Legalize It: 20 Rock Stars Who Got Busted for Pot

Talk about a major buzzkill for these musicians.

-By Mike “McBeardo” McPadden

We hope you had a happy 4/20, everyone! Next time you’re celebrating America’s officially unofficial National Marijuana Day, fire up some extra thanks.

For, at long last, our Land of the Free is living up to that moniker anew by either decriminalizing our outright legalizing weed in numerous districts from coast-to-coast, and moving beyond from the unfortunate past that saw too many of our citizens being imprisoned (or worse) for the non-violent violations of wacky-tabacky statutes.

Of course, rock musicians have long fallen victim to anti-pot patrols, from amateur kush-passing garage bands to superstars of the highest profile (pun most smokingly intended). It has happened not only in America, of course, but also in ganjaphobic regions worldwide.

So in honor of the harsh buzzkill of the day after 4/20, let’s salute the rock-stars-turned-freedom-fighters who went down on marijuana charges in various states of blazing glory.

  1. John Lennon

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    Busted: London, 1968

    The Dope: Binoculars case cannabis

    Sergeant Norman Pilcher, a strongman of Scotland Yard drug enforcement, had already rolled his professional bones by popping folkie Donovan and various Rolling Stones for pot before he met John Lennon.

    On October 18, 1968, Pilcher filched up rock’s biggest whale in his no-fun nets, when drug-sniffing dogs nailed Beatles leader Lennon and Yoko One for 1.7 grams of weed in an envelope, plus another 12 grams crammed into a binoculars case.

    Lennon pleaded guilty and paid a £150 fine. That’s about a whopping 33 bucks in today’s dollars. Lennon got revenge on his arresting officer with the mocking moniker “Semolina Pilchard” in “I Am the Walrus.” A few years later, Pilcher himself went to jail for perjury.

  2. Paul McCartney

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    Busted: Tokyo, 1980

    The Dope: Half-pound of pot

    Paul McCartney had been warned. One experienced traveler after another told him that Japan would sooner welcome an actual Godzilla attack than the arrival of a rock star bearing marijuana.

    Regardless, in 1980, McCartney felt reluctant to part with a primo stash pending a Wings tour. “This stuff was too good to flush down the toilet,” he later said, “so I thought I’d take it with me.”

    On January 16, a Narita International Airport luggage inspector happened upon Macca’s haul, and Sir Paul immediately faced a possible seven-year prison stretch for drug smuggling. He ended up serving nine days, then hightailed it home.

    Almost four years to the day later, McCartney got popped for pot again in Barbados, but this time only had to fork over a $100 fine.

  3. George Harrison

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    Busted: London, 1969

    The Dope: Marijuana in a shoe

    Sergeant Norman Pilcher, still high off nabbing John Lennon, continued on through the Beatles roster when his cannabis-sniffing canines awoke George Harrison and Patti Boyd on the morning of Paul and Linda McCartney’s wedding.

    Some pot and hashish turned up in a shoe. Harrison claimed innocence, stating that he was a neat freak. “I’m a tidy man,” he said. “I keep my socks in the sock drawer and the stash in the stash box. It’s not mine.”

    Regardless, Pilcher arrested the couple and forced them to miss the wedding, which was a far nastier punishment than the fines that ultimately resulted.

  4. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

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    Busted: England, 1967

    The Dope: Keith’s pot party

    The first in a long and storied string of dust-ups between multiple Rolling Stones versus multiple laws occurred on February 12, 1967.

    Police who had been hovering around the band and just waiting to take them down moved in on a party at Keith Richards’ home after claiming they’d been “tipped off” to drug use taking place there.

    Both Richards and Mick Jagger came away in handcuffs, receiving severe sentences for what amounted to handling lit joints. Mick got three months in prison, while Keith was socked with a year. Ace attorneys for the Stones got the convictions tossed out on appeal.

  5. Brian Jones

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    Busted: England, 1967

    The Dope: General pot stuff

    Shortly on the heels of Mick and Keith’s pot busts, Rolling Stones guitar guru Brian Jones received a fruitful visit from the UK’s anti-weed warriors. He got off with a warning, then got popped again almost exactly a year later.

    A psychiatrist successfully persuaded a judge to spare Jones from jail, but Brian lost his ability to tour with the Stones overseas, precipitating his departure from the band (and, not long after that, from the planet).

  6. David Lee Roth

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    Busted: New York City, 1993

    The Dope: Nickel-bag of pot

    Ever the showman, David Lee Roth’s 1993 run-in with NYPD officers still stands as rock’s all-time funniest pot bust.

    One fine April day, Diamond Dave strolled through Greenwich Village’s famous Washington Square Park and availed himself of the local rag-weed peddlers. He picked up a $5 bag and promptly got pinched.

    Authorities tossed the case quickly, leaving Diamond Dave to smilingly plead ignorance, saying that he thought snagging a nickel-bag in the park was simply akin “to buying a pretzel and a soda pop on a Sunday afternoon.”

  7. David Bowie and Iggy Pop

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    Busted: Rochester, New York, 1976

    The Dope: Felonious marijuana

    The Rochester, New York stop on David Bowie’s 1976 tour came with a surprise. Local vice cops and a state police investigator invited themselves into Bowie’s hotel room, whereupon they arrested David and fellow traveler Iggy Pop on a Class 3 felony marijuana charge.

    Deep into his “Thin White Duke” persona, Bowie showed up in court two days later, extremely polite and dressed to the nines. Ultimately, a grand jury let everybody involved off the hook.

  8. Bob Marley

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    Busted: London, 1977

    The Dope: What do you think?

    As if to prove a point about pointlessness, Scotland Yard welcomed recent transplant from Jamaica Bob Marley to London by swiftly hassling him about marijuana. A judge essentially looked at the name on the docket, likely thought, “Do we want a Bob Marley here without marijuana?”, and charged the reggae icon a small fine.

  9. Willie Nelson

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    Busted: All sorts of places, 1974, 1994, 2006, 2010

    The Dope: Willie Weed

    In keeping with British Bobbies bursting Bob Marley’s smoke bubble, Texas toker extraordinaire has faced marijuana charges multiple times throughout his legendary career.

    Willie’s first dubious dust-up over doobage occurred in Dallas in 1974. His most recent happened in 2010, when border patrol agents confiscated six ounces of weed from Willie’s tour bus. Through it all, Nelson has remained a hale, hearty, and high-as-the-sky advocate of marijuana, even titling his 2013 memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.

  10. Don Henley

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    Busted: Don Henley’s House, 1980

    The Dope: Marijuana, Quaaludes, cocaine, naked teenage girl

    The Eagles’ drummer, singer, and co-captain landed in a heap of hot water in November 1980, right in his own home.

    Don Henley himself called paramedics to come help out a naked young lady who apparently overdosed. Upon their arrival, the girl revealed she was just sixteen years old.

    Henley got taken in for drug possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He beat the rap with a $2,000 fine and probation. Times being what they were, the millionaire rock star then turned the blame onto the media, scolding news reporters who covered the incident in the mega-platinum hit, “Dirty Laundry.”

  11. David Crosby

    Busted: Times Square, 2004

    The Dope: Marijuana and a gun

    Much ado was made about David Crosby’s narcotics-fueled rampage toward ruin in the 1980s. Even more ado occurred after the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and (sometimes) Young singer got clean from all intoxicants and helped others to do so throughout the 1990s. Crosby even got a fresh liver and played a 12-step sponsor on NBC’s The John Laroquette Show.

    It came as a surprise, then, in 2004, when Crosby left some luggage behind in a Times Square hotel and it was revealed to contain a stash of pot and a loaded .45 caliber pistol. Crosby paid a $5,000 fine and stopped talking about sobriety.

  12. Carlos Santana

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    Busted: Houston Airport, 1991

    The Dope: Five grams of Mexican weed

    Upon returning from a trip to Mexico, guitar god Carlos Santana got popped for, as he describes it, forgetting to ditch “a joint the size of a toothpick.” He paid a small fine. It’s Santana’s only blip on any kind of criminal record.

  13. Bon Scott

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    Busted: Australia, 1969

    The Dope: Marijuana

    For all the hellraising Bon Scott committed during his day’s as AC/DC’s breakthrough frontman, his arrest for marijuana occurred while he was still the singer for his pre-AC/DC group, the Valentines.

    Bon’s bust for weed in September 1969 made him the first noteworthy Australian rock star to face pot charges. It also came six years after a youthful misadventure wherein Scott got popped for pilfering 12 gallons gasoline, which landed him in a home for wayward boys. That must have later made him feel right at home among the Young brothers.

  14. Sebastian Bach

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    Busted: Canada, 2010; New Jersey, 2011

    The Dope: Less than 50 grams of marijuana, plus paraphernalia

    Weed, apparently, does not necessarily mellow out Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, as he got nabbed for marijuana possession in December 2010 following a wild bar fight in Canada. A scant six months later, Bach got busted anew, this time in his home state of New Jersey and without the flying fist action.

  15. Neil Diamond

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    Busted: Bel Air, 1976

    The Dope: Less than one ounce of marijuana

    While Neil Diamond was in Las Vegas to perform a string of sold-out shows, Bel Air police raided his home “on a tip” and found a wee amount of weed somewhere in its confines. Diamond got arrested, then had the bust wiped off his record by participating in a drug-aversion program. Thank heavens it seems to have worked!

  16. James Brown

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    Busted: South Carolina, 1998

    The Dope: Marijuana and an illegal firearm

    The Godfather of Soul’s run-ins with societal regulations are the stuff of larger-than-the-law legends. James Brown’s previous scuffles included shooting his wife’s car and leading police on a Hollywood-style, interstate chase while under the influence of PCP.

    It seemed fairly quaint, then, in 1998, when Brown got tagged for simple weed and a gun in his South Island, South Carolina home, even if it came less than a week after he’d been treated for an addiction to painkillers.

  17. Chuck Berry

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    Busted: Wentzville, Missouri, 1990

    The Dope: 62 grams of marijuana, hashish, $130,000 cash, weapons, and dirty videotapes

    Chuck Berry is not only one of rock-and-roll’s true inventors, he also came up with one of its first legal scandals—and then kept on coming up with more.

    In 1959, Berry allegedly had sex with an underage girl and ultimately did 18 months behind bars for transporting a minor over state lines for immoral purposes.

    Three decades later, cops raided Berry’s Missouri estate looking for cocaine, but instead found pot, hash, guns, cash, and videotapes made via secret spy-cam in the ladies room of a restaurant owned by Berry. The tapes depicted unwitting female customers relieving themselves, one of whom was a minor. Berry got off with fines, probation, and a suspended sentence. He did not get to keep his videos.

  18. Joe Cocker

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    Busted: Adelaide, Australia, 1972

    The Dope: Marijuana and punching people

    Joe Cocker earned his nickname “Mad Dog” following his 1972 bust Down Under for marijuana, which was later amended to include assault charges following a donnybrook at the Commodore Chateau Hotel. Aussie authorities tossed Cocker out of the country, and ignited a public uproar of support for the singer.

  19. Donovan

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    Busted: England, 1966

    The Dope: Cannabis

    Psychedelic folk sensation Donovan Leitch became the first British rock star to face marijuana charges in 1966. The singer invited trouble by way of a TV documentary titled A Boy Named Donovan in which he shared a joint on camera with some pals.

    Dope-hating Scotland Yard hothead Sergeant Norman Pilcher had been eyeballing England’s pop scene, just waiting to pounce on the first joint-puffer he could to make an example for the rest. Donovan was his boy.

    The charges were minor, and whatever Donovan was smoking when he wrote hits like “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman” forever after remained his own business.

  20. Roky Erickson

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    Busted: Austin, Texas, 1969

    The Dope: One joint

    The capital of Texas is known for the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” Local psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson set an amazing, uniquely Texan standard for the exact weirdness to which that slogan directly refers.

    As leader of psych-band The 13th Floor Elevators in the 1960s, Erickson stood tall with friends and neighbors such as Janis Joplin and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, pumping electrifying rock greatness out of the Lone Star State. Roky’s ride came to a tragic halt in 1969, though, after he got popped for a single joint. Rather than go to jail, he accepted commitment to an insane asylum. Huge mistake.

    Once in the Austin State Hospital, doctors subjected Roky to shock treatment and electroconvulsive therapy that actually did profoundly disrupt his mental health. When he eventually got out, Erickson claimed to be possessed by a Martian, among other upsetting conditions.

    The upside is that Roky dealt with his mind-demons by creating genuinely brilliant music with his new band, Roky Erickson and the Aliens. The tragedy is that he has never fully recovered from the horrors he survived in the hospital. And this was all over his possession of a single joint.

    Legalize it!

Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).