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Feature Tue Oct 08 2013
Dan Linn hadn't always planned on becoming the leader of a statewide movement to legalize marijuana. But at 31, as the Executive Director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), that's exactly what he has been doing for the better part of the last decade.
In the Fox Lake area of Illinois where he grew up, "drinking was huge," Linn said in an interview. From a young age, he could see the effects alcohol had on people. Then he saw the effects marijuana had on people and "it was like a night and day difference," he said.
On the one hand, he saw a legal substance that made people aggressive and violent, and on the other, he saw an illegal substance that made people calm and friendly.
The hypocrisy of cannabis prohibition was obvious to him early on, he explained. Though, it wasn't until attending university in Vancouver, British Columbia, that his trajectory down the path of cannabis legalization activism took shape.
The experience of living in Vancouver, in a culture that's very tolerant towards cannabis and the people who use it, left a powerful impression on him, he said. When he returned to the U.S., he knew cannabis legalization was something he wanted to pursue a lot more seriously.
So he contacted NORML and started coming to public meetings at the Illinois chapter in Chicago. He was surprised at first, because there was a just a small group, maybe six to ten people, at those meetings back then.
"It was disappointing," Linn said, "but it also inspired me."
He immersed himself in the cause. Eventually, more and more responsibility fell onto his shoulders and today he's the veteran of the Illinois chapter.
"It's kind of a strange place for me, because I never really got into this thinking it would take so long. This wasn't my original life path to be the guy in Chicago trying to legalize weed," Linn said. "But it was one of those things that I thought there'd be a lot of people working on this, and then when I showed up and there wasn't, it was sort of a 'you want it done, you gotta do it yourself' type of mentality."
NORML is a public interest, non-profit organization working to eliminate penalties for responsible cannabis use.
As Executive Director of the Illinois chapter of NORML, Linn wears many hats. He works on everything from lobbying down in Springfield, to drafting legislation, grassroots organizing, educating the public and the lawmakers, fundraising and more.
"It's really about sitting down and talking to lawmakers about these issues, convincing them that these policies need to change," Linn said.
Legalization would lower incarceration rates and greatly enhance the quality of life for users, growers, and small-time offenders, Linn explained. It would also do much to restore lawful consistency and respect for the law. On top of that, taxpayers foot the bill for the bloated bureaucracy and prison industry surrounding the prohibition of this arbitrary plant, he noted.
Some lawmakers understand cannabis, but others are totally unfamiliar with the substance, he said. They believe every horror story they've been told and let their worst fears run wild.
"It's like this plant is so powerful that it makes the people who don't use it kind of go bananas," Linn said.
There's a lot of misinformation, Linn said. Even though cannabis is a benign substance that grows in gardens, people are terrified of it. This always struck him as odd, considering liquor is everywhere in our country.
"With industrial hemp, it's been this real education campaign," Linn said.
Linn described a time when NORML gave out hemp soap samples to lawmakers and their staffers. A number of them were literally concerned they would get high if they used this soap to wash their hands.
"It was sad," Linn said, "but you kind of laugh at it when people think they're going to get stoned from washing their hands with Dr. Bronner's Magic Hemp Soap."
NORML's biggest focus in Illinois for the past ten years has been passing medical cannabis legislation. About five years ago, it started focusing on industrial hemp farming. Linn says they have touched the waters with decriminalization and are now starting to pursue full legalization much more.
"It's really like a new day in Illinois for cannabis policy," Linn said. "The local passage of the medical bill has projected us on a much different course than we were a year ago, or five years ago."
Looking at states like Colorado and Washington that have legalized cannabis and looking at the shift in federal policies that are slowly happening, Linn thinks legalization within the next five years is a very realistic possibility in this state.
"In five years the pilot program in Illinois will be expiring for medical cannabis and that would be an easy time for the lawmakers to expand this to full legalization," Linn said.
After that, Linn can pass the torch. Though he sees the need for an interest group like NORML even after legalization, for him, "it's more about ending this prohibition, getting these people out of prisons and jails, and restoring a certain quality of life for the people who use this plant," he said.