The City Council held an at-times contentious hearing to discuss the future of the Boston Freedom Rally – the event, formerly known as “Hempfest,” held each year on the Boston Common to promote marijuana legalization and advocacy – on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at City Hall.
“We’re looking for a way this popular event can continue,” said Councilor Josh Zakim, who co-sponsored the hearing with Councilor Ed Flynn. “This isn’t about cannabis, use pro or con. This isn’t about recreational marijuana dispensaries, which I supported. This is about our city parks.”
An estimated crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 was on hand for the 29th annual Freedom Rally, sponsored by MassCann (Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition), the state affiliate of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), over the weekend of Sept. 14 to 16. Compared to years past, city officials said the latest event caused an unprecedented amount of damage to the Common, with reports of attendees driving their cars onto the park, camping out there overnight and leaving behind mountains of trash in their wake, including discarded syringes allegedly found among the debris.
Boston Parks Commissioner Chris Cook said no other event in the city’s park system generates as much trash as the Freedom Rally. This year’s event cost the city $10,000 in overtime cost to clean the Common after the event, with that cost having risen as high as $20,000 in years past.
Cook said the Parks Department neither supports nor endorses the event, and “has legally challenged it more than six times.”
In response to the popular perception that the event has gone from a one-day political outing to a three-day commercial festival, Cook said “There doesn’t seem to be a strong, consistent political message, but what there definitely is a large amount of commercial activity.”
Sgt. James Hasson of the Boston Police Department said while smoking is illegal in all city parks, officer didn’t cite people for this offense on the Common during the event and remained on the periphery except when responding to public safety concerns.
“It would tie up resources and could incite the crowd,” Hasson said regarding the decision not to uphold the smoking restriction in the park during the event.
Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, said the size of the event grew more than 50 percent in area in the past year, and echoed Zakim’s suggestion that City Hall Plaza would be a more appropriate venue for it going forward.
“There are other places this event can take place that don’t impact 50,000 residents and the thousands of people who visit the park,” Vizza said.
John Swomley, MassCann’s ACLU-appointed attorney, said while his client would consider scaling the event back to two days from three, but would not compromise on holding it on the Common, citing the park’s significance in the history of the Free Speech movement.
Swomley also inferred that it was the city’s strategy to not issue Freedom Rally organizers a permit “until the very last day” in an attempt to thwart the event.
Meanwhile, Eve Waterfall, speaking as a Beacon Hill resident, parent and athletic coach, expressed concern that no attempt was made to prohibit minors from the entering an event where marijuana products were openly consumed and distributed in what some described as an “open-air drug market.”
“The event in its current form is not good for our parks, our city and our children,” Waterfall said.