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Back Bay resident says diatribe against marijuana dispensary was an attempt at satire

Tuesday’s Zoning Board of Appeals hearing for a medical marijuana dispensary on Newbury Street in the Back Bay started innocuously enough.
Tuesday’s Zoning Board of Appeals hearing for a medical marijuana dispensary on Newbury Street in the Back Bay started innocuously enough.

Depending on whom you ask, it was either a brilliantly subversive, Andy Kaufman-style parody of medical marijuana opponents or the most offensive 50 seconds of testimony uttered inside Boston City Hall in recent memory.

Either way, Ollie Curme got people talking. And that, he says now, was the point.

The Back Bay resident and millionaire venture capitalist sparked a national firestorm on Tuesday when he mocked veterans and cancer patients in comments before the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal, which held a public hearing that night on whether to approve a medical marijuana dispensary proposed for Newbury Street.

By the time Curme got around to telling the television reporters outside his mansion Wednesday evening that he wasn’t being serious, but ridiculing his neighbors who opposed the dispensary, an online video of his comments had been seen by tens of thousands.


Some guessed that the over-the-top diatribe was an attempt at satire — and it was, as a letter Curme sent to a neighborhood group in August supporting the facility shows. But most took his words at face value, and they were outraged.

“It will bring undesirable elements into the neighborhood,” Curme said of the dispensary after stepping to the podium Tuesday. He identified the “elements” as veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, who he said should “get over it”; wheelchair users with multiple sclerosis “or whatever”; and breast cancer patients, who he said had a “cadaverous look” and wore “ridiculous turbans.”

“It’s a high-end shopping district,” Curme concluded, as audience members looked at one another in disbelief. “We don’t want people like that scaring off the clientele.”

In an interview with the Globe Thursday, however, Curme extolled the virtues of medical marijuana, saying his father used it as an appetite stimulant while receiving chemotherapy treatments for the cancer that would take his life.


He insisted his remarks were aimed at neighbors who believe the dispensary will expose children to marijuana; Curme countered the dispensary would have minimal signage and that kids would see only patients, not the drug.

“It was not at all compassionate,” Curme said of the opponents’ arguments. “I decided that satire might be a good way to . . . make them realize [that] when you’re voting against medical marijuana in your neighborhood, you’re voting against children with epilepsy, people with Parkinson’s and cancer — you’re taking the same ugly point of view I represented at the [zoning] meeting.”

Curme said the end of the speech he had prepared would have made it obvious he was being satirical, but zoning officials cut him off.

The resulting ambiguity fueled the viral sharing of the rant online, as viewers debated its sincerity. Even Keith Olbermann weighed in, insisting to his 1.1 million followers that Curme was “NOT a plant.”

Curme said he has received death threats.

“I really didn’t know I was being recorded,” Curme said of the exposure and backlash. “It took me a little aback.”

Still, he largely stands by the stunt. While Curme apologized to anyone who took offense, he said the incident drew attention to federal cannabis prohibition.

“Federal policy targets veterans and people with intractable diseases is a very vicious way,” he said. “I’m hoping people will start to . . . wonder, ‘Why is the federal government acting like Ollie Curme acted at that meeting?’ ”


His wife, Cynthia Curme, also apologized, and spent time on Twitter Wednesday telling critics that her husband’s words were meant to be sardonic.

That did little to stem the outrage, though, even among those who might otherwise agree with Curme’s views.

“It was delivered in such a way that nobody in the room believed it was a joke,” said Will Luzier, who led the successful recreational marijuana ballot campaign and attended the hearing. “I don’t know if it has any redeeming value.”

Larry DiCara, a former city councilor and attorney who represents several residents fighting the dispensary, complained that Curme “purposefully disrupted the meeting to distort [our] message.” A lawyer for the dispensary said the remarks were “equally unwelcome” even it was satirical.

Stephen Mandile, a veteran who was injured in Iraq in 2005 and uses cannabis to manage his pain, said Curme’s stunt “missed the mark.”

The zoning board ultimately approved the dispensary proposal for 331 Newbury St.

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Steve Annear and Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.