Two cities fail to snuff out pot rallies

Wednesday, September 9, 1998

Try as they might, city officials in Boston and Gainesville, Fla., couldn’t extinguish upcoming rallies extolling what organizers call the virtues of marijuana.

On Oct. 3, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition plans to hold its 8th Annual Freedom Rally on Boston Common. Meanwhile, the Cannabis Action Network in Florida will hold HempFest ’98 in Gainesville’s Community Plaza on Nov. 14 and 15.

In Boston, city Parks Department Chief of Staff Don King had originally denied a permit for use of the Common because participants in previous rallies had been arrested for smoking. Last year, about 100,000 people attended the event. Police made more than 150 drug arrests.

Last month, city officials drafted a series of regulations for the group to meet in order to get a permit. One stipulation required rally organizers to “refrain from inciting or encouraging attendees to smoke marijuana at the festival.”

Coalition members asked Suffolk Superior Court Judge Carol Ball to set aside the city’s regulations, saying the conditions violate the First Amendment right of assembly. Last week Ball refused, but she didn’t allow all of the conditions the city hoped to impose on the rally.

The city had arranged specific cleanup and setup times, required that at least 20 volunteers be stationed around the rally site to discourage littering, limited the number of food vendors to 20 and set up a $10,000 bond for damages.

Ball lowered the damage bond to $2,100, saying that equaled the cleanup costs of last year’s event. She agreed with the setup and cleanup schedule but wouldn’t allow the vendor limit.

In Gainesville, city officials recently asked organizers of HempFest ’98 to reschedule their event because it falls on the University of Florida’s homecoming weekend. Officials said they would have to recruit police officers from neighboring cities to handle security.

But organizers said they couldn’t change the date because the city’s Community Plaza was already booked for the only other possible date — Halloween weekend.

The city tried to end the event three years ago by denying the group a permit. Officials said the rally posed a threat to the public, noting that it used to feature a “doobie toss” in which festival organizers tossed marijuana cigarettes into the audience.

But the hemp group sued the city and won. U.S. District Judge William Stafford ruled that the First Amendment prohibited Gainesville officials from withholding the parade permit.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.