Demonstrators march for marijuana legalization in Chicago

Emily Gray Brosious

May 8, 2017: 3:54 PM CT

Cannabis advocates march through the Chicago Loop calling for marijuana legalization on Saturday, May 6, 2017, at the annual Global Marijuana March, which is held on the first Saturday in May at locations across the world. (Photo credit: Emily Gray Brosious/Extract)

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Cannabis legalization proponents rally in downtown Chicago, calling attention to Illinois legalization efforts on Global Marijuana March day.

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Dozens of marijuana proponents marched through Chicago’s Loop and rallied at Daley Plaza for the Chicago Global Cannabis March on Saturday, May 6, one of many demonstrations held the same day around the world in support of marijuana legalization.

“I’m here fighting for legalization because too much money is wasted on incarceration,” Suhail, a Northeastern University chemistry student who asked to be identified by first name only, told Extract.

Suhail’s sentiment was echoed by other demonstrators who said the costs associated with cannabis prohibition, including resources spent on law enforcement, prosecution and incarceration, far outweigh any benefits.

Others like Annie Magan, a Millikin University theater and gender studies student, pointed to more personal reasons for supporting legalization. She uses marijuana to relieve her menstrual cramp pain, which is sometimes so severe she has trouble walking, and says “it’s the only thing that works” to stop the pain.

Magan doesn’t qualify for medical marijuana in Illinois, however, so she obtains her cannabis illegally.

“If marijuana was legalized, I wouldn’t be forced to break the law,” she said, adding, “No plant should be illegal.”

Phillip Peterson, a volunteer with the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which organized Saturday’s event in Chicago, says Illinois’ marijuana reform movement has seen a wave of energy with the recent introduction of state bills to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use.

“Right now we’re really hoping to get everyone informed and moving and talking to lawmakers about Senate Bill 316 and House Bill 2353, both of those are our current legalization bills here in this state that we’re working on pushing now,” Peterson told Extract. Illinois NORML recently helped launch the new Coalition for a Safer Illinois to support the state’s effort to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use.

Illinois became the 20th state to legalize medical cannabis in 2013, and in 2015, the state decriminalized limited cannabis possession.

In March 2017, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans introduced measures to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use. House Bill 2353 has already picked up at least eight co-sponsors in the state House, though lawmakers say they likely won’t call either bill for a vote until next year.

A lot rests on whether or not Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner wins reelection in 2018. The governor has received criticism from marijuana proponents for his initial reluctance to pass a marijuana decriminalization bill and his ongoing resistance to expanding the state’s list of medical cannabis qualifying conditions. Rauner is seen as a likely opponent to any cannabis legalization measures in Illinois.

To date, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for adult recreational use, and 29 states have legalized comprehensive medical cannabis programs. Uruguay became the first country to legalize recreational cannabis use in 2013, and Canada is pushing to do the same in 2018. Around the world, at least 20 countries have approved some form of medical cannabis use.

“It seems like people are starting to warm up to marijuana legalization more,” Peter Nordine, a Lake County resident who uses cannabis medicinally, told Extract at the Chicago Global Cannabis March. “There’s nothing bad about it, it’s a positive plant.”

Kirby Long, a theater and music business student at Millikin University who drove up to Chicago for Saturday’s demonstration, said people in Chicago do seem largely supportive of cannabis legalization. But she says the general attitude is different in Decatur, Illinois, where she attends college.

“People there, especially in terms of law enforcement, aren’t as open to the idea [of legalization],” she said.

Law enforcement groups like the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police have come out against the recent proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational adult use, the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark reports.

In a statement written on behalf of the police chief’s association, Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel described cannabis as a “damaging” and “transitional drug” that leads “from social drinking to smoking marijuana to snorting cocaine.”

“It is not the job of government to legalize damaging substances, causing people to perceive them as something normal or even habitual,” Weitzel wrote in a statement outlining the group’s opposition to cannabis legalization. “A government must protect the health and stability of its citizens.”

For reference, study findings published in Scientific Reports in January 2015 estimate the mortality risk associated with alcohol is about 114 times higher than that of marijuana.

Ali Nagib, assistant director for Illinois NORML, admits some key stakeholders continue to resist marijuana legalization in Illinois, but he thinks the tide of public opinion is clearly turning toward legalization.

Nearly 70 percent of Illinois residents now support legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, according to a poll released March 27, 2017, from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“We’ve seen people’s minds being changed on this issue,” Nagib said. “Whether it’s because they know someone who is sick or dying and they’ve seen how this plant helps them, or because they’ve seen the failures of the drug war, they’ve seen the impact that this policy, this failed prohibition, has had on our societies and on our communities. They’ve seen this, and they’ve realized that something has to change.”

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See photos from the 2017 Chicago Global Cannabis March:

(All photos: Emily Gray Brosious/Extract)

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