Recreational marijuana sales begin in Massachusetts, first on the East Coast
NORTHAMPTON — Daquaan Hamilton wasn’t about to let a little sleet stop him from making history.
On Tuesday morning, the 22-year-old UMass Amherst student and hundreds of other people from around New England rose hours before dawn, bundled up in warm clothing and rain jackets, and made a pilgrimage to this progressive enclave for one reason: to be among the first to legally purchase recreational marijuana in Massachusetts.
“The legalization of marijuana is a huge step forward for all of us, and I wanted to be a part of that,” said Hamilton.
He waited outside the New England Treatment Access, also called NETA, cannabis shop in a bone-chilling wintry mix beginning at 12:30 a.m., and was first in a long line when sales began amid a chorus of cheers at 8 a.m. Customers also gathered outside Cultivate, a pot store 45 miles away in Leicester that opened at the same time.
By day’s end, NETA estimated it had about 2,000 customers. Cultivate said Tuesday evening it had more than 1,000 customers.
After emerging from NETA with a vape pen and a package of marijuana edibles, a grinning Hamilton told a mob of reporters that he felt like he was “on top of the world” — and reflected on voters’ decision in 2016 to repeal the state’s century-long prohibition on the drug.
“There are a lot of people throughout our history who have done prison time for such minor offenses, like having weed paraphernalia or having small amounts on them,” he said. “The fact that I can walk out of the store right now with this and not be afraid of anything that can happen to me, it’s pretty great.”
Hamilton, who is black, hardly needed to add that marijuana laws were for decades disproportionately enforced against people of color — making his purchase especially poignant.
In Leicester, about 40 people flooded into Cultivate, along with a crush of media, selectmen, and the town police chief, to witness the first legal recreational marijuana sales on the East Coast. Dozens more waited in the rain outside.
“Oh, it smells good in here!” exclaimed Jennifer DePerrio, a 45-year-old hairdresser from Holden, when she entered the shop after waiting in line for more than two hours. “It’s so exciting.”
DePerrio, an Air Force veteran wearing a red, white, and blue bandana, said she consumes marijuana because it eases her back pain and helps her focus. “It’s finally destigmatized and it shouldn’t be generalized as something bad,” she said. “There are so many benefits for us all.”
Veteran and medical marijuana advocate Stephen Mandile of Uxbridge was chosen to make the first official pot purchase in Leicester, with the city’s police chief on hand to give Mandile an American flag in honor of his service. Mandile bought an eighth-ounce of a strain called Jack Herer and quipped that he’d be “smoking some history” later in the day.
In Northampton, a crush of reporters with cameras and microphones looked on as Mayor David Narkewicz walked up to the counter and handed his driver’s license to NETA cofounder Arnon Vered, ready to become the ceremonial first customer at 8 a.m. sharp.
Workers counted down the seconds — “three . . . two . . . one!” — and broke into a wild cheer as the mayor handed Vered cash in exchange for a chocolate bar infused with 50 milligrams of THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.
“Can I get a receipt?” Narkewicz asked to laughs.
“I’m proud to have been the first,” he told reporters moments later. “I think it sends a symbolic message that an elected official is giving credibility to this industry that for years . . . has been stigmatized. Now we’re bringing it out of the shadows.”
Narkewicz said he would probably donate his chocolate bar — a “personal purchase” he will not expense to taxpayers — to Historic Northampton, a local historical group.
The mayor praised NETA, which like Cultivate had already been operating as a medical dispensary, for being a “great community member.”
“We’ve literally had zero issues,” he said. “No increased crime, no diversion [of products to the illicit market] — none of the concerns that were expressed.”
Sandra Bylaska, 62, an unemployed mortgage processor from Berkley, near Taunton, pulled an all-nighter to be among the first customers of Cultivate. She arrived in Leicester at 3:30 a.m. with chairs and a blanket, expecting to camp out as if she were waiting in line for concert tickets. But after she was told the line could not begin forming until 7, she spent the early morning hours wandering in Walmart and 7-Eleven. She said she had fond memories of smoking a “four-fingered” lid of marijuana for $5 when she was a teenager growing up in Quincy and looked forward to getting the cheapest strain possible from Cultivate.
“I want a picture of me standing next to a cop with a joint in my mouth because it’s history,” she said. “We can tell the next generation: I remember when.”
Not everyone celebrated the beginning of the state’s recreational marijuana sales. A few hours before the stores opened, the nonprofit antilegalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, said it foresees increases in drivers operating under the influence of drugs and a rise in emergency room visits.
“Today is the beginning of a dark time for the Bay State,” SAM said in a press release. “Moving forward, SAM will work with local partners to expose this predatory industry as it brings the harms we have seen in other legalized states to Massachusetts.” The group suffered another setback Tuesday as an important ally, Representative Joe Kennedy III, a longtime cannabis skeptic, announced in an op-ed he now supports legalization.
Governor Charlie Baker, who opposed legalization in 2016, reminded consumers on Tuesday to act responsibly when using marijuana products and encouraged them to use public transportation or ride-sharing services instead of getting behind the wheel. Members of the Cannabis Control Commission passed out literature to the same effect at both sales locations.
Customers, for their part, weren’t focused on government officials or pot critics.
Marijuana “makes your life so much easier,” said DePerrio, who spent $94 on a joint and concentrated cannabis wax, which she planned to consume while preparing for Thanksgiving Tuesday night. “It’s better than tequila. And I like tequila.”
Outside NETA, longtime marijuana proponent and attorney Dick Evans was feeling contemplative; in front of him, after all, was the culmination of nearly 40 years of advocacy.
“I’ve always argued regulation and taxation are a much better way to control the cannabis industry than police, prosecutors, and prison and propaganda — now we are about to find out if that’s the case,” said Evans, whose office is in Northampton and who chaired the 2016 legalization campaign. “We are launching a bold new experiment today, and I’m confident that several years from now we will all look back at this time and say, ‘What was the fuss all about?’ ”
Evans added, “I think the people of Northampton will be really pleased that history will record this day, this place, and this time as when the last nail was driven into marijuana prohibition.
“May it rest in peace.”