kind of a Cinderella story), he was arrested for marijuana back in his birth country of America and had he not had the right connections, he wouldn’t be in Thin Lizzy and he’d be some average guy working a boring job. Growing up in Glendale, he was one of three stoners at his secondary school. One day, he was road tripping with his friends and they needed money for petrol, Scott sold some weed to an undercover cop and found himself arrested, possibly facing 2-5 years behind bars. Luckily, he had a lawyer uncle who got him out of trouble, reputation unscathed.

Jefferson Airplane & Grateful Dead – Marijuana, 1970

The Grateful Dead were famously busted for marijuana in New Orleans in 1970. If you know anything about the Big Easy, you’ll know that it’s a pretty fun, chill city with a lot of history and culture. While New Orleans was chill about alcohol, they were not chill about weed. On 31 January, the Grateful Dead’s hotel room was raided and everyone except Pigpen McKernan and Tom Constanten got drug charges. The events of this raid inspired their famous song, “Truckin'”. The band believed they were set up and were waiting for them to get back from the concert, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. When the cops searched the band members, they didn’t find any weed. All the weed they found was in the hotel room, but the band say that it was planted there. And yes, cops planting drugs is a common practice. Just weeks before, Jefferson Airplane were raided in that same hotel in the French Quarter. Later that same year, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was arrested in Minnesota and paid a $100 fine.

Joe Cocker – Marijuana, 1972

While in Australia, Joe Cocker was arrested and later deported for marijuana possession and received a $300 fine. The tour was one big party. This was a bigger scandal than when bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Small Faces toured Australia in the 60s. The press criticised him and said he demonstrated contempt for the laws… yeah unjust laws. A case of the government trying to distract the public by setting up rock stars.

Willie Nelson – Marijuana, 1974-2010

Willie Nelson was arrested on multiple occasions for possession of marijuana. Not surprising considering he’s one of the most vocal advocates for legalising it – being the co-chair of the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He’s also an environmentalist who owns his own biodiesel brand.

The first time he was arrested was in 1974 in Dallas. The mugshot from that arrest is considered iconic and can be found on t-shirts that say “Free Willie”. He was once again arrested in 1977 when he went to the Bahamas with Hank Cochran and a customs officer found some weed in the pocket of his jeans. He was arrested and then bailed out. He was celebrating getting bailed out by drinking and he fell and ended up in the A&E (emergency room). In the end, the charges were dropped, but he was told never to show up in the Bahamas again. He was arrested again in 1994 on his way back to Austin when he was pulled over and cops found a joint and a bag of weed in his car. Because of this incident he had to cancel his appearance at the Grammys that year because it conflicted with a court date. In 2010, he was arrested in Texas for possession of six ounces of marijuana found in his tour bus.

Shin Jung-hyeon – Marijuana, 1975

Looking outside the Anglosphere, we have an interesting case from South Korea so I’ll give some context. Shin Jung-hyeon is considered to be Korea’s Godfather of Rock, founding the first rock band in Korea, Add4. His most famous work was writing the song “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains” in protest of Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship, who were going to make him write a song that praised Park Chung-hee and the government, but he refused. As punishment, the authorities took his guitars away and made him cut his long hair. Long hair on men was illegal in Korea.

In 1975, he was arrested for possession of marijuana after giving a plant to a friend of the president’s son, even though marijuana wasn’t illegal at the time. The government wanted an excuse to lock him up and end his music career. He was imprisoned and tortured, and later sent to a psychiatric hospital. After he was released, he was banned from performing until 1979, when Park Chung-hee was assassinated. By this point, musical tastes changed and it was hard to break into the music market, so he ran a few music clubs in the 80s and 90s. He retired from music in 2006.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop – Marijuana, 1976

Ever wanted to know that story behind that one extremely stylish mugshot of David Bowie? Well, he and Iggy Pop were arrested for possession of marijuana while in Rochester after a performance. He and Iggy Pop threw a party at a hotel. Bowie brought some women he met in a bar and two turned out to be undercover narcs and more cops came in and busted both Bowie and Iggy Pop for possession of about half a pound of weed. The charge was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanour, and later dismissed because a grand jury declined to indict them. Bowie never performed in Rochester again.

Bob Marley – Marijuana, 1977

While in London, he was arrested for possession of a small amount of cannabis. This was the only time he faced criminal charges. He kept smoking until he died in 1981.

Paul McCartney – Marijuana, 1980

When Paul McCartney went to Japan to play some tour dates, he brought some weed with him. Big mistake! Customs officials searched his luggage and found 219 grams of weed. He was booked in jail and spent 9 days there, while his family and his band went to the hotel. As a result, all 11 tour dates were cancelled and Paul was deported back to the UK and charges were dropped.

Decades later, he said this about the incident:

“We were about to fly to Japan and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get anything to smoke over there, this stuff was too good to flush down the toilet, so I thought I’d take it with me.”

David Crosby – Cocaine and heroin, 1985 and Marijuana, 2004

1985 was a rough year for David Crosby with a couple run ins with the law. He spent 9 months in prison in Texas for drugs and weapons offences and he was arrested again for drink driving and when the cops searched his car, they found cocaine. He was once again arrested in 2004 on weapons charges and for possession of marijuana. Over the course of his life he claims to have spent $25 million on drugs.

Chuck Berry – Marijuana, 1990

Chuck Berry was busted in Missouri for having one ounce of marijuana at his home. He got a plea deal and was sentenced to a suspended 6 month jail term, 2 years probation, and a $5,000 fine. He claimed that the marijuana wasn’t his and he didn’t use drugs. Police thought he had cocaine, but they didn’t find any when they raided his home.

Carlos Santana – Marijuana, 1991

When Carlos Santana returned to the US from Mexico, he was arrested in Houston when customs agents found 5 grams marijuana in his luggage. In the end, he got a six month suspended sentence.

David Lee Roth – Marijuana, 1993

In 1993, David Lee Roth was caught buying $10 worth of weed from an undercover officer in Washington Square Park. Below, you can find where he speaks to Howard Stern about the pot bust (skip to 2:15). He ended up only being fined $35. No fingerprints, mugshot, or jail time.

Billy Preston – Cocaine, 1997

While on probation, Billy Preston was caught with cocaine while on probation and was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

James Brown – Marijuana, 1998

In 1998, James Brown was arrested on marijuana and gun charges, just after leaving hospital for treatment for addiction to painkillers. He said the marijuana was for medicinal purposes and he didn’t have a large quantity of it. The court ordered him to enter a 90 day treatment programme.


The point here in talking about cases where rock stars were arrested for drug possession is that we don’t consider any of them to be criminals. So why is it that when a random person has a drug addiction, they’re seen as a criminal? Addicts are not criminals. Addicts need help and should be treated like patients. Criminalising them won’t help them.

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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