Mayor Martin J. Walsh and some members of the Boston City Council are unhappy with leaders of the marijuana-themed “Freedom Rally” held on Boston Common earlier this month, with Walsh saying the three-day event left an “appalling” mess.
The annual rally, formerly known as Hempfest and organized since 1989 by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, an advocacy group, took place Sept. 14-16.
Featuring a wide array of vendors and educational displays about marijuana, it drew thousands of activists and marijuana enthusiasts.
The Friends of the Public Garden and other neighborhood groups, however, complained that the most recent Freedom Rally left behind piles of trash and hypodermic needles and that participants damaged the grass with vehicles, smoked marijuana in public, and even camped out in the park.
Walsh, in a statement first posted last week on the city’s 311 complaints website, in response to a user who had submitted pictures of litter, called the situation “unacceptable.”
“As a city, we take tremendous pride in our public spaces, and the conditions we saw in the aftermath of this weekend’s Boston Freedom Rally . . . are both appalling and unacceptable,” Walsh said in the statement. “The Boston Common is a beloved place in our city, as it is America’s first park, and we expect that all event organizers and vendors respect this public space, because it belongs to all of us.”
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, members Josh Zakim and Ed Flynn — whose districts include the park and nearby areas — called for a hearing, and suggested the event may need to be relocated next year.
“This is truly not about being for or against the use of marijuana, recreational or medicinal,” Zakim said at the council’s regular public meeting, noting that he has supported liberalizing cannabis laws. “This is about proper use of Boston Common.”
Zakim said the city should respect the First Amendment rights of Freedom Rally participants, but insisted something needs to change. He noted that smoking cannabis is banned in public spaces, punishable by a fine.
Flynn said his office received numerous complaints after the event.
“I’ve received calls from many constituents expressing concern,” Flynn said at the meeting.
“I think it is appropriate to look into what’s taken place at the most recent event and come up with a plan that works for everybody.”
Representatives of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition acknowledged that several vendors had failed to clean up, as required, and said they were prepared to meet with neighbors and offer concessions, including having beefed-up cleaning crews, tougher sanctions against vendors that leave trash, fencing to segregate the event from the rest of the Common, and a reduction in the length of the event to one or two days.
However, they said, moving is a nonstarter.
“It belongs on the Boston Common — we’re adamant about that,” said Maggie Kinsella, a coalition board member.
“It’s the symbolic home of freedom and free speech. And it’s a matter of principle — we have a right to be there. We get our permits and go through the same process everybody else does.”
Kinsella also said that city workers, including police and Parks Department officials, routinely praise the event for being peaceful.
And she said the Freedom Rally is necessary even after the legalization of cannabis, as activists continue to educate the public about the drug and push for equity and inclusion in the regulated pot industry.
“We’re not just getting high, and it’s not just a celebration of where we ended up” with legalization, Kinsella said.
“It’s a place for people to commune, to interact with the culture and learn the facts.”
The coalition over the years has defeated numerous attempts by city officials to block the event by withholding required permits — most recently in 2016, when it sued Walsh’s administration.
Walsh has long been an outspoken opponent of cannabis; he led the unsuccessful campaign to defeat the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized the drug and created a system of regulated marijuana sales.
His administration has drawn criticism in recent months for failing to issue permits to recreational pot operators.
Bill Downing, a longtime activist who has been involved in the rally since the early 1990s, said that Boston Common was in “pristine” condition by Monday morning and argued that dog urine causes more damage to the park’s grass than the rally.
Noting that the neighborhoods near the Common include some of the city’s most expensive housing, he also lampooned critics of the event as fusty elites waging a class “culture war” against marijuana.
“Is Boston Common the backyard for Boston Brahmins?” Downing asked rhetorically. “No. Boston Common is the very first place where freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were guaranteed by law for all — not just wealthy people.”
Neighbors who object, Downing added, “could visit their mansion on the Cape or, perhaps, their suites in Paris or London that weekend, instead.”