With the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition’s 32nd annual Boston Freedom Rally (formerly known as “Hempfest”) returning Saturday, Sept. 18, to the Boston Common, some are concerned that in addition to bringing the usual array of issues associated with the event, like public consumption and trash left behind in the park, it also has the potential this time to turn into a covid super-spreader, while MassCann officials, who acknowledge the past problems, are hoping this year will be the beginning of a fresh start between them and the nearby residential community.
“We’ve gone through a fundamental change over the last 12 months, with the board centered first and foremost on community relationship-building, coupled with a focus on consensus-based decision making,” said Grant Smith-Ellis, president and press secretary of MassCann, a nonprofit working for the moderation of marijuana laws, as well as the state affiliate of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). “This is our opportunity to make a very rare second first-impression.”
This year, Boston Freedom Rally takes place Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. on the Common, said Smith-Ellis, with staff setting up Sept. 17, and everything coming down on Sept. 19. Cars loading in are required to remain on a path designated by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, he said, and all vehicles must be removed from the area by 11 a.m. Saturday. Cars are permitted to load in on Saturday between 9 and 11 a.m., after which time the Common will be closed to incoming vehicles. No camping will be allowed in the park for the event.
The Boston Freedom Rally is traditionally the second largest annual gathering for marijuana law reform in the U.S., after the Seattle Hempfest, as well as an event that has previously taken its toll on the Common.
Over the weekend of Sept. 14 to 16, 2018, an estimated crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 was on hand for the 29th annual Boston Freedom Rally – an event that, according to city officials at the time, 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.
Chris Cook, the Boston Parks Commissioner at the time, said during a City Council hearing in November of 2018 at City Hall, no other event in the city’s park system generates as much trash as the Boston Freedom Rally. And that year’s three-day event set the city back $10,000 in overtime to clean up the Common afterwards, with that cost rising as high as $20,000 in previous years, added Cook at that time.
The Boston Parks and Recreation Department has legally challenged Boston Freedom Rally at least six times to no avail, going back to the 1990s, and doesn’t endorse the event, which it views as a direct affront to the smoking ban enacted in city parks, including on the Common.
(Specifically, the event again takes place on Carty Patade Field on the Common, its home every year since 1995, with the exception of 2007, when the field was being resodded.)
Despite the opposition, the Boston Freedom Rally returned to the Common as a one-day event on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2019 (and as an eight-hour virtual event on Sept. 19 of last year, which featured 80 speakers and was produced by Smith-Ellis).
Colin Zick, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association Parks and Public Spaces Committee, as well as a longstanding board member with the organization, remains steadfast against the event this year not only because of its past history, but also on account of its potential to proliferate the spread of covid.
“At this point, it’s really a public health concern, with so many people crowded together, many of them we know are engaged in a high-risk activity for spreading covid” (i.e. the smoking and sharing of cannabis), said Zick. “It’s just doesn’t seem to be the smartest thing to have going on at this point.”
The city’s face-covering mandate doesn’t apply outdoors, he added, and the age group seeing the most cases are on the younger side, as are those who are likely to attend the Boston Freedom Rally. And afterwards, these same people will return to their own communities, where, said Zick, they risk spreading the virus to others.
“And this is on top of all the other concerns we’ve had over the years,” said Zick, who added whenever an event takes place on the Common, it becomes increasingly difficult for others to use and enjoy the park. “Now, add the risk of this turning into a super-spreader event, and I just shake my head. Unfortunately, this year, it’s really a double-whammy.”
The Central for Disease Control also continues to advise against large gatherings, said Zick, “so basically, the city is saying, in this regard, we don’t care what the CDC says, and the organizers of the event are saying the same.”
Moreover, Zick added, “We continue to do things that spread covid , and I think that’s something responsible people and our government should be acting against, and this seems like an easy one – just follow CDC guidelines.”
Zick said he also laments that the event is moving forward with “no solicitation of views” from the community, although Smith-Ellis said MassCann sent the Civic Association a letter dated Aug. 25 to notify them of the event, as well as to tell them about setup and breakdown times in an effort to minimize the traffic impact on the neighborhood.
MassCann is also going to new and unprecedented lengths to not only ensure the health and safety of those attending this year’s Boston Freedom Rally, said Smith-Ellis, but also to see that the event doesn’t have an adverse impact on the Common, or on nearby residents, as it has before.
Fifty uniformed and unarmed security guards will be on hand for the event, paid for by MassCann, said Smith-Ellis, and the park will be replete with 150 collapsible trash barrels that will be routinely emptied into dumpsters, as well as ample hand-washing stations and around 75 porta potties.
“As a result of community feedback, we’ve gone above and beyond this year at our own expense to provide a cleaning contractor to work throughout the course of the one-day event,” said Smith-Ellis. “We are fully prepared not only to comply with federal, state, and local covid guidelines, but also to ensure that there is no sharing or consumption, which will be repeatedly emphasized throughout the event.”