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Fear and Loathing in Pitkin County: Hunter Thompson’s Radical Run for Sheriff

In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on an audacious platform of drug legalization and countercultural values. Despite losing, his campaign became a symbol of rebellion, challenging the status quo.

By Matt DV · February 8, 2024

Hunter Thompson accepts defeat and declares an end to his time in politics. Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb

In the heady days of the late 1960s, amidst the swirling chaos of anti-war protests, psychedelic exploration, and a burgeoning counterculture movement, one man stood out as a symbol of rebellion and defiance against the status quo. His name was Hunter S. Thompson, the self-proclaimed “gonzo journalist” and literary outlaw, known for his wild antics as he covered political, social, and sporting events for outfits such as Rolling Stone Magazine, in its hey day.

Today, Thompson is still remembered for his scathing wit, unapologetic embrace of excess, and also by the films where actors like Johnny Depp and Bill Murray immortalized his life and his person. But did you know that the icon of “Fear and Loathing” also had a run for political office?

Hunter S. Thompson's campaign for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970 was marked by its unconventional and often humorous approach, including a distinctive campaign logo featuring two thumbs. The logo, designed by artist Tom Benton, became an iconic symbol of Thompson's campaign and his larger-than-life persona.  Tom Benton/Public Domain

Armed with a typewriter, a suitcase full of drugs, and a burning desire to shake up the establishment, Thompson eventually set his sights on an unlikely target: the office of sheriff.

Picture the scene: Aspen, Colorado, nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, where the air is crisp with possibility and the mountains loom like silent sentinels against the sky. It’s the year 1970, and the sleepy town of Aspen is about to become the epicenter of a political revolt unlike anything the nation has ever seen.

Thompson's name appears on the ballot.  Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb
"Drug Sales must be controlled. My first act as Sheriff will be to install, on the courthouse lawn, a bastinado platform and a set of stocks in order to punish dishonest dope dealers in a proper public fashion. Each year these dealers cheat millions of people out of millions of dollars ... it will be the general philosophy of the sheriff’s office that no drug worth taking should be sold for money."
Hunter S. Thompson

But this is no ordinary campaign. Thompson’s platform is as audacious as it is absurd, promising to legalize drugs, replace the cluttered streets with car-free sod, and rename the town “Fat City” in a bid to deter greed and corruption. His campaign slogan? “Freak Power,” a rallying cry for the disenchanted and disillusioned youth of America.

Thompson’s unlikely campaign gained momentum, and was organized like a real political campaign, with grassroots organizing tactics. Door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, press events, and political rallies - they were all there and carried out in all seriousness, yet with Thompson’s tongue-in-cheek bitterness and sardonic tone.

The bald-headed candidate, looking like a young Michel Foucault, drew the attention of the national media and lit a firestorm of controversy. The sleepy town of Aspen found itself a new “freak” beacon at the center of the counterculture movement.

Thompson on the campaign trail.  Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb
"The Sheriff and his Deputies should never be armed in public. Every urban riot, shoot-out and bloodbath (involving guns) in recent memory has been set off by some trigger-happy cop in a fear frenzy."
Hunter S. Thompson

Traditional political forces and law enforcement officials recoiled in horror at the prospect of Thompson, candidate of the Aspen Freak Power Party, taking office, while young people and members of the counterculture movement flock to his banner, inspired by his fearless defiance of authority.

The final vote count was not particularly close, with Thompson receiving around 1,575 votes compared to Whitmire’s approximately 2,377 votes, out of a total of over 6,000 votes cast and he ultimately lost the election to the incumbent sheriff, Carrol D. Whitmire, whom Thompson called his “long-haired opponent.”

Thompson casts his vote.  Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb

In the end, Thompson’s bid for sheriff falls just short of victory, but his impact is undeniable, leaving a lasting impact on the political landscape of Aspen and the country. It brought attention to issues such as drug policy reform, police brutality, and the power of grassroots activism.

In 2020, a documentary was released fifty years after the events called, “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb” and in 2021 the events were recreated in a feature film titled “Fear and Loathing in Athens.”

As we look back on Hunter S. Thompson’s unforgettable run for sheriff, we’re reminded of the power of one man’s voice to challenge the status quo, to inspire change, and to leave an indelible mark on the pages of history and humor.