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A year after lawsuit, marijuana rally on Boston Common set to get permits

Attendees of the annual marijuana “Freedom Rally” on Boston Common laughed during last year’s event.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2016
Attendees of the annual marijuana “Freedom Rally” on Boston Common laughed during last year’s event.

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The administration of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is expected to green-light the 28th annual marijuana “Freedom Rally” on Boston Common in September, a year after organizers of the smoky, weekend-long bash had to sue the city to get a permit.

This year’s incarnation of the long-running celebration of cannabis culture, which draws thousands of marijuana enthusiasts, is scheduled to begin Sept. 15. It will be the first to take place since voters legalized recreational use of the drug last November.

The 2016 rally was almost canceled when Walsh officials at the last moment withheld a permit originally issued in January to the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, also known as MassCann, citing the group’s plans to bring in outside vendors instead of using those licensed by the city.

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The marijuana advocacy group sued Boston, arguing the city’s objection was a form of politically motivated censorship; Walsh was an outspoken opponent of the legalization measure. A Superior Court judge sided with MassCann and issued an emergency order allowing the rally to go forward, a ruling that echoed several earlier court victories by MassCann against the previous mayor, Thomas M. Menino.

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This year, however, the permitting process appears to be proceeding smoothly. A spokeswoman for Walsh said both sides “have better communicated expectations and conditions,” and that MassCann has compromised on the location of vendor carts and agreed to improve its cleanup efforts.

Event organizers point out it would have been awkward for the Walsh administration to withhold a permit from MassCann after approving the controversial “free speech” rally earlier this month that had advertised several speakers with extremist ties and that made national headlines.

Bill Downing, a longtime marijuana activist and one of the rally’s leaders, said he was hopeful this year’s Freedom Rally would take place without interference by city officials.

“All we want them to do is leave us alone,” Downing said. “The less we have to deal with them, the better, and, so far this year, they’ve been pretty much staying out of our way.”

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Downing noted that 33 people were arrested during this month’s “free speech” rally and the massive counterprotest, some for assaulting police officers. In contrast, he said, the only arrests at MassCann’s Freedom Rallies have been for marijuana possession and other nonviolent offenses. Possession of modest amounts of the drug is now legal in Massachusetts; public consumption is still banned and can be punished with a fine.

Downing said that even though relations between MassCann and the Walsh administration have improved, last year’s legal fight and the earlier court battles with Menino have left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“It was just devastatingly immoral,” Downing said of the city’s efforts to stop the event. “Boston Common is the very first place in the known universe that freedom of speech and assembly were guaranteed by law. In many Americans’ eyes, Boston Common is sacred ground, and these people in City Hall, they are stewards of that invaluable heritage. And rather than being responsible stewards by maintaining the freedoms this place symbolizes, they did just the opposite by restricting the freedom of assembly for petty politics.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.