Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Cannabis advocates rally for rights

The Boston Globe

Group Seeks Lighter Penalties

Under hovering storm clouds, thousands gathered on the Boston Common yesterday to sway to gritty rock music, shop for T-shirts with slogans like ''Thank You for Pot Smoking," and rally against marijuana prohibition.

Police motorcycles were parked seven deep at the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition's 16th Annual Freedom Rally, and uniformed and undercover police trolled the crowd for marijuana smokers. Puffs of smoke hovering over the crowd came mostly from cigarettes, but police made 44 arrests, mostly for drug possession, although there were some distribution charges.

''There is no day off from the law today," said Deputy Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald.

Turnout was smaller than in years past, when the event sometimes drew crowds of 30,000 or 40,000, according to police. Last year, Hurricane Ivan forced the event's cancellation, and this year, Hurricane Ophelia nearly did. But the weather held, and several thousand people were milling about by 2 p.m. yesterday, according to Keith Saunders, president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, or Mass Cann.

The theme of this year's rally was ''Secure the Blessings of Liberty," which Saunders described as a call to political action. His group is backing a bill that is before the state Senate and would impose a civil fine of $100 for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, rather than a criminal penalty. The Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse heard testimony on the bill in June but has not taken action on it, Saunders said. Though a recent federal study found that the Boston area is the nation's capital of marijuana use, only a handful of people showed up to testify in favor of the bill, according to Mass Cann.

Saunders said that despite his support for decriminalization, he would not encourage anyone to light up on the Common during the protest.

''This is probably the worst place in the city of Boston to be smoking marijuana," he said.

Some were unfazed, though. Wayne Burke, a 53-year-old retired painter, placidly shared a joint on the lawn with two younger friends, Matt Duszak, 19, and Kevin Woods, 20. The three drove to Boston together from Worcester to attend the rally.

''When we're done smoking this bone, we're not going to go rob somebody," Burke said with a shrug. ''We're going to go home and eat a sandwich and watch TV."

A pair of antidrug protesters wended their way through the legions of youth in hooded sweatshirts and faux-cannabis leis yesterday.

Lea Palleria Cox of the Hanover-based Concerned Citizens for Drug Prevention Inc. and Bill Breault of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety in Worcester, who have attended the rally for about a decade, said they were appalled to find vendors selling ceramic pipes this year. They said they were also dismayed to again see so many young people in the crowd.

''Parents have no clue," he said. ''When their kid says 'I'm going to a concert on the Common,' they have no idea what goes on here."

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