Busted! 10 Vintage Tunes about Drugs, Cops, and Court

Music about facing the music.

Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Alaska have all legalized recreational marijuana. This fall, California and a smattering of others will vote to potentially do the same. But don’t kid yourself. Under United States federal law, the stuff is still illegal and stiff sentences can be handed down.

In 2013, Aaron Sandusky of Rancho Cucamonga, California, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for operating three medical marijuana dispensaries—which are legal in the state—in Southern California’s Inland Empire. The judge went easy on Sandusky, giving him the minimum mandatory sentence. The U.S. Attorney’s Office felt Sandusky was an “unrepentant manipulator who used the perceived ambiguity surrounding ‘medical’ marijuana to exploit a business opportunity for himself.” If it hadn’t been for the judge’s “leniency,” Sandusky could have faced a life sentence

If there’s a bright side to drug busts, it’s that they've long provided inspiration for songwriters and performers to tell their own tales of oppressive prohibition. Here are 10 tunes about running afoul of narcs. Remember them if you ever find yourself on the other side of the bars. Cold comfort, but maybe a cellmate will have a harmonica and take requests.

“John Sinclair,” John Lennon: John Sinclair is what we call a “social justice warrior” nowadays. In the ‘60s, the emerging poet was the manager of far-left Detroit anarcho-rockers the MC5 and a founding member of the White Panthers, an anti-racist, socialist organization. That made him a juicy target for the state of Michigan. It didn’t help that he had prior marijuana possession convictions when he gave—not sold—two joints to an undercover cop in 1969. The judge gave him 10 years. Fortunately, Sinclair had vocal—and famous—friends and supporters, among them an ex-Beatle. John Lennon performed this song at the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” on December 10, 1971, along with performances by Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, and others. Three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court decided the state’s marijuana laws were unconstitutional. Sinclair was freed after serving three years. He now lives in Amsterdam. Can you blame him?

“Misty Mountain Hop,” Led Zeppelin: It was July 7, 1968, and Robert Plant, then a young singer from an obscure band called Obs-Tweedle, attended a “Legalize Pot Rally” in London’s Hyde Park. He had recently hooked up with ex-Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page who was forming a new group that would be called Led Zeppelin. While the song’s title might seem to indicate yet another shout-out to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien from the Hobbit-obsessed Plant, he later made clear that the lyrics described what he witnessed at that pro-cannabis rally: “It's about a bunch of hippies getting busted, about the problems you can come across when you have a simple walk in the park on a nice sunny afternoon. In England, it's understandable, because wherever you go to enjoy yourself, ‘Big Brother’ is not far behind.” Which explains why Plant’s later singing about packing his bags for the Misty Mountains … or going to California.

“Starkville City Jail,” Johnny Cash: Common sense would indicate that a pill-popping, swaggering Man In Black should always walk the line when in the Deep South, but Johnny Cash played by his own rules. While he doesn’t specifically mention cannabis—and the cops ignore the pills in his pocket—in this song about one of his arrests, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that weed might have been percolating in his system. Following a show with the Tennessee Three and June Carter at the Animal Husbandry building on the Mississippi State campus, Cash was restless and went exploring. He first stopped at a frat party. He gave a way his jacket to an admirer, then went to a private soiree in a local subdivision before he headed back to his room at the University Motel. Still antsy, Cash decided that two in the morning was a good time to go look for a store that would sell him some cigarettes. He cut through a park and drew the attention of local cops who didn’t like this “wild flower child” and took Cash to jail. He spent the rest of the night and had to pay a $36 fine the next morning. Like he says, “They’re bound to get you.” 

“Truckin’,” Grateful Dead: “Busted, down on Bourbon Street/ Set up, like a bowlin’ pin/ Knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin/ They just won’t let you be, no.” New Orleans had a reputation as an “anything goes” city. In 1970, that didn’t apply to hippie musicians from San Francisco. In all, the local cops arrested 19 people: Most of band plus assorted members of its entourage, including famed LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III, who also worked as the Dead’s sound technician. The only ones to escape the clutches of law enforcement were the Dead’s keyboard players, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Tom Constanten—because they had long sworn allegiance to booze and weren’t into that hippie-dippy drug thing. Bail for everyone cost the band $37,000, but, hey, they got a song out of the experience. In 1997, the United States Library of Congress officially recognized “Truckin’” as a “national treasure.” You can bet that, at the time of the bust, the Dead didn’t see that one coming. 

“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” Phil Ochs: Sometimes, a guy like Phil Ochs is good to have around. You might not always like what he’s saying, but he usually tries to be honest. Ochs protested a lot of stuff on the American scene. In this deceptively cheery-sounding tune, he takes aim at apathy. Among his targets are harsh drug laws … and he doesn’t lay all the blame at the feet of legislators. Nope. Some of his ire is directed at the stoners themselves who are too high to get off their asses and protest things like 30-year sentences handed down for simple possession. There’s a lesson to be learned here. Get involved. Engage. Things don’t get better when we don’t do anything. 

“Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock),” Bob Marley and the Wailers: Sure, the United States can be an oppressive place, but it doesn’t have anything on the Jamaica described by Bob Marley. He sings about stuff the tourist brochures don’t mention. American cannabis fans immediately embraced reggae’s hypnotic groove and Marley’s pro-herb proselytizing. Beyond that, a lot of the Wailers’ earliest music wasn’t aimed at a white, American audience. Sure, we could all relate to having to “throw away my little herb stalk” for a traffic stop, but having to produce a “birth cerf-a-ticket” at a 3 o’clock roadblock goes well beyond what most of us—especially if we were white— were dealing with in the 1970s. 

“Who Needs the Peace Corps?” the Mothers of Invention: If you were going to be a hippie—even a phony one—in the Summer of Love, there were a couple things you needed to be aware of. First, you were going to smoke an awful lot of dope. Second, this would draw police attention. Third, the Official Hippie Code® required you to love everybody. Even the police. Especially the police. Even when they delivered an ass-whuppin’. Frank Zappa may have sourly disavowed the whole hippie lifestyle, but he knew that world and how it operated. His saving grace? He doesn’t seem to have much love for law enforcement either. 

“Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” the Clash: Friends don’t rat out friends. But sometimes they do.

“Charley’s Girl,” Lou Reed: Like the Clash’s Julie, Sharon’s a snitch. And Lou Reed wants to “punch her face in.” 

“Trial Time,” The Last Mr. Bigg: The late Mobile, Alabama, rapper realized that busts and courts were all part of the dope-slingin’ game. He was more than willing to play. He also knew that once he got before a judge, the odds were stacked against him. But being gangsta means not giving a fuck. No plea bargains for the Last Mr. Bigg. “Take that shit to trial, bitch!” was his motto. Once in the docket, he taunts the judge and the “12 white folks” on the jury. Yeah, he did what he’s accused of doing, but, hey, his illegal goods “tasted like ribs,” and a businessman ought to be proud of his product. Colonel Sanders sold an equally addictive substance. Did he ever go to trial for it? Of course not. Because the Colonel was white.