Toronto Freedom Festival Could Lose its Freedom

  The Toronto Freedom Festival – Canada’s largest cannabis-related event when held every year at the same time as the Global Marijuana March – has been denied an occupancy permit by officials responsible for the city’s parks.

Activists planning the event, who have never had problems receiving a permit in the past, say they expected to receive permission from the city to assemble in the park, erect vendor tents and tables, set up portable bathrooms, amplify music and speeches, and provide other infrastructure required for the one-day festival.

But just a few months before the annual event is to be held on Saturday, May 7, event organizers were informed by the city that a permit would not be issued for its regular location at Queens Park North.

Parks officials claim the Toronto Freedom Festival (TFF) and Global Marijuana March (GMM), which last year brought in a crowd of over 40,000 people, violated some of the terms of its previous permit, leading to their decision to withhold permission this year.

“Several valid complaints were made last year,” Festival organizer Gabe Simms said in a press release, “however we had solutions prepared to address each element of concern.”

In a letter sent to Festival organizers, made available to Cannabis Culture, city officials listed ten “permit violations” with respect to the 2010 event:

1. The permit was issued under the pretext that the event was alcohol free, yet alchocol was being consumed in the park

2. Minors drinking in the park during the event.

3. The use of illegal drugs in the park, which resulted in a youth being seriously injured as he was trying to fly out of a tree.

4. Garbage, broken beer bottles strewn at local residences and the Provincial legislature, during and after the event resulting in numerous complaints.

5. Site garbage not cleaned up after the event. One full day of work by Parks staff to put the park back in order.

6. Concerns from the public and staff that Toronto Police Services do not press charges for illegal drug activities. City is seen as condoning the illegal activities by approving the permit.

7. Public endangerment, health and safety of the public – person falling out of tree with serious injuries – under the influence of either drugs or alcohol or both.

8. Generator was not fenced in.

9. Turf damage.

10. Original intent of the event vs. present day event.

Festival organizers told Cannabis Culture they were aware of the city’s concerns and had been in negotiations with officials to find ways of resolving the problems, and were surprised when they were told a permit would not be issued at all.

“The Toronto Freedom Festival has a plan to deal with all the issues the city is concerned about,” GMM’s lawyer Ron Marzel told Cannabis Culture. “Other Toronto events, like Caribana, deal successfully with similar problems every year and the Festival can too. It doesn’t make sense for the city to do this.”

The Global Marijuana March is an annual event held in cities around the globe to celebrate cannabis culture and promote education and discussion of marijuana issues. The March in Toronto is attended by about 20,000, and the large crowd makes its way through the streets with police blocking traffic. This year will be the 11th annual celebration of the Toronto chapter of the GMM.

The TFF, which started in 2007 as an added cultural component of the March, has grown to include nearly 100 vendors, a large stage with live musical acts, bathroom facilities, and volunteer security, and is a peaceful event with very few reported disturbances. One of the few disturbances, reported widely after last years Festival, was a man who fell out of a tree and was badly injured.

Toronto Parks Director Richard Ubbens told Cannabis Culture that he is concerned about the use of illegal drugs during the Festival, though he admitted that he wasn’t aware of any police complaints about such use to his department.

“The use of drugs in the park is extensive and beyond any sort of capacity to control,” he said in a telephone interview with CC. “It’s completely open.”

Ubbens also pointed to beer-drinking and litter as other “major concerns”, and said the crowd has outgrown the size of the park, leading to safety concerns.

Gabe Simms, TFF co-founder and organizer, told Cannabis Culture his group has been looking at moving the event to other locations like Toronto’s Olympic Island, but said they’ve been met with virtual brick walls by Park officials.

“They told me last Friday that due to complaints and concerns from stakeholders, they would be unable to move forward with our desire to relocate our event [to Olympic Island],” Simms said.

Without assisting the Festival in finding another suitable location and denying the permit at the last minute, activists say, Park officials are creating a situation that will lead to increase security concerns. A permit would allow the group to hire security marshals and set up fencing

“The Global Marijuana March is going to happen regardless,” GMM’s lawyer Ron Marzel told Cannabis Culture. “It’s is a protest and you don’t need a permit to have a protest. By denying the permit for the Festival at the 11th hour, this will only increase problems with safety and now there’s going to be thousands of people and no washroom facilities. It could be a big mess.”

The GMM is organized by a group loosely-affiliated activist organizations and is not centrally organized. Chris Goodwin, part of Toronto’s Hash Mob, told Cannabis Culture that his group plans on marching and rallying no matter what the city says.

“If they don’t let us in to Queens Park, we’ll still do the Global Marijuana March, that’s always been a separate entity from the Freedom Festival itself, but at the same time, all those people need a place to have a festival or a rally, so there has to be a rallying spot. Maybe we won’t go to our regular spot – maybe we will do a sit-in in Yorkville.”

TFF co-founder and organizer Gavin Gerbz told Cannabis Culture he is hopeful his group will come to a resolution with Park officials before it’s too late.

“I’m fairly confident that we can work this out with the city,” he said. “It will always be a green-friendly event. It may take on a different shape or form, but as long as the people want it to continue, it will continue.”

Activists plan to meet again with officials and the Toronto Police next week to continue discussions. Stay tuned to Cannabis Culture for more information.


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