Boston city councilors want to talk about ‘Hempfest’ — and how it can be changed

"This is not about being for or against the use of marijuana," Councilor Josh Zakim said.

Thousands attended the Boston Freedom Rally on Boston Common, where there were dozens of vendors, music and plenty of pot in 2017.
Thousands attended the Boston Freedom Rally on Boston Common in 2017. –John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Boston City Council wants to talk about “Hempfest.”

During a meeting Wednesday afternoon, councilors opted to move forward with a request made by councilors Josh Zakim and Ed Flynn this week to hold a committee hearing regarding the Boston Freedom Rally — the three-day marijuana advocacy and education event also known as “Hempfest” that converges on Boston Common each September.

On the hearing agenda will be a discussion regarding what actions the city can take to mitigate the rally and any options for relocating it from its traditional grounds, according to the order submitted Monday.

Both councilors say nearby residents voiced complaints following this year’s Sept. 14 through 16 event. On that list was: the trash left littered throughout the park; vehicles parked on the Common in violation of rules; tents pitched by attendees to spend the night; and hypodermic needles nestled among the garbage.

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“This is not about being for or against the use of marijuana. … This is about the proper use of Boston Common, one of the jewels of our city,” Zakim, whose district includes the historic park, told fellow councilors.

The yearly gathering, coordinated by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, or MassCann, has been held since 1989 and showcases speakers, vendors, and musical acts while serving as a forum to educate the public about marijuana and the legal fight over its prohibition.

MassCann representatives have acknowledged problems with the amount of trash left behind after this year’s event, but the conversation councilors want to have regarding future festivities is just the latest battle the group has faced from city officials, according to press secretary Maggie Kinsella.

The organization has sued the city six times to secure permits over the years, she said.

“Legally this is just another attempt by the city’s constituents to treat the Common like it’s their backyard and it’s not,” Kinsella told Boston.com after Wednesday’s meeting.

The Friends of the Public Garden, which works to preserve and maintain the Common, and other civic groups called on city leaders in July to take action, citing issues like the noise of the rally and the amount of garbage to alleged cases of public urination and how the negative impacts impede the city’s reputation and make residents uncomfortable.

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Moving the event to another venue or cutting down its three-day schedule were potential solutions the groups highlighted at the time to balance both the rights of nearby neighbors and Hempfest attendees.

But MassCann said the park was left pristine by the end of the three-day celebration in years prior and that organizers have a right to use the site, which, notably, is a historic site for freedom of speech and assembly in the United States.

“The bottom line is this is the oldest free speech place in the county … and to say any other place is equal is preposterous,” John Swomley, an attorney representing MassCann, told Boston.com Wednesday.

Zakim said the council hears complaints about the long-standing event every year.

“The fact that smoking is prohibited on Boston Common as it is in all our city parks regardless of what the substance is, whether it’s a cigar, a cigarette, or cannabis, and I think that’s something we need to be looking at,” he said.

Flynn said his concerns stem both from “quality of life issues” the rally imposes on nearby neighborhoods and from the protection of the park.

“It is one of the most beautiful parks in the country, and we want it to remain that way for everybody, including children, seniors, the disabled, residents in the area, families in the city, and tourists that visit our great city,” Flynn said. “I’m focused on what needs to be done to make sure the Pubic Garden and Common remain beautiful and accessible. It must also be safe and clean.”

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MassCann meets with city departments every year to talk about the event beforehand and the issues raised this week are brought up every year, Kinsella said. Neither Zakim nor Flynn contacted the group at that time, she said.

Rally organizers also denounced the large amount of trash left behind after this year’s event (“If you left your place a mess last night, you are an animal,” one Facebook post reads). But representatives told Boston.com they didn’t see people camping in the park and dismissed the idea that the used needles found were left behind by attendees.

“We’re going to have a conversation about things that might not have been communicated so clearly to ensure things like parking on the Common do not happen,” Kinsella said following the council meeting, adding that the volunteer group is looking into bolstering clean-up efforts for next year’s rally.

“I don’t know who was camping on the Common,” she continued. “MassCann has permits so that we can be on the Common with a couple of vehicles and camp because we have to watch everybody’s stuff, but we were totally unaware … of it turning into a campsite.”

Harvard resident Lucas Thayer was among about a dozen rally supporters who sat in on the council meeting, and munched on an apple — one from a box of many that he handed out, including to Zakim and Flynn.

Thayer, who owns Apple Guy Flowers, has attended the Boston event for several years. He gave out apples at the council meeting as a peaceful act of civil disobedience — much like how the freedom rally began, he said.

“(The rally is) a tradition in the city of Boston … and we don’t let go of traditions very easily,” Thayer said.

For Zakim, there isn’t any issue about what the rally’s message is — he said his concerns surround the impact the event has on the nearby neighborhoods.

The public hearing would be a way for officials to speak with law enforcement, the Parks and Recreation Department, and advocates “to all sides of this issue across the community to find a solution here to maintain what is clearly a popular event for many people while also respecting the rules and regulations of our park,” he said.

The council’s Committee on Environment, Sustainability, and Parks will schedule the hearing.

“I think it’s appropriate to look into what’s taken place at the most recent event and come up with a plan that works for everybody,” Flynn said.