The Saturday before the North Carolina primary, in the wake of local Obama rallies with attendance in the thousands, around 200 dedicated supporters of cannabis dot the lawn of the State Capitol building in Raleigh. The Obamas and Clintons aren't attending the Raleigh Marijuana Rally, but North Carolina's Civil War-era politician Zebulon Baird Vance is present, in his statuary form, and he is decked out for the occasion: His bronze hand grasps what looks suspiciously like fresh leaves from a marijuana plant.
Raleigh was one of 239 cities around the world to participate in the 2008 Global Marijuana March. On the agenda: legalization of an herbal product that is consumed annually by more than 20 million Americans, according to the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). And, according to NORML, more than 829,000 Americans were arrested for violations of marijuana laws last year. Given these extraordinary statistics, it's hard to know what to make of the turnout for the rally two weeks ago. Perhaps 200 isn't so large in the context of the primary election season, but then, the "Free Tibet" demonstration at the end of March only garnered 50 activists.
In contrast to the buzzing atmosphere of an Obama rally, the general feeling this afternoon seems to be "We care, but we're relaxed about it." Indeed, relaxation came naturally for a pot rally where most of the people present (excluding the kids there with their parents) either were, are or would be high that day. Throughout the afternoon, live music wafted through the air from bands with names like Git Lit, High On Weed and The Homewreckers, as well as a band with the more subdued name of Bob. One band, Shiloh, which describes its music online at Music Nation as "rock 'n' roll that will shock your soul," featured organizers of the event.
Under a white canopy, two young, wholesome-looking weed supporters sell homemade stash jars with labels like "Strawberry Cough," "Organic" and "AK-47." There is a Libertarian Party table, sprinkled with Ron Paul literature (and elsewhere there are a couple of pot activists wearing Ron Paul T-shirts). Nearby, Umm Shabazz—a middle-aged woman with dreads, a Bob Marley tie-dyed T-shirt and a radiant smile—is selling her handmade bags. Ms. Shabazz has been to numerous pot rallies over the years. She says this one stacks up nicely.
Down on the sidewalk, across from the corner of Fayetteville and Morgan, considerably more energetic supporters hold roughly made "Honk 4 Weed" signs. The signs are the most aggressive aspect of the rally, and the majority of passers-by honk. Girls line the sidewalk, dancing and jumping with their signs. As cars honk, the girls scream their approval, creating a cacophony of noise. One girl, with "LEGALIZE" painted in green across her chest, is holding a huge cardboard sign that says "Pot is an herb. Bush is the dope." Another girl says only two people have flicked them off. She's wearing a white tank top with "Genesis 1:29" Sharpied on the back (the verse reads: "And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth'").
At one point, the small rally looks like it will turn into a full-blown insurrection when a fresh wave of people arrive down Morgan Street. The marijuana activists pause in anticipation, thinking that perhaps all the closet pot smokers—their silent brethren—have come out to join the struggle. But it is the 2008 AIDS Walk, sponsored by the Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina. Chipper people in solid pink, red, purple and white T-shirts with tight black pants pass by. Several raucous ganja-lovers join the walk. A girl wearing a shirt that says "Stop bitching, Start revolting" gets up from her position manning the Cannabis N.C. tent and runs to the walkers. "Marijuana helps AIDS patients!" she yells, to the slightly bewildered crowd. Thinking quickly, she revises it to "Legalize medicinal marijuana!" which garners a better response—several AIDS walkers cheer and some mime a horn honking.
Up on the lawn a song ends. A man yells, "Smoke weed!" In front of the Vance statue, Richard Michael, a 41-year-old man dressed in black, talks into the microphone about those he knows who need medicinal marijuana. "Your government doesn't give a shit about these people," he says. The audience hiccups cheers and murmurs of agreement.
On the lawn nearby, a tired-looking mom and dad get ready to leave. Their young daughter springs up to follow them. "Clean up behind yourself," her mom says, pointing to a piece of trash on the grass. The mom turns to a fellow parent and shrugs, "We try to teach her to be a good person."