Boston Common neighbors say ‘Hempfest’ needs to change

Thousands attended the Boston Freedom Rally on Boston Common last year, where there were dozens of vendors, music, and plenty of pot.

Boston Common’s neighbors have a proposition for city officials and organizers of the marijuana festival held annually at the popular park: move it elsewhere or cut down the three days of festivities.

Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, told Boston.com that for years the Boston Freedom Rally, also known as “Hempfest,” has been a frustration to local residents, who’ve allegedly complained about everything from public urination to slashed tires.

“The park when they leave is a complete trash heap,” said Vizza, whose organization listed its and six other area resident and business associations’ concerns on its website July 17. “I could show you some pictures. It’s really quite impressive how much trash is left behind.”

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But representatives of Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, or MassCann, which organizes the yearly festival, say they operate within their permits and the park is left clean.

MassCann was never contacted by any of the groups now raising issues, said press secretary Maggie Kinsella.

“Our reaction was like kind of, ‘OK,’” Kinsella said of the post. “I guess it’s not new for people to draw up a scene against something little, because at the end of the day, their bias is against cannabis and nothing else.”

The festival, currently slated for Sept. 14, 15, and 16, has gathered yearly since 1989 as a forum to educate the public on marijuana and the legal battle against it, according to its website. The event also showcases musical artists, speakers, and vendors.

“By Monday the park is back to its pristine state,” Bill Downing, a member liaison for MassCann and rally organizer, said in an interview. “The park is not left dirty. That’s ridiculous.”

In their post, critics say the event damages Boston’s reputation and leaves park-bound families feeling unsafe and uncomfortable.

This event is tantamount to an occupation of the Common, which feels under siege by the huge number of tents, vendors, people smoking marijuana, and loud and profane music and speeches from the stage,” the post says.

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Relocating the festival or reducing it to one day would ease the burden on the city for cleanup costs, the post says, which totaled $14,000 in overtime pay in 2016 — a figure Vizza said the group received from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

A spokesman for the department could not be reached for comment. Kinsella and Downing said they did not know where that number came from.

The post urges readers to reach out to city councilors and Mayor Marty Walsh about their concerns.

Rishi Shukla, co-founder of the Downtown Boston Residents’ Association, one of several groups supporting the request for change, said he is primarily concerned about how the three-day event limits accessibility to the park for local families.

It’s not kept under control,” said Martyn Roetter, chairman of the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay. “It’s pretty unpleasant for tourists … who find themselves in the midst of this event.”

This isn’t the first time rally organizers have faced backlash, according to Downing, who secures MassCann’s permits for the event each year.

The group has both sued the city and been sued by the city numerous times regarding cleanup costs and other issues that have sometimes put the event’s future in jeopardy.

“The city did many nasty, nasty things to us to try to make it so we couldn’t have our event,” Downing said.

Most recently in 2016, the marijuana advocates sued the City of Boston and were ultimately allowed to have that year’s rally after the Walsh administration initially withheld a permit over the organizers’ plans to use outside vendors not licensed by the city.

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Downing, who said MassCann annually spends over $3,000 — including $2,200 in permit fees — to host the event, noted that the rally takes place on Boston Common, a historic meeting ground that’s past is entwined with the rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

“My major point about those other groups is: You know when you buy up property that’s next to an airport, you can’t complain about airplanes because you bought a property next to a airport? … So you buy a piece of property next to Boston Common and people have events on Boston Common, and you’re going to complain about it?” he said.

Organizers have applied for this year’s permit but are still compiling some necessary paperwork, according to Downing.

Vizza said the Friends of the Public Garden, which works to preserve and maintain the Common, honors the right to free speech. The goal is to find a solution that balances both the rights of park users and festival attendees, she said.

We have to go talk to the city,” she said. “I don’t know what is possible. We’re really just realizing we’ve got to help the community get their voice out.”

Kinsella said she hopes that if people have complaints about the rally, they reach out to the organizers directly.

“I wish people would actually go and see what it’s about and how peaceful it is and how educational it is and see what’s actually happening,” she said.