Pot smokers toke up in public to make a political statement

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About 80 people gathered at the Logan Square monument Thursday afternoon for a smoke out in honor of 4/20. - LEE GAINES
  • Lee Gaines
  • About 80 people gathered at the Logan Square monument Thursday afternoon for a smoke out in honor of 4/20.

About a half-dozen men in their 20s and 30s stood next to the Logan Square monument Thursday passing three blunts between them as they celebrated the unofficial holiday known as National Weed Day. When Sammy, a 35-year-old Logan Square native who declined to provide his last name, looked at his cell phone and realized it was 4:20 PM on April 20, he and a few other people clapped and cheered.

Sammy and the rest of his group were among a crowd of about 80 people, mostly male and mostly millennial, gathered around Logan Square's marble column toking up for the 4/20 celebration. Sammy told me he found out about the Logan Square smoke out on Facebook and jumped at the opportunity to celebrate with like-minded individuals.

The event was billed, at least on Facebook, as a demonstration of civil disobedience in favor of proposed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in Illinois. It was also, though not clearly labeled as such, a campaign event for a Chicago congressional candidate.

The skunky aroma of pot wafted in the breeze between small groups of people, some standing, some sitting, some lying on the grass passing jazz cigarettes between them. A few men took routine drags off vaporizers, releasing big puffs of smoke from their mouths. Another man in a tattered T-shirt circulated through the crowd asking if anyone wanted to buy one of the several dozen glass pipes he had for sale. A middle-aged woman wearing a T-shirt with a semicircle of cartoon cat faces set against a tie-dye background sat in the grass with a small dog dressed up in a cape covered in marijuana leaves. She quickly tucked away the joint lying next to her in the grass after another woman's pit bull puppy nearly ate it.

I told her I was a reporter from the Reader and that I liked her and her dog's outfits (I did), but she declined to be interviewed. She tells me she's on the hunt for a new job. "I'm avoiding photographs and the press," she says.

Bob Marley blared from a portable speaker. And I spotted at least two bongo drums—one tucked under an arm and another between someone's legs.

Mark Brouwer, one of the organizers of the smoke out and a self-described cannabis activist and yoga teacher, announced through a makeshift loud speaker made out of a rolled-up piece of paper that the sponsors of this 4/20 event were "mother earth" and "the sun."

He then introduced a band named the Herbal Remedies—a trio who played mild-mannered folk songs with titles like "Earth Mother"—as "cannabis-friendly music."

The tableau, taken as a whole, felt a like an outdated stereotype. But it was also a reminder of what has and what hasn't changed when it comes weed—at least in Illinois.

Twenty-five years after then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton said he had once "experimented with marijuana" but "didn't inhale," a former FBI agent and candidate for federal office, Benjamin Thomas Wolf, says he hopes that by encouraging people to smoke weed openly at his campaign event, he'll inspire them to come out and vote for him next year.

Wolf, who's running against incumbent Illinois congressman Mike Quigley in next year's Democratic primary for the Fifth Congressional District, says he steered clear of drugs, including weed, while working as a federal agent.

Then, about a year ago, he says he tried pot for the first time, and "was just really surprised by how gentle it was and how simple it is and how harmless it turned out to be." Wolf says he wants not just Illinois to legalize weed but the federal government to do so too.

Wolf is one among many Americans who've changed their minds about weed in recent years, as more than half the country's states, including Illinois, moved to legalize medicinal use of the drug, and eight states and the District of Columbia opted to legalize recreational consumption for all adults. More than 50 million Americans currently consume pot, and nearly 35 million say they use it at least once or twice a month, according to a new survey from Yahoo News and Marist University.

Support for legalization across the country has sharply increased over the last decade and a half. About 60 percent of Americans supported legal weed last year, compared to 31 percent in 2000, according to polls conducted by Gallup. The Yahoo and Marist survey released this year identified strong support for medical marijuana—83 percent of respondents say they support it. The country appears to be more split when it comes to legalizing recreational use for all adults, with 49 percent in support and 47 percent against, according to the survey results.
Participants at the Logan Square smoke out - LEE GAINES
  • Lee Gaines
  • Participants at the Logan Square smoke out

While with the exception of Brouwer and Wolf, no one I spoke to at the smoke out agreed to provide his or her full name, the vast majority of attendees seemed fairly at ease openly smoking weed—still a federally scheduled substance—in public and in plain view. The police also appeared disinterested in the event. A couple of Chicago Police Department officers in SUVs drove by, but they didn't stop.

That might be because Illinois passed a statewide decriminalization bill last year. The new law, which bars cops from locking people up for small amounts of pot, resulted in a dramatic drop-off in CPD arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana—from nearly 3,400 people charged with possession in the first seven months of 2016 to just 59 between July 29, when the law took effect, and the end of last year, as we reported in an investigation published Thursday. Even before the statewide measure went into effect, arrests for misdemeanor possession dropped from more than 22,000 in 2010 to just about 3,400 last year, though the racial disparity among those charged has persisted, with African-Americans making up nearly 80 percent of those apprehended.

Sammy, who's Latino, says he's been arrested "at least 20 times" for either possessing, smoking, or selling marijuana.

"In, like, the early 90s, when I first started smoking, you'd go straight to jail, do eight hours for disorderly conduct," Sammy says. "Now [the cops] just throw it far away from you. They say they give you a ticket, but I haven't gotten a ticket yet. They just say get the fuck out of here now. Yeah, it's changed a lot."

Sammy and his friends say they feel comfortable smoking weed in public now without worrying about getting arrested for it. And they believe the state's legislators should approve a proposed bill that would make it legal for people 21 and older to purchase, possess, and grow limited amounts of weed.

"We need the money," says Sammy, who was wearing a couple "Wolf 2018" buttons. "The people from Ohio, Michigan, from Wisconsin, from Kentucky and Missouri, they come here for it anyway. We might as well get the tax. We might as well make that money."

Sammy and his cousin Michael, also 35, say their relatives' perception of the drug has shifted too. "Now my mom [would] rather me be high at the house than drunk outside it," Michael says.

Though the majority of Americans may support legalization or, at the very least, agree weed has significant medicinal value, that might not be enough to sway politicians with the power to change the law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization, has suggested the new administration may crack down on states with legal weed and he's also expressed doubts about the existence of pot's medicinal properties.

But maybe if legalization proponents and marijuana enthusiasts show up at the polls in 2018 and again in 2020, things will change. That's what Wolf is banking on, he says.

I reminded him that young, liberal-leaning pot smokers aren't necessarily the easiest demographic to get to the polls.

"You know, I like to think they they will [vote]," he says. "If they know there is a candidate endorsing their lifestyle, they'll actually show up to vote."

Only time will tell. While hopes for legalization at the federal level appear dim under a Trump administration, Illinois could become the first midwestern state to legalize weed next year. Perhaps by the time the next 4/20 rolls around, the state's pot smokers will have something more significant to celebrate. Or lament.


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