By, Valli Herman
For three days, Massachusetts had a place where cannabis supporters could smoke in peace and contemplate the future — and the rocky past — of marijuana.
At the 29th annual Boston Freedom Rally held Sept. 14 to 16, 2018, thousands of attendees flocked to the historic Boston Common in a ritual of gentle protest over laws that criminalize cannabis use and possession. Though Massachusetts voters passed recreational legislation in 2016 and adult-use marijuana sales have technically been legal since July 1, 2018, the state still has no licensed adult-use dispensaries because of delays in approving independent testing laboratories.
The theme of this year’s rally was “Plant the Seeds,” but another slogan might have been more appropriate said William Flynn, president of the event’s presenter, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), which is the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“Enough’s enough,” said Flynn, who opened his event speech with the same sentiment. “We’ve waited, we’ve voted for medical marijuana [in 2012]and voted again in 2016 .. .and we still don’t have … dispensaries,” said Flynn, president of MassCann since 2014 and a NORML member since 1993.
The event began in 1989 and moved in 1995 to its current location in a park across from Boston Common on the Carty Parade Field. Held on the third Saturday in September, the Freedom Rally is considered the second-largest cannabis festival, after Seattle’s Hempfest, which has been billed as a “protestival” since its beginnings in 1991.
Boston’s policy reform event has been somewhat limited in growth because of its smaller, urban location, but it has grown steadily.
“It started as a smoke-in and everybody just hanging around and enjoying a little bit of music. Then someone came with a pizza truck, a sausage truck, an Italian ice, cold drinks, and it slowly picked up,” Flynn said.
Now he estimated that the gathering draws tens of thousands of attendees of all ages, offers musical acts on two stages, presentations on business skills, cannabis for athletes, edibles and even extraction demonstrations. About 150 vendors take part, offering educational literature, cannabis accessories, and lots of food.
The 2018 rally featured reggae bands Fortunate Youth, The Elovaters, Higher Education, and dozens more acts. Attendees could drop in on any number of presentations that covered topics such as pediatric patient rights, mental health for entrepreneurs, social media for the cannabis community, and discussions of traditional Chinese herbal medicine. New participation by sponsors helped the event reach a wider audience, and include a focus on education.
“We aren’t telling anyone to go out there and smoke pot, but to understand how this prohibition law came about and how you and your community have been affected by this, even if you think you haven’t. Friends have been affected by the justice, pharmaceutical or health-care system,” Flynn said.
Even now, after nearly three decades of peaceful protest, Flynn and volunteer workers encountered resistance again this year as onlookers harrassed the event’s crew.
“They were taking pictures of vendors coming in, yelling at us that it is already legal and we don’t need to go out there and smoke pot. And saying it’s a $250 fine to consume openly. It doesn’t matter to us. We are there for civil disobedience and it’s part of our First Amendment rights to make change.
“The local community does not like us,” Flynn said. “They think it’s their park. The Common is America’s park. It’s the first place on the planet to be able to go out and say, ‘I have a free speech right and I’m going to use it.’”
Flynn said he hopes the rally helps promote acceptance and appreciation for the benefits of cannabis.
“Just let us live. That’s what I stress and I’ve been stressing ever since I got involved. It’s about community that has been taken advantage of by people who have big bucks and do worse than any of us have ever done in our lifetime,” he said.
The rally has been successful in showing that cannabis users can gather peacefully, and perhaps, stubbornly, to decriminalize use and possession of the plant.
“When you bring tens of thousands of people into one area, who are having a good time, getting education, and not one person gets arrested — not one fight — that’s a good thing. That’s what a park is for — to be enjoyed,” he said.
And for the milestone 30th anniversary set for September 2019, start making your Boston travel plans now, Flynn advised: “It’s going to be a huge blowout!”