Why you should care
Tom Crosslin fought for the legalization of marijuana, but the ambitious pot advocate and his life partner were gunned down in Michigan long before his dreams came true.
Thick, black smoke rose above Rainbow Farm on Aug. 31, 2001, visible for miles in every direction. The cause: a nine-building fire set by the farm’s owner, Tom Crosslin, clad in camouflage and armed with his Ruger assault rifle. Crosslin and his life partner, Rolland “Rollie” Rohm, ran the 34-acre farm as a headquarters for marijuana activism and popular hemp festivals. Now local and state police wanted to arrest them … but they were prepared to make a stand.
Today, sieges of armed civilians are associated more with the far right, and Crosslin and Rohm’s battle ensued when they failed to show up in court on felony charges for growing marijuana and possessing a firearm. That’s when the police showed up at the farm, where Crosslin and Rohm prepared to fight for their right to smoke. By the end of that Labor Day weekend, law enforcement had shot and killed them both.
In 1993, Tom Crosslin and Rollie Rohm began renovating Rainbow Farm, where they lived with Rollie’s biological son, Robert. Both had roots in the Elkhart, Indiana, area, about 30 minutes south of Vandalia, though Rohm was close to 20 years Crosslin’s junior. Soon, the couple began hosting festivals on the property, such as HempAid and Roach Roast, which were attended by thousands, including famous pot activists Tommy Chong and Steve Hager. Hager was then the editor of High Times magazine, which listed Rainbow Farms as the 14th Top Stoner Travel Spots in the world in 1999. “They wanted their activism to be powerful and they wanted to be known for that,” says Dean Kuipers, author of Burning Rainbow Farm. He said that Tom and Rollie envisioned their farm as a haven for stoners, and hoped to convince the masses that both medicinal and recreational pot should be legal.
Vandalia is a small, conservative town of less than 500. One might assume Rainbow Farm would upset other locals, but the truth is much of the community adored Crosslin and Rohm and took their deaths hard. “Everyone regards it as a tragedy. Everyone!” says Cathy LaPointe, who moved to Vandalia in 2000. Crosslin was known as a habitually charitable guy. One Christmas, Vandalia’s mayor told him several local families couldn’t afford to buy Christmas presents for their kids, so Crosslin bought the gifts himself.
It was all about drugs, not taxes, and drugs were what they expected to find.
Dean Kuipers, author of Burning Rainbow Farm
That’s not to say the drugs didn’t bother people, especially local law enforcement. Events like HempAid and Roach Roast attracted drug use, even if Crosslin and Rohm weren’t selling it themselves. In April 2001, a 17-year-old high school student crashed his Chevrolet Cavalier into a school bus at 10am about 40 miles away from Rainbow Farm. There were only minor injuries to those on the bus, but the driver of the Chevy — who was wearing a Rainbow Farm wristband indicating he had been at the farm’s 4/20 festival the night before — died in the crash. His best friend later told authorities that they had used LSD and marijuana but left the festival eight hours before the accident took place, and there was no indication the driver was under the influence when he hit the bus.
That information was enough for then-county prosecutor Scott Teter to serve Crosslin with a warrant signed by a judge in Lansing for suspicion of tax fraud — which Kuipers refers to in Burning Rainbow Farm as a scam. “It was all about drugs, not taxes, and drugs were what they expected to find,” Kuipers wrote.
The police found the drugs and firearms they were looking for. The young son, Robert, was placed in foster care, and Crosslin and Rohm got a court date of Aug. 31, which they never made. Instead, they were holed up on their property all weekend, where the FBI eventually arrived and where both men were shot. Initially, the event was covered by major media outlets — but the news packed up and left just a week later when two planes hit the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.
At the time, only a handful of states had legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes. Now 30 states and the District of Columbia have done so, and nine have legalized recreational marijuana as well. Soon the number could increase: This week, voters in Michigan, the home of Rainbow Farm, will decide on Proposal One, which could make recreational marijuana legal for anyone over the age of 21.
Some members of the Vandalia community see the standoff as a choice Crosslin and Rohm made, while others believe it was murder. “I think it’s fair to say that [Teter] was hard on them,” Kuipers said, “but I think he was mostly a guy who upheld the law. I can’t say honestly that he had any particular animus for these guys.” Following the publishing of Burning Rainbow Farm in 2006, Kuipers toured much of the country and was often invited to speak at hemp festivals, where he’d hear people invoking “Tom and Rollie” as a rallying cry. “They were definitely portrayed as martyrs for the [pro-marijuana] movement,” Kuipers says. But he cautions not to forget that Crosslin, too, was armed to the teeth.
“People are real, and people are complex,” Kuipers said. “Tom Crosslin was a complex dude. […] He thought he had to fight for what he wanted in the world, and he did fight for it and ended up dying for it.”