This updates a story posted at 5 p.m. Saturday.
AMHERST — With a bittersweet haze lingering above the crowd of thousands in downtown Amherst Saturday, the 23rd annual Extravaganja festival brought together political activists and casual users alike.
Extravaganja is officially organized by the UMass Cannabis Reform Coalition, the oldest student-run drug law reform organization in the United States. The gathering’s official purpose is to highlight the ongoing battle to change the law surrounding marijuana to progress from de-criminalization, to approval of medical marijuana and eventually legalize it for recreational use.
Legalization is something that 63-year-old Franktinus Stuitje of Greenfield never thought he’d see in his lifetime. But as Colorado and Washington state have already removed criminal penalties for possessing marijuana, he is certain that more states will follow.
“So many of my friends have been punished for marijuana over the years, I just never thought this country would get to this point. But now, it is just a matter of time before it is legal everywhere. Either that or we’ll go the other way and start putting people away for smoking tobacco,” Stuitje said.
Marijuana use is one of those complicated American issues that crosses a number of social mores and depending on where you live or travel, its use or acceptance may not be acceptable, aside from the legal aspect. But in the progressive Town of Amherst, which has hosted the festival for more than two decades, bringing together a controversial topic and a live and let live attitude seems like a perfect fit.
Sebastian Vivas, the president of the UMass Cannabis Reform Coalition, said that the event takes nearly a full year to plan and is coordinated almost entirely with the town administration and its police department.
“They have been just great to work with. I love being in a place where they aren’t afraid to hold such a controversial event right in the center of town,” Vivas said. “It goes to show the difference between this and something like the Blarney Blowout. Everyone here is just having a good time and not causing any trouble.”
One major difference between Extravaganja and the Blarney Blowout is the official capacity in which the annual weed-fest exists. The Blarney Blowout typically goes fine and without incident, when only considering the bars which officially hold the event.
It is the rest of the college-aged students all over the town, however, that end up extremely drunk and find themselves in violent clashes with the police, as was the case this year.
To Vivas, the fact that thousands of people getting high cause no public safety issue but thousands of drunk people cause a riot which draws negative national attention and costs taxpayers upwards of $200,000 if proof that the law needs to be changed.
“It goes to show the difference between alcohol and marijuana. Once substance can lead to people having a more positive experience in their community and the other can lead to chaos, but it is still legal,” Vivas said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Don Davis, a 61-year-old Vermont resident attending Extravaganja Saturday, said that the push to legalize marijuana is a good thing in his view, but mostly led my politicians looking to collect more tax revenue.
“It’s a good trade off, I guess,” Davis reluctantly concluded. “It’s better than people going to jail over marijuana but it has taken so long to get here.”
In Colorado, where full legalization has cut into the underground sales of marijuana, the state is set to collect $98 million in tax revenue this year from official sales, according to a report by Reuters. That estimate is 40 percent higher than Colorado lawmakers originally anticipated.
Brandie Lucia, a 20-year-old Westfield resident also attending Extravaganja, said that money, when spent correctly, can be used to help everyone instead of spending tax money to punish those who use marijuana.
“Just look how much money they are raising from taxes in Colorado alone. That money can be used to improve schools and roads, helping all the people that live there,” Lucia said. “If we can make our cities better and not punish people for what they choose to do, who loses there?”
Lucia admits that not everyone is quite ready to throw a nationwide pot party just yet. “Even talking about marijuana still makes some people uncomfortable, but things look like they are trending in the direction of legalization.”
But a recent national Pew Research Center survey of 1,821 adults concluded that while just 39 percent of those polled say marijuana should be legalized for adult use, 75 percent, whether they support or oppose it, think it is just a matter of time before marijuana is legalized entirely.
“I think you’ll continue to see the change on a state-by-state basis as momentum builds in different places to change the law,” said an Amherst resident walking by the festival with her infant who asked to only be identified by her first name, Chris. “The attitudes are changing and there are bigger problems society now has to focus on over marijuana. Look at them- they are just a happy, peaceful group enjoying their Saturday afternoon in the sun. This seems perfectly fine to me.”
When contacted Saturday evening, the Amherst Police Department said they didn’t have information as to whether any arrests were made in regards to the Extravaganja festival. The Republican/Masslive will follow up with police and publish information as it becomes available.
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