Who says marijuana destroys motivation? Pot activist Rich Byrne has made dope one of the driving forces in his life. As the 25-year-old current president of the Illinois Marijuana Initiative, he hopes the budding war on the war on drugs can get its act together and become a potent political force.

Of course, putting a bunch of heads together doesn’t necessarily bring results. To keep organizational meetings focused, Byrne prohibited the demon weed. “I insisted that we move to a cafe,” he says. “So people started getting drunk instead, and that was just as unproductive. So then I insisted that we meet in a library, where you can’t do anything, and that pretty much solved it.”

While his fellow activists fall all over the place in terms of age, experience, and political ideology, Byrne, who has libertarian leanings and works by day at the Board of Trade, seeks to bring pot–and the decriminalization movement–a new respectability. To hear him tell it, hemp is nothing less than the eighth wonder of the world–a renewable miracle substance with a deep taproot that permits harvesting just about anywhere. Environmentally friendly, it could replace trees as a source of paper, synthetics and animals as sources of fiber, and addictive substances like morphine as a painkiller. And then there’s recreational use, which Byrne considers a free-speech issue, though he says the IMI doesn’t promote abuse.

Busted at the age of 21 for selling marijuana–he says to help pay for his education–Byrne now seeks to change drug laws with something of a vengeance. “I was really naive, and I figured even though it’s illegal the cops wouldn’t bust you.” He soon learned otherwise. “They sentenced me to 18 months’ felony probation and they gave me a thousand dollars in court fines. And then I had to pay a lawyer, and had to just follow up with the legal system kind of thing, and I actually lost a car. I had a Honda Prelude my mom had just bought me as a birthday gift.”

In his elective office, Byrne gets to preside over the tenth annual Windy City Weedfest, this year being held in the parking lot of Soldier Field. The once-free event, which has outgrown its traditional stomping grounds at Montrose Harbor, now charges a $5 admission fee to offset costs and to start a kitty for political lobbying efforts.

Though it’s probably not quite the den of iniquity recently described by columnist Dennis Byrne (no relation to Rich) on the editorial page of the Sun-Times, Weedfest is indeed an event with a cloud hanging over it. Still, last year’s offering drew anywhere from 40,000 to 55,000 people, according to organizers–up from a slight 300 attendees at the group’s first gathering a decade ago. Byrne says that no one has ever been busted for smoking pot at the event, and he doesn’t anticipate the police becoming more aggressive despite the higher-profile location and what are expected to be record crowds attending.

For all its countercultural mystique, marijuana has been enjoying a new day in the sun, with hip-hop musicians bluntly touting their drug of choice on MTV and the fashion industry creating a lucrative niche market for hemp clothing. Weedfest will have vendors of clothing and accessories along with nearly two dozen local bands, speakers, and, of course, munchies.

IMI will be sponsoring other events this summer, including a “festival of life” in Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention, which longtime activist Wendy Ayres Allen, who was present at the ’68 convention, promises will include “nude-ins, smoke-ins,” and other provocative excitement. “The whole world’s going to be watching,” she says, “so we might as well entertain them.”

Windy City Weedfest takes place from 10 AM to 10 PM Saturday and Sunday at the Soldier Field parking lot, 1600 S. Lake Shore Drive. Admission is $5, and parking will cost another $7 to $10 (Byrne suggests taking the bus). For more information, call 847-836-8426.

–Alex Jokay

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.