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Take a Toke of Liberty

Arts & Culture | October 8, 2012

Clouds of smoke drift above the hills of Boston Common, announcing the annual arrival of the Boston Freedom Rally—more bluntly known as Hempfest. As rays of sunlight beam through the lingering smoke, I find myself next to a group of four zombies. They drool on themselves, swaying slowly, their faces pressed to the grass and their eyes closed, detached from reality—definitely the consequence of drugs stronger than marijuana. On the distant stage, a faceless MC passionately reminds us: “Utilize your high.”

I light up a joint, throw on my sepia-tinted Wayfarers, and embrace the orgastic future before me in this complete cultural immersion. Behind me, some teenager rants anxiously about how he’s “de-particalizing.” His friends try to calm him down. Sure—some people here might be on more psychedelic substances than others, but that doesn’t negate what we all came for: to support the legalization of marijuana. Or, maybe we all just want to get high.

Today, Hempfest’s good people—or bad, depending on your moral posture—all push and bend the law. The police, typically the stoner’s greatest enemy, don’t lay a finger on us, as there are simply too many people for them to make arrests and issue fines. They realize that their resources are better spent limiting Hempfest to the Common. Two officers ride horses at the edge of the grounds, containing the festivities. The boys in blue contract their neck muscles, fighting the temptation to turn and witness the unlawful sight before them. I wander near one of Boston’s finest and watch his eyes closely. He passes me as if I’m invisible. Ironically, on this day, the sober people are the ones most detached from the reality occurring on the Common.

The police continue to guard the edges. If weed were dangerously obliterating our sense of reality, they might intervene. They must know it’s safe. So, if they’re willing to accept the harmless mischief today, why not tomorrow? Why fine and detain the taxed college student smoking a bowl at the end of the night to blow off some steam? I figure the protesters might have some answers.

I turn back towards the stage as an activist shouts, “Because of you, weed’s going to be legalized. Because of you, no one’s getting arrested today.” She’s referring to the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative, more simply known as Question 3. The initiative will appear on the ballot on November 6 of this year; marijuana was already decriminalized in Massachusetts in 2008. If this initiative is passed, medical marijuana will be legalized in the state. This initiative might lead to similar consequences to the ones we see happening in California. There, most pot smokers find it hysterically effortless to obtain a medical marijuana card. (“Doc, I have lower back pain and nothing seems to relieve it.”) Whether or not it becomes this easy to get a smoker’s license, today’s protesters make one thing clear: passing Question 3 would only bring us closer to the overarching goal of recreational marijuana tolerance.

illustration by Misako OnoAs shallow as it seems, I can’t help but feel a bizarre sense of communal freedom. Sure, most of us might be at Hempfest to get high; but realistically, how many countries would allow this? Marijuana might not yet be recreationally legalized—we’re not quite as progressive as the Dutch—but doesn’t Boston have a suitable enough lenience to it already? Even if one day toking together may seem to be trivial freedom, it is still a freedom nonetheless.

I can’t help but feel that today’s events are an incredible representation of our American freedom. It’s not perfect; but comparatively speaking, it’s incredible. This is a cultural moment where we can express our visions of what the law should allow. While smoking weed may still be illegal—even more so in other states—we still have this capacity to influence.

At nineteen minutes past the hour, the crowd begins a 4:20 countdown like it’s New Year’s Eve. On my left, a suspect man in a heavy coat pulls out a cross-blunt. To my right, another character with a pointed goatee strolls by in a black velvet suit and red top hat, carrying a walking stick. Psychedelic tapestries blow in the wind. Two teenagers devour fried dough over-sprinkled with powdered sugar. The countdown reaches zero and a huge cloud of smoke escapes into the air as the motley crowd sparks up their 4:20 joints.

I continue to coast through the crowd and consider the culture that I’m plunging into. Is this whole affair just an empty pursuit of jubilance? Is pot the alluring flower that sinks us into a state of artificial bliss and perpetual laziness? Perhaps it does for many of these attendees, but the opposite effect is equally possible. What if marijuana sparks new paradigms, enhances creativity, and promotes communal celebration?

Maybe these questions are not as momentous as the burning symbol of American freedom that glows in Boston today. I imagine that a couple miles away, some anxious mothers smell the fragrance and misconstrue it as joint fatuousness. However, this gathering is nothing but a reminder of our American virtues. As unlikely as it is, how would a military state or dictatorship respond to a festival of this nature? With malicious subjugation, no doubt. Yet, we’re not being beaten and we’re certainly not being killed. For those of you who label this as communal dissoluteness, I propose that you at least accept this gathering as an exhibit of our fortunate freedoms. We might be unlawful, but at least we’re free.