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This one was a long time coming.
On Wednesday night, the board of venerable advocacy group MassCann — perhaps you’ve attended one of their famous annual Freedom Rallies on the Boston Common — held an emergency meeting.
The subject? What to do with the board’s chair, Samson Racioppi, who is facing widespread backlash from the cannabis community and beyond for his role outside the group as a right-wing agitator. So much backlash, in fact, that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) recently told MassCann it risked losing its charter as NORML’s official Massachusetts affiliate, a status it has held for decades.
I find the suddenness of all this a bit strange. I mean, it’s not like Racioppi has been shy about his beliefs.
Last year, for a front-page story in the Boston Globe, he posed with a “straight pride” flag in front of City Hall and explained that straight people “have been disregarded, and that’s a form of attack.”
“People need to be reassured that even though there’s all this mixed messaging, it’s still perfectly natural to identify as a heterosexual,” he told me and colleague Naomi Martin.
The ensuing “straight pride parade” thrown by Racioppi’s group “Super Happy Fun America,” which included a pro-Trump float and speeches from far-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, became a matter of some national infamy.
Ditto for other events he helped plan, including 2017′s “Free Speech Rally,” whose program originally included a Holocaust denier, and a protest in May against coronavirus lockdowns at which attendees did not wear masks. And for rallies in June supporting the police. Many of the events attracted attendees with overtly racist signs, flags, or clothing, and some included invited speakers with overtly racist views.
Racioppi says the literal Nazis who have shown up to his gigs are not welcome, and that he asked Boston police officers to remove one such contingent from his recent pro-police rally.
Then again, Super Happy Fun America’s leadership overlaps heavily with the far-right group Resist Marxism, and its founder also co-founded the hate group “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights.”
According to Racioppi, his rallies are a form of tongue-in-cheek, libertarian-leaning trolling -- a way to poke fun at the supposed sensitivity of those dreaded, overly-politically-correct libs. But critics, stepping back and looking at the group’s activities, say it’s all just the latest rebranding of bigotry and racism.
Now, if you’re thinking, “uh, this guy seems like an odd choice to lead a group dedicated to fighting the injustice of marijuana prohibition as enforced by the police,” you’re not alone: Last summer, the press around the “straight pride” parade and the ensuing pressure from MassCann members and Freedom Rally vendors prompted Racioppi to resign.
But within months, after the September rally had come and gone, he was back, voted in again by the remnants of MassCann’s dwindling membership. By then, scores of more progressive members had already walked away in disgust.
And well before last year, MassCann had left in its wake a long trail of respected and disgruntled ex-members who insist the organization is mismanaged and locked in a tailspin of internal politicking and soul-searching following the 2016 legalization of cannabis in Massachusetts. (MassCann has engaged little with the state’s Cannabis Control Commission on post-legalization regulation, with most of its efforts focused on the annual rally. And even earlier, it was other advocacy groups that spearheaded the successful ballot measures that decriminalized marijuana in 2008, established a regulated medical marijuana market in 2012, and legalized the drug in 2016.)
Yet somehow, amid all the drama, press, and finger-pointing Facebook posts by Racioppi’s critics and apologists, the folks at NORML’s national operation remained completely unaware.
A source at NORML tells me MassCann “never engaged” with NORML’s national efforts, which include lobby days, calls, trainings, and so on, and said leaders were stunned to learn of Racioppi’s past in recent days.
“We should have revoked their use of the [NORML] name a long while ago,” the NORML official said, after reading last year’s Globe article on Racioppi’s role as an organizer of the “straight pride” parade.
That brings us to this summer, when, amid nationwide protests condemning police racism and brutality, Racioppi’s pro-police rally finally prompted broader scrutiny of his views and activities outside MassCann -- and numerous partners to cut ties with the group. The board was flooded with letters from furious advocates around the country.
“The events he participates in draws in a crowd that is antithetical to what MassCann is about and what the people around MassCann believe,” MassCann board member David Rabinowitz said during Wednesday’s board meeting, which he led. “We can’t keep going through this. ...It’s tarnishing the reputation of MassCann, and my opinion is, it’s just too far.”
Other board members agreed, eventually voting 7-0 in favor of what was essentially a motion of no-confidence in Racioppi, who then resigned, saying there was “no point” in continuing without the board’s support.
“I didn’t set out to destroy MassCann and to hurt this organization,” he said. Referring to the “free speech” event in 2017, he added, “I set out to create a space where people can share their diverse opinions.”
Racioppi slammed the cannabis community for forcing his departure over what he called his “slightly” right-leaning views, saying some activists even tried to get him expelled from law school.
These days, he said, “if you don’t believe the same thing that everybody else believes, your voice is to be shut down and shunned, and you’re going to be ostracized and de-platformed. ...The cannabis community should be ashamed for what they’re doing to people who are Libertarian and Republican.”
The board also made plans for a membership-wide vote on expelling MassCann President Bill Flynn, a right-leaning defender of Racioppi who espouses discredited conspiracy theories and faced allegations of misconduct.
None of it mattered to NORML, though. Moments after the MassCann board meeting ended, NORML published a statement saying it had decided to revoke the group’s charter over its willingness to “give shelter to bigotry:”
”This evening our former Massachusetts affiliate voted to remove a member from their board of directors. This member and other individuals were engaged in other groups and organizations that espoused beliefs that run contrary to the very core of what NORML stands for. There is no place in the organization for bigotry of all kinds, from racism to sexism to homophobia to transphobia and any form of discrimination and hatred. Their charter will be formally revoked, as we did not see tangible steps to address these flaws in their organization nor movement in the right direction to address these issues within their ranks. We will accept a new charter for a group in Massachusetts, one that represents NORML’s firmly held values and stands up to the type of bigotry we’ve seen given shelter. If you are interested in helping form that group please reach out to email@example.com.
“NORML is focused on not just ending cannabis prohibition, a policy that was founded on racist ideology and that serves as a tool to perpetuate systemic racism, but on ensuring that the developing legal cannabis industry is diverse and inclusive. We must be united in that fight and united against bigotry. It is largely antithetical to fight for justice while perpetuating injustice through hatred be it against our Black and brown allies, our LGBTQ+ allies, or anyone. There is a zero tolerance policy towards this bigotry within NORML and we will continue to improve organizational structures to ensure that is and remains the case.”
It remains unclear whether NORML would accept a reconstituted version of MassCann with new leadership as an affiliate, or if a truly new group will have to step up. (Local advocate and industry veteran Kate Phillips is already rounding up a coalition to replace MassCann.)
Regardless, between the likely cancellation of its annual Freedom Rally because of the coronavirus and the loss of its NORML affiliation, this is easily the lowest moment in the 30-year history of MassCann. Some are even questioning whether there’s any point in reconstituting the increasingly aimless group of mostly older, white advocates. Personally, I have a feeling it will stagger on a while in some form, thanks to the considerable fame and momentum around the Freedom Rally, but what do you think? I know you’re all riled up about this, so let me hear it: firstname.lastname@example.org.