‘Freedom Rally’ Attendees Face New Smoking Ban Fines at This Year’s Festival

For the first time in the rally's 25-year history, police will be out issuing warnings and citations for a violation of the new no-smoking law in public parks

Organizers of the Freedom Rally, a marijuana-centric gathering on the Boston Common, are gearing up to celebrate their 25th consecutive year of bringing together thousands of people to advocate for the legalization of the leafy drug.

But for the first time in the history of the annual festival, where event attendees are known to smoke pot, listen to bands, and hear speakers share their knowledge about marijuana policy, police will be out in full force to crack down on scofflaws lighting up in the public park based on a new city ordinance.

Back in December, before the start of the New Year, public health officials and the Parks and Recreation Commission announced the passage of a ban on smoking in all public parks in Boston, including the Common.

“This is the first time we’ve had this ordinance. We are in the process now in seeing how this will play out at this event,” said Ryan Woods, a spokesman for the Parks and Recreation Department.

A violation of the new rule, which is already being enforced by police and park rangers that roam the grassy knolls near Beacon Hill, is punishable by a fine of  $250.

According to Boston Police Sergeant Mike McCarthy, the law will be similarly enforced on the day of the rally. “That day won’t be any different. There will already be officers assigned down there and they will take steps to enforce the city ordinance if need be,” he said.

People will likely get a warning first, and be made aware of the new city law, he said, but officers can still write up citations at their discretion. “You have to be warned first, but if there is a willful violation, that’s a variation of the law and a citation can be issued,” he said.

The law includes the use of devices like “vaporizers.” To date, no one has been fined under the new law, as city officials continue to hand out informational materials to get people up to speed with the latest legislation, although, protesters have held several events to speak out against the ban. 

The “Freedom Rally,” also known to some as “Hemp Fest,” is put on by volunteers and organizers from MassCann, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a non-profit group that educates residents about the benefits of pot.

The group made an announcement that this year’s event will be held on the weekend of September 13, and called for volunteers and vendors looking to occupy space at the rally.

Although pot proponents will have to keep the new no-smoking policy in mind as plans get underway for the two-day celebration, MassCann/NORML Treasurer and Chairman Bill Downing said he’s not worried about the ordinance, since smoking marijuana in public can already carry a $100 fine, and the people who attend the rally are always compliant.

“They ask whoever is smoking in the park to extinguish their smoking materials, and so far everyone has done that,” he said. “Unless someone is looking for trouble they will have the opportunity to extinguish their smoking materials, and if they don’t—they are looking for trouble.”

He said his group has been in talks with the Parks Department, who has made them aware of the rule.

“They’ve told us they are going to enforce it,” he said. “We had a good discussion about it, and unless someone is looking to challenge the rule, they are offered the opportunity to stop smoking. Worst comes to worst they get a citation. It’s not like the old days when people were being hauled off in [police] wagons. If we can handle that, I think we can handle this.”

This year’s rally is particularly significant since advocates are pushing to get a ballot initiative in front of voters’ eyes in 2016 to hopefully legalize marijuana. The event will be an opportunity to educate the public about current medical marijuana laws, as well as pending plans to end prohibition of the plant.

“Of course 25 years ago we would have hoped it was legalized long before now, but it’s a great accomplishment to survive this long,” said Downing.

Last year, organizers faced hurdles when trying to put on the event for two days in a row. The city nearly put a stop to the second day of the celebration by not issuing the group the proper permits, but in the end, after matters went to court, MassCann claimed a victory.