Following the return of the annual Boston Freedom Rally Saturday, Sept. 21 to the Boston Common, the decision to scale it back to a one-day event this year from its traditional three days has been largely applauded.
MassCann (Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition), the state affiliate of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) sponsor the event commonly as “Hempfest.” Last year’s 29th annual Freedom Rally, which took place over the weekend of Sept. 14-16, 2018, drew an estimated crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 and was the subject of much debate after elected officials and civic leaders said it caused an unprecedented amount of damage to the Common. Witnesses also reported attendees driving their cars onto the park, camping out there overnight and leaving behind heaps of trash in their wake.
City Councilor Josh Zakim, who along with Councilor Ed Flynn, co-sponsored a hearing on Nov. 14, 2018, to discuss the future of Freedom Fest in light of these allegations from last year, credits the organizers for scaling the event back to one day this year, which he describes as “a good step forward.”
“As a result, we didn’t received nearly as many calls with concerns about the event,” Zakim said. “I would like to thank the mayor’s office, the Parks Department and the organizers for working together [to achieve this result].”
State Rep. Jay Livingstone echoed this sentiment: “I appreciate the work of the City to work with the organizers to limit the time-period and increase required mitigation. I hope the combination of these two agreements will minimize the impact [the event has] on the Common.”
In contrast, Colin Zick, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Parks and Public Spaces Committee, said while the BHCA was pleased with the decision to curtail this year’s event, which resulted in a noticeable decrease in negative impacts on the Common and surrounding neighborhood, the group still has “substantial concerns” over Freedom Rally.
“It’s too large for the Common and features too many violations of City of Boston ordinances (e.g. consuming cannabis in public, smoking on the Common) and violations of the conditions of the permit (e.g. several overnight ‘campers’ on the Common, excessive sound amplification, numerous cars parked on the grass of the Common),” Zick wrote.
The permit for the event expressly states no smoking is permitted on the Common; consuming marijuana or marijuana products in a public place is prohibited; and no camping is allowed, yet Zick said these restrictions were all flagrantly violated during the most recent Freedom Rally.
In response to allegations of camping on the Common, MassCann spokesperson Maggie Kinsella attributed it “a little of bit of confusion” on their part, since members of the group are usually permitted to stay overnight on the Common during the event to safeguard their possessions. But when a Park Ranger told them camping wasn’t permitted this year, Kinsella said they immediately took down their tents.
Kinsella expressed MassCann’s gratitude to Beantown Greentown, a local marijuana cultivation and clothing company, for spearheading the volunteer effort for this year’s Freedom Rally.
“They organized the volunteers who emptied trash throughout the event and stayed afterwards to help clean up,” she said. “Sunday was the official cleanup day, and everyone really stepped up then.”
Kinsella said MassCann is made up solely of volunteers who worked to “help address some of the issues that came up in the past.”
Added Kinsella: “We hope the city acknowledges the improvement, and maybe, we can get a permit for two days next year. It was certainly a disappointment to some attendees and vendors that it was only one day this time. We think it crowded the park more because everyone was trying to get in there on one day rather than over the course of three, so I hope we can meet in the middle next time.”
(Kinsella couldn’t provide the size of the crowd at this year’s event by press time.)
And while the future of Freedom Rally is now unknown, Boston Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Liz Sullivan wrote, “[We] and the event organizers worked together to ensure that all traces of the event were removed on Sunday. We look forward to continuing to partner with groups who activate our green spaces with public programming.”