AMHERST The sky was cloudy in Amherst on Saturday — and it wasnt just because of overcast skies.
Nearly 2,000 marijuana enthusiasts packed the Amherst Town Common for the 20th annual Extravaganja festival, a pro-pot gathering reminiscent of the sort of free-spirited, open-air festivals of the late 1960s and 70s.
Many in attendance were not from the Woodstock generation, but rather twentysomethings taking advantage of what they believed was a two-day amnesty to smoke marijuana in the heart of downtown Amherst without legal headaches — as long as they didnt toke over the line.
A handful of Amherst police officers casually kept an eye on things from afar, staying beyond the perimeter of the Common.
Its a peaceful crowd, said one uniformed bicycle cop, standing next to his partner.
When the officers the only visible police presence at Extravaganja were asked if they were the only authorities working the event, one replied: We have some people floating around out there.
Booming Business High Sales
This is the eighth year that John and Sue Nelson, a couple from Bristol, R.I., have hawked their tie-dye T-shirts at Extravaganja, and sales were raging, according to John.
With temperatures lingering in the upper 40s, shirt sales werent the only thing that was brisk on Saturday.
Were all bundled up like Nanook of the North, so it doesnt really faze me, John said of the weather.
Heather DeGray, 26, of Monson, was selling handmade T-shirts with symbols ranging from peace signs to marijuana leaves and mushrooms the hallucinogenic variety, of course.
Yeah, this is what I do, she said. I travel around to festivals and sell my wares. It beats having a real job!
Staff Photo by Robert RizzutoNearly 2,000 people gathered in the heart of Amherst Saturday to rally for the legalization of marijuana.
In the middle of the Common, Ben Headley, 19, of Florence, joined a group of friends around a large water bong.
Extravaganja is one of the best times of the year, he said.
Headley said he has no problem with legalizing marijuana, though he conceded that harder drugs — like cocaine, heroin and synthetics such as OxyContin — should remain illegal.
I dont see why [pot] is illegal, Headley said, after taking a hit from the bong.
Springfield resident Joe Minardi said he believes it’s time for the nation as a whole to use common sense toward the issue of marijuana.
Cannabis has been criminalized for too long and its time for things to change, he said. No ones ever died from using cannabis, and it is not like other drugs.
This is how things should be, said Phil from Palmer, who was accompanied by his friend, Meg.
Phil and Meg, who arent married, share the same last name: No Last Name. As the No Last Names shared a joint and took in the atmosphere, they were asked if they believed marijuana would eventually become fully legal. Meg didnt hesitate with a reply.
I think its heading that way, she said, surveying the large crowd, most of whom were smoking marijuana.
Despite the legalize it theme of the event, many of the young people interviewed by The Republican on Saturday preferred a degree of anonymity by withholding their surnames and refusing to be photographed smoking pot.
Staff Photo by Robert RizzutoVendors sold everything from hand-made glass pipes to organic foods and t-shirts.
One of the older attendees at the event, Beth Erviti, 60, of Wendell, said she wasn’t shy about embracing marijuana.
I do support legalizing marijuana, she said.
Erviti, who was meeting her daughter and friends at Extravaganja, said she had driven past the annual spring event many times in the past, but Saturday marked the first time Ive ever stepped foot here.
The Politics of Pot
Billed as a marijuana-freedom festival, the weekend event (it continues Sunday at noon) was sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition and featured dozens of bands, vendors and speakers, many of whom trumpeted the curative and ameliorative powers of pot.
Alex Delegas, president of the coalition, said the two-day festival was a good way to celebrate (the 20th anniversary).
Niki Snow, a clerk with the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said her organization supports legislation that allows people to live their lives as they see fit.
We are out here to put a face on the issue because we believe in it that strongly, Snow said. Events like this help people learn more about cannabis and bring the issue out into the open.
Eric Wunderlich, a board member of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said that although his group specifically supports legalizing marijuana for medical use, it is important for all factions of the legalization movement to focus on what they have in common.
At the heart of the issue is the fundamental belief that patients should have access to this option through their doctor and they shouldnt have to live in fear of the authorities kicking in their door and arresting them, Wunderlich said. There are different beliefs between legalizing it medically and completely, but it is all about not living in fear.
In November 2008, more than 65 percent of Massachusetts voters approved Question 2, a binding ballot measure that decriminalized possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Now, instead of incurring a misdemeanor criminal charge, subjects who are caught with an ounce or less of pot must forfeit the drug and pay a $100 civil fine. Minors also must perform community service and attend drug education and treatment classes.
Massachusetts law enforcement officials, including district attorneys, strongly opposed Question 2, arguing that support for the measure would send a message that pot isnt dangerous. They also said partial decriminalization would be a nightmare to enforce, pointing out that local police departments werent equipped to implement a new civil fine system.
Massachusetts was the 12th state in the nation to decriminalize possession of relatively small amounts of marijuana.
Staff Photo by Robert RizzutoSome members of the crowd were vibrant and interactive while others were mellow and relaxing on the grass as bands played throughout the afternoon.
Police Report No Pot Problems
Amherst Police Chief Scott P. Livingstone said the town agreed to extend the event on a trial basis, and officials will evaluate how things went based on participant behavior.”
Earlier Extravaganja events resulted in multiple drug arrests, but in recent years event organizers have sought to work with police to avoid problems.
A decade ago, residents of Amherst — considered one of the most liberal college towns in America — overwhelmingly supported a non-binding referendum calling for state and national officials to lobby for legalizing marijuana and for town police to relax enforcement of the law.