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Event Review: The Smell of Freedom

By Joel Rosenberg
Arts Editor

It's strange that at the peaceful press conference held last week by the Boston Police to announce their game plan for the traditionally peaceful Freedom Rally for marijuana legalization on Boston Common, there were cops in riot gear. While I was able to find out that 150 arrests was as many as would be, in their words, "logistically possible," and even asked why Sergeant Detectives were telling the Boston Herald that the police were prepared for "any eventuality" in response to questions about crowd control, I failed to inquire why there were two officers, in outfits practically asking for trouble, standing at attention in front of me and the rest of the press. Monuments of intimidation, the answer was obvious. But obvious answers make for the best questions.

Such fear propaganda bothers me, and the media plays right into it. Think what you will about marijuana, but there's something wrong when the Superintendent-in-Chief of Police for a major metropolitan city gets on television and warns the "kids" that if they're caught engaged in "civil disobedience" at a political protest, they will be "arrested, handcuffed, booked, fingerprinted, and photographed," and that their criminal record will follow them for the rest of their lives. It obviously worked as a deterrent, since the crowd was significantly smaller than previous years, with palpable nervousness, rather than the usual haze of smoke, hanging over the gathering. "Hold your breath everybody," I heard the driver of a Duck Tour warn his amphibious passengers as they rode past the ninth annual rally. But this year the stink came not from burning weed, but from the way the event was handled by the police and the city.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino had tried to get the event limited to 10,000 people last year, but that request was thrown out, and an order of magnitude more people showed up than Tom wanted. This year the city tried to ban the even altogether by denying a permit to Mass Cann, the Massachusetts branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, on the grounds that their proposal did not "adequately provide for the preservation of public grounds" or address public-safety concerns. Superior Court justice Carol Ball quickly deemed the denial unconstitutional, but did allow the city to require event speakers "not incite violations of the law."

"Politically, it's great for Menino," Mass Cann president Bill Downing told the Boston Phoenix. Downing, incidentally, was detained by police at last Saturday's rally for trailing an undercover officer while wearing a pig nose and snorting.

Not all Bay State politicians are against legalization. At the Freedom Rally I met 1998 ("I don't put the date on any of my campaign materials so I can reuse them") Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Dean Cook, and heard him explain that one of his three platform items ("The press'll only give you time for three issues") is that he'll pardon anyone arrested for marijuana, so that eventually the Drug Enforcement Administration will just give up its futile efforts. He also wants to eliminate Massachusetts income taxes, and make it so that everyone can own a gun. "They're all just facets of one big issue - the freedom issue," he told me, as any good Libertarian would.

The lead story on the Boston Globe's Metro page Sunday was: "Marijuana rally draws 40,000 for legalization: Police report 60 arrests at otherwise peaceful event." It took two writers to cover. It had 11 lines of quotes from Adam Calihman, a 22-year-old college student visiting from New York. It also had this line: "Many of those who wandered through the nation's oldest park, purchasing incense, T-shirts, and candles, said they could not be interviewed for fear of being ostracized at work, by their clients or pupils, or at home, by their landlords." But there was not a single mention of Cook.

Cook not only attended the rally, but spoke at it, openly identifying himself for all to see and hear. Now the Libertarians are not a trivial party, and are the only party in favor of the legalization of pot, yet the city's major newspaper gave him zero coverage. For reference, the third story on the cover of that section discussed how Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, Democratic candidate for governor, has alienated the business community by siding too closely with labor. What's wrong with this town when a legitimate candidate for governor, up for election in less than a month, is essentially hidden from the public's eye, while a "major" candidate gets an entire article devoted to dueling demographics? No wonder we have all the partisan bickering we do, exemplified by (gotta mention it at least once) the ridiculous impeachment hearings our President is about to endure. The public isn't told they have more than two choices. As Kang and Kodos would say, "A third party? Go ahead! Throw your vote away!"

Another person I spoke with was Elvy Musikka, one of only eight people legally certified to receive medical marijuana from the U.S. government for her glaucoma. "Why has the government only granted eight people the right to smoke pot legally?" I asked. "After the deluge of people with AIDS in the late eighties seeking relief from their symptoms with marijuana," she explained, "the government decided it couldn't afford to give it to all of them and risk infecting the country." Choice words. Elvy also said it costs the government $250,000 to supply the eight of them with pot. "What's wrong with this picture, when God said we could grow our own for free?" The drug war is certainly a resource sink, evidenced by the glut of uniformed officers at the rally, and who knows how many in plain clothes. That same day Boston hosted a parade for the People's Republic of China, and the Red Sox hosted the Indians at Fenway. I wondered who was making sure the city was safe.

Things never did get ugly at the Freedom Rally. The speakers were generally well behaved, as per the city's instructions, and the participants were good out of fear, if not their usual disposition. The grounds were filled with booths aplenty, selling everything from hemp clothing to books on how to legally stop paying income taxes (trying to usurp Cook's platform) to CD-ROMs with video clips of glaucoma sufferers and cultivation techniques. No paraphanalia was being sold, though, since the police had banned it earlier that morning. The city had been unsuccessful limiting free speech, so they worked on capitalism.

By day's end, there were only 62 arrests, well below the logistical max I had been expecting. Since I felt bad about my missed opportunity at police headquarters, I decided to investigate the actual marching orders, so I found a cop who reminded me of those on display a few days earlier. "Were you guys instructed to arrest everyone you see smoking marijuana?" I knew my obvious answer.

"Go away."

Which is exactly what they want.