Post-legalization ‘Hempfest’ sparks confusion among cannabis fans


Ingrid Angulo

2019 Boston Freedom Rally-goers enjoy the annual event shortened to one day.

Ingrid Angulo, news correspondent

Boston Common was filled with smoke and cannabis paraphernalia this past Saturday as pot enthusiasts and entrepreneurs celebrated the 30th annual Boston Freedom Rally, but there was still a lingering sense of uncertainty even after the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana use.

The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, or MassCann, has organized the rally since 1989 and held it on Boston Common since 1996. The event aims to spread information about the benefits of marijuana use through civil disobedience and educational resources.

This year’s Freedom Rally differed from recent years. For the first time, the event included a smaller 21-and-over area and the rally was cut to one day instead of its usual three days. This change is a result of a crackdown from the city regarding vendor violations and excessive litter.

The shortened celebration caused some frustration among returning attendees. Boston resident Siobhan Cantillon, 19, has attended the rally for the past four years and was annoyed about this year’s change.

“I’m very upset about that,” Cantillon said. “Usually Friday, you get up and moving. It’s the start [of] the weekend. But now since it’s just one day, I feel like it’s just too short. Yesterday I could have gone all day, but today I have work so I can’t experience the full [event].”

Though Cantillon felt she could not fully participate, the lawn was still overflowing with recreational users lighting up bongs, blunts and joints. Teenagers and elders sat in a smoky haze, enjoying the freedom that the rally brought to the Common.

Recreational marijuana use has been legal for people 21 and older in Massachusetts since 2018.

Boston Common is still a drug-free park, but police officers are more lenient toward participants during the rally.

Jack Ollen, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student at Northeastern University, enjoyed the newfound sense of liberation, but thought the event lost its original feeling of protest after legalization.

“It’s a little less taboo, a little less risky. It was probably a little more fun last year because one time a year you can do whatever you want, but now it’s kind of normal. You just come here to smoke weed now,” Ollen said.

The post-legalization Freedom Rally was still shrouded in layers of legal uncertainty. MassCann Press Secretary Maggie Kinsella stated the coalition’s permit does not allow the sale of THC products. Vendors that break this rule are subject to penalty, and Kinsella asserted that it is in the vendors’ best interest to avoid further investigation by refraining from sales during the event.

But sales of cannabidiol, or CBD, products were visible around every corner at the Freedom Rally. CBD is considered federally legal because it contains less than 0.3 percent THC, according to the 2018 Hemp Farming Act.

Vendors and customers shared no concern over the legality of CBD, but cannabis seed vendors were more confused over the technicalities of the Hemp Act. Some seeds were sold within the mass crowd of vendors, but others were restricted to the 21-and-over area.

Rick Campanella, owner of Brothers Grimm Seeds, was not fully sure where his business stood in the eyes of the law. Though the seeds do not contain any THC, his worry stemmed from their potential to grow into full cannabis plants.

“In events like this where I can come in, have a booth and take cash and do an over the counter sale, we do that, but is it 100 percent legal? No,” he said.

Kinsella stated there was never a problem with seed sales as MassCann considers them a novelty item. But Campanella still thought it was an unnecessarily complex product, since the laws about growing the plant never addressed seed sales.

“It’s been kind of a gray market,” Campanella said. “You can’t really be open about it because the ways that laws for legalization and growing cannabis in each of the legalized states have been set up is almost as if the people who were doing it really didn’t think it all through.”

Confusion surrounding Massachusetts marijuana laws created a sense of discomfort among some participants as well. Cantillon was excited about the legalization, but she still felt a sense of fear smoking publicly in Boston.

“I’m always scared. I just don’t know what’s going to happen because the laws are very vague,” Cantillon said.

MassCann does not encourage the rally’s attendees to actively act against the law. Kinsella believed the event was more focused on peacefully challenging the stigmas against cannabis.

“We don’t tell people you can come to the Common and smoke weed. No, you can come to the common and practice civil disobedience with us. We’re not trying to break every rule in the book,” Kinsella said.

The prohibition era of cannabis is still lingering in Boston life, Kinsella said, but she hoped MassCann’s emphasis on education could help break down the stigma.

The Freedom Rally introduced a dedicated Education Village this year. The area, which previously contained a stage for performers, was solely dedicated to discussion panels and non-profit booths. 

The speakers touched on issues regarding reparations for oppressed minorities in the industry, challenges for small businesses and the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The non-profit booths were filled with activists ready to share personal success stories and even offered testing kits.

MassCann’s efforts to combat the violations of previous years were largely successful. Kinsella acknowledged that the coalition could have worked harder to crack down on illegal vendors, but said many were ushered out of the park as quickly as possible.

Kinsella was especially proud of the increased number of volunteers and a reorganized concession area intended to dramatically reduce the amount of leftover trash.

“We were told that it was the cleanest year ever by some of the park’s employees and they had mentioned that they sent in a good word to all the higher ups,” she said.

Kinsella hopes that MassCann’s enhanced efforts this year will be recognized by the parks department. The parks department did not provide comment, but advocacy group Friends of the Public Garden said MassCann did a “significantly better job this year.” MassCann has already filed a permit for next year’s rally, and Kinsella is curious to see how the Freedom Rally will change post-legalization.

“We’ll see how things evolve and what that means for events and cannabis,” Kinsella said. “We hope in the future, even with Boston Common being a drug-free park, that there’s an attempt for event licensing for vendors to legally sell cannabis products.”