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Meet the first legal recreational marijuana customers in Massachusetts: a pair of veterans

Stephen Mandile, an Iraq war veteran from Uxbridge, will be the first recreational marijuana customer at Cultivate in Leicester.
Stephen Mandile, an Iraq war veteran from Uxbridge, will be the first recreational marijuana customer at Cultivate in Leicester.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

A pair of veterans will stand at the center of history-making moments scheduled for this week: the first legal marijuana sales in Massachusetts in more than a century.

At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Iraq veteran and medical marijuana advocate Stephen Mandile will walk into Cultivate, a hybrid medical-recreational cannabis shop in Leicester, and buy a quarter-ounce of pot — preferably a sativa — plus some edibles.

Around the same time, Air Force veteran and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz will approach the counter of New England Treatment Access, or NETA, a similar facility in his city that invited him to be its first customer. He plans to purchase an edible of his own, perhaps a THC-infused chocolate bar.

Together, the two men will kick off a new era of legal cannabis sales in the Eastern United States.

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For Mandile, the moment will be deeply personal. He says he kicked a crippling painkiller addiction by instead treating the PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain he developed during his Army service with marijuana. It will also be the culmination of years of advocacy aimed at improving veterans’ access to the drug.

“I get to make history,” Mandile, 41, said Sunday. “It means a lot, and I never expected this would be the outcome of my advocacy — I was just trying to go about helping people. I’m pumped to break the stigma and the weird, scary aura people want to put around cannabis.”

Narkewicz, who quickly noted he “flew a desk” in the Air Force and Air National Guard in the 1980s, sees the start of recreational pot sales somewhat differently. For the mayor, elected in 2011, it’s a chance to prove that the marijuana business can be, well, business as usual — little different from the brew pub ribbon-cutting he attended last week or the restaurant opening he’ll attend next week.

“I’m proud to go to new businesses that create new tax revenue for the city and be there for their opening,” Narkewicz said Sunday. “I’m not going to act any differently because the new business happens to be adult-use marijuana. It’s a legal business in our Commonwealth. If we’re going to destigmatize marijuana, it’s even more important that I be there and treat it like every other company. I’m honored to do it.”

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The mayor, 52, is also expecting the crowds of cannabis consumers to find their way to other nearby businesses in Northampton, which he calls “the greatest small city in America.”

“I hope that the folks who come to visit NETA will also visit our downtown, shop at our businesses, and maybe stay for a few days and enjoy the beautiful Pioneer Valley,” Narkewicz said, adding, “sorry — I slipped on my chamber of commerce hat there for a minute.”

Both Northampton and Leicester are set to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from pot companies.

Tuesday’s purchases by Mandile and Narkewicz will be just one part of the companies’ carefully stage-managed recreational debuts. With the eyes of the whole state — including their watchful regulators at the state Cannabis Control Commission — upon them, NETA and Cultivate have left little to chance. No sense in letting fate choose the person who will be forever associated with your company's brand, after all.

Each company has also hired a PR firm to handle the scores of interested reporters and national media outlets, and brought on police details and other workers to handle the traffic, overflowing parking lots, and lines of eager customers expected Tuesday.

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In 2014 in Denver, another Iraq combat veteran and medical marijuana advocate, Sean Azzariti, made the first legal pot purchase in the United States. Azzariti, who was handpicked by the leaders of that state’s legalization campaign, recently said being the focus of a media maelstrom that day was “the most intense thing I’ve ever dealt with outside the military.”

Cultivate, for its part, said it chose Mandile for his advocacy and military service.

“Stephen bravely served our country, managed pain with cannabis, and became a tireless advocate for the legalization of cannabis in Massachusetts,” Sam Barber, the company’s president, said in a statement. “We think he deserves to be part of this historic moment and are honored to have him be Cultivate’s first customer.”

NETA said its choice of Narkewicz symbolized marijuana’s transition from the illicit market to a regulated one, and cited the mayor’s willingness to welcome cannabis firms to his city.

“The Mayor has been a supporter of NETA and regulated cannabis,” the company said in a statement. “His city overwhelmingly supported the ballot question that led to adult-use sales. His acceptance of our invitation speaks to the importance of the milestone reached by the Commonwealth and the openness of a legal and regulated marketplace.”

Narkewicz said he might put his edible on display in his office — though he wondered aloud if that would be fair to other pot shops that may one day open in his city.

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Perhaps, he said, he’d donate it to a local historic group, musing that it would fit in nicely among other artifacts related to the city’s long association with other progressive movements, from the abolition of slavery to marriage equality.

“Northampton is often at the forefront of social change,” Narkewicz said.

Mandile said he’s unsure what he’ll do with his historic stash.

“I didn’t even think of that — I was going to smoke it!” he said, laughing. “I guess I should hang on to it. I imagine it has a lot of significance to a lot of people. It’s more than just a bag of flower.

“Maybe I’ll put it right outside Charlie Baker’s office,” Mandile joked, referring to the Massachusetts governor, who opposed legalization in 2016. “I tried getting a meeting with him a few times, and he gave me the cold shoulder.”

Asked if he had a message for the masses who will be watching his historic shopping trip, Mandile said he’d ask them to be “open-minded and optimistic about things.”

“We’re doing something that generations before us never thought would happen,” he said. “We have to be grateful for that and embrace our responsibility.”


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.