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The distinct smell of marijuana smoke hung in the air as countless marijuana advocates of all ages packed the University of Michigan Diag Saturday for Ann Arbor's annual celebration of all things cannabis, known as the Hash Bash.

The annual event, which organizers call a "speak out and smoke down" protest, has a long history in Ann Arbor now in its 44th year.

The two-hour rally featured speakers ranging from comedian Tommy Chong to Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, as well as activist John Sinclair, for whom the original rally was held in 1972.

Chong, 76, is known to film-lovers as one-half of the comedy stoner duo Cheech and Chong.

"We are winning the war on drugs," said Chong, who is an avid user of marijuana. "This is not a protest but a celebration."

Serving as the political backdrop for this year's festivities is the prospect of a 2016 ballot initiative to fully legalize marijuana in Michigan, not just for medical purposes.

The event kicked-off with speakers asking the crowd to take off their hats and turn the U.S. flag that waved high about the Diag as a skilled guitarist performed a rousing Jimi Hendrix-inspired version of the "Star Spangled Banner."

Mayor Bernero, who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, gave a short speech about legalizing marijuana.

"I am taking a stand for sanity today," he said.

Bernero said that 23 states and the District of Columbia and a dozen of cities in Michigan have legalized marijuana.

Michigan's existing voter-approved 2008 law is plagued with problems because it never created a uniform system for the cultivation and distribution of marijuana as a medicine, leading to a slew of legal problems.

According to the website of NORML, a nonprofit lobbying organization working to legalize marijuana, the United States is a close second to Russia in its rate of incarceration per 100,000 people. In 2012, more than 749,000 people were arrested in this country for marijuana-related offenses alone.

Bernero said incarcerating for marijuana is wasted prison space.

College students convicted of a marijuana-related offenses can't get financial aid and their future job prospects are limited said the mayor.

"I have come to realize that free the weed means free the people," Bernero said.

The mayor went on to lead the crowd in a chant: "Free the weed!" shouted the mayor, "Free the people" answered the crowd.

Hash Bash speakers included a young teen who had brain cancer explaining how cannabis oil helped her. And a father touted how his 6-year-old son's autoimmune disease is in remission thanks to the oil.

Alex Slachta, of Ann Arbor Wellness Collective, a medical cannabis dispensary said she was at Hash Bash to inform attendees and encourage those with health issues to get a medical marijuana card.

"We see a lot of cancer patients. It is not about smoking and getting high," she said. "Not all of the stuff is psycho-active."

Slachta said she was disappointed that more of the people she encountered didn't have a medical marijuana card. She said many people are wary of "being on the books."

"We have patients that come in who are afraid to show us their card," she said. "But once you hand in your paperwork you are already on the books. People are on the books in so many ways already whether you get a passport or you have a social security number."

Representatives from the newly formed Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative Committee discussed their plans at the rally.

The group is planning to launch a petition drive this year to put a legalization proposal before Michigan voters in November 2016 to preserve and expand the state's medical marijuana law, create a system for taxation and regulation of marijuana for use by people who are 21 and older, and permit hemp farming.

uwatson@detroitnews.com

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