‘Hempfest’ organizers, critics spar amid search for common ground at heated hearing

"Everything that was brought up, we're willing to work on," MassCann President Bill Flynn said.

Boston city councilors listen to members of MassCann and the Friends of the Public Garden at City Hall Wednesday.
Boston city councilors listen to members of MassCann and the Friends of the Public Garden at City Hall Wednesday. –Christopher Gavin/Boston.com staff

A Boston City Council committee hearing intended to find common ground between Boston Freedom Rally organizers and frustrated residents Wednesday grew contentious as officials gauged the potential for relocating or limiting the schedule of the popular annual marijuana education event.

Representatives of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), the organizer of the rally commonly known as “Hempfest,” and the Friends of the Public Garden, which spearheaded calls for city officials to change it, aired concerns during the nearly four-hour meeting.

According to critics, this year’s rally, held Sept. 14 through 16, brought massive amounts of trash to the historic park, among other violations of MassCann’s permit, as the event has continued to grow in size year over year.

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Organizers highlighted several mechanisms already in motion to address those issues. Some conversation centered on MassCann being receptive to potentially making the rally a two-day, as opposed to three-day, affair.

“We’ve worked with the friends of the parks, and, again, they never provided us information. We go back to our membership, and we’ll work on it,” MassCann President Bill Flynn said. “Everything that was brought up, we’re willing to work on.”

Wednesday’s hearing comes after the Friends of the Public Garden, which works to preserve and maintain the Common, sounded off this summer about the noise and garbage generated by the event, as well as its impact on Boston’s image and residents.

More criticism followed this year’s rally with residents contacting City Councilors Ed Flynn and Josh Zakim about trash left behind, vehicles parked on the Common, hypodermic needles found, and tents pitched by attendees who camped on the grounds at night.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, read aloud comments from residents and tourists, with one calling the event a “disgrace to the city.”

“It has reached the point where the organizers have failed to be able to manage it,” Vizza told councilors.

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Both and Ed Flynn and Zakim have maintained their probe into the rally and how it is organized does not stem from any anti-marijuana stance or opposition to MassCann. Rather, they want to find a way to make sure the group’s free speech is not squandered but that the Common remains clean and accessible, they said.

They pondered the possibility of opening up City Hall Plaza for the rally — a concrete space where greenery would not be impacted by thousands of attendees.

“I look forward to finding a way to make sure that a popular event is able to continue in some form, while making sure whether it’s noise, whether it’s trash, whether illegal activities happening in the area, is not supported and not happening at permitted events,” Zakim said.

Tone shifted throughout the hearing, however, as MassCann representatives stressed a contentious history with city officials. The organization has sued the city six times since the first rally in 1989 and has won every time.

“The Common is not the playground for the people who live around it or your constituents, Mr. Zakim, any more than it is the first place in this country where free speech was allowed,” said John Swomley, an attorney representing MassCann. “This is the cradle of liberty, and, if you want to help the well-heeled folk who managed to buy property around the Common to the detriment of free speech, it is insulting to your father’s name.”

Amid outbursts from hearing attendees, Zakim said: “If you want a fight, you’re going to get one. Sir, shut your mouth.”

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He emphasized that the conversation was about MassCann adhering to park regulations.

“We’re talking about a uniform standard for the use of our parks,” Zakim said. “If you want to come in here and fling insults, we can talk about this outside. Completely unacceptable.”

A letter dated Nov. 5 by Parks and Recreation Department Commissioner Christopher Cook shared by event organizers on Facebook detailed permit violations — from operating hours to marijuana use — including one case where an unnamed event-affiliated person allegedly got into an argument with a park ranger and used a racial slur.

The person was identified in the letter only as someone “who had access to the tour bus you brought onto the Common under your permit.” The alleged incident, which organizers have said did not happen on park grounds and that the person involved would respond to it, was not discussed at the meeting.

Cook, detailing violations to councilors, said it typically takes days for the park to return to its normal state after the rally, and that the parks department often calls on extra staff to carry out the work.

Asked about how the park’s “no smoking” rules are enforced, Boston Police Department Capt. James Hasson said officers focus on public safety and forgo cracking down on the rule because there is “a strong likelihood it would incite the crowd.”

Organizers said they make the park’s rules clear on their website. Some argued the group could not be held responsible for what attendees decide to do.

“Yes, you’re not supposed to smoke on the Common, but that is what civil disobedience is about,” Bill Flynn said.

In September, organizers acknowledged trash issues at this year’s event, but dismissed the allegation that used needles were found among the garbage — points they reiterated Wednesday as they explained how they are looking to quell the growing pains for next year’s rally.

Councilors agreed headway was made toward a potential compromise, though, with some MassCann leaders indicating they could be open to a two-day event instead of three. MassCann Press Secretary Maggie Kinsella said the group is working to create new trash guidelines and other adjustments to address some of the issues.

“As Councilor Zakim talked about, there is some common ground that we could work together on, but we have to be respectful to both sides and the organizers have to be respectful to us as well,” Ed Flynn said. “We have an obligation to our constituents. … I hope everyone understands that.”

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