A Look at Boston Beyond BC: The 21st Annual Boston Freedom Rally
Published: Sunday, September 19, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
A crowd of more than 50,000 people gathered at Boston Common Saturday for the 21st Annual Boston Freedom Rally. Held on the third Saturday of every September, the event seeks to "demand marijuana reform in the United States," according to the Boston Freedom Rally's official Web site. The event was organized by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), and the Massachusetts state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
The main objective of the event is "simultaneously raising money and exposing preexisting support for marijuana law reform," says Scott Matalon, owner of Stingray Body Art, one of the rally's major corporate sponsors and MassCann event coordinator. Matalon points to the successful passage of the Question 2 Proposition, the ballot initiative that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, as evidence of popular support for the legalization of marijuana.The ballot was passed in Massachusetts in Novembe 2008 with nearly two-thirds majority support. "The biggest challenge we face now is convincing politicians that their own constituents want it," Matalon says.
Although hosted by MassCann and Massachusetts NORML, a number of other organizations in favor of marijuana law reform were present at the event, including the New Jersey and Philadelphia chapters of NORML. "This is the greatest year for marijuana yet," says Chris Goldstein, media coordinator of Philly NORML, referring to the recent passage of an initiative to ease the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana in Philadelphia, and the upcoming vote in November on California's Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act, also known as Proposition 19. If passed, the proposition will legalize the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Goldstein explains that the vote in California was significant, as legalization of marijuana in one state could lead the way for other states to adopt similar measures. "Although we don't have a ballot initiative in Pennsylvania, the people of Massachusetts do. A Proposition 19 could happen here," Goldstein says.
The rally was an opportunity for the political organizations present to raise awareness for their causes. "A lot of the interest [about our organization] is not as much as opposition as it is plain curiosity. Filling the information gap is what we do every day," Goldstein says.
"We're here to explain that legalizing drugs is about decreasing crime and addiction. We're not advocating drug use," says Kristen Daley, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). LEAP is composed of law enforcement agents seeking to end the prohibition of all drugs.
The Suffolk University chapter of NORML was also present, making Suffolk University the only college or university formally present at the rally. "Our mission here is to make students aware of marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol," says Chris Cousins, a member of SUNORML. While SUNORML does receive funding from the university, Cousins admits that the organization is not tremendously popular with administrators. "We would like to see other schools get involved," Cousins says. "However, a lot of students stay away because they are afraid."
Rick Cusick, associate publisher of High Times Magazine, explains that it is important for young people to get involved in the reform movement. "Six hundred thousand people are arrested every year for simple possession of marijuana," he says. "Of those, 400,000 are under the age of 25 years-old. Young people are the chief stakeholders and victims here. They are the people that we seek to organize, because they have the most to lose."
Vendors without any affiliation to marijuana were also present. "We don't necessarily support the legalization of marijuana," explains Everett Phillips, co-proprietor of We Make Cupcakes, a Boston-based bakery. "It's a business opportunity. We still would've been here if it was a big dog parade." Radio 92.9, which co-sponsored the event, also had a tent at the rally. The station used the event as a means of self-promotion, and had no official statements regarding the cause.
The Boston Common park rangers, as well as the Boston Police Department (BPD) were present, as they would be for any gathering in the Common. Uniformed officers as well as several undercover officers were stationed throughout, often in the middle of large crowds. Naturally, this created a slight tension between law enforcement and the rally's attendees, many of whom were actively smoking marijuana. Consuming narcotics in the Common is a felony despite decriminalization, and arrests and citations have been made at past rallies. Freedom Rally supporters were concerned, with one attendee claiming an undercover officer asked if he had any marijuana for sale, with the intent of arresting him for dealing. Another supporter stated that between 50 and 60 such incidents occur each year. One of the bands addressed the elephant in the room, and pleaded for the crowd not to antagonize officers. The request garnered little response, a sign of the collective uneasiness.
Officers on site were instructed not to comment, and all inquiries were directed toward the BPD's media relations department. Despite the controversial nature of the rally, Officer Eddy Chrispin asserts, "We approach the event as we would any large gathering." Officers are aware their presence at the event is not entirely appreciated, but maintain, "We don't make the law, but we enforce it." Addressing the fact that a large number of attendees would be actively smoking marijuana at the event, Chrispin says, "We clearly are not in a position to arrest a lot of people." Officers were advised to use their discretion in apprehending offenders. In the past, police have received complaints from businesses and citizens in the area. In regard to speculations of officers having an arrest quota to fulfill, Chrispin said, "That's absolutely absurd. If we did have a quota, we could fill it in five minutes."