The reason: the student-led University of Massachusetts Amherst Cannabis Reform Coalition (CRC), which organizes the event, is upset by restrictions imposed by the city of Northampton, including barring attendants under the age of 21 — with Five College students above the age of 18 being the exception.
CRC President Claire Walsh, a junior at UMass Amherst, said she and other organizers with the CRC believe that the age restriction arbitrarily restricts First Amendment rights to freely assemble.
“We asked for evidence for the age limit or for it to be put back to 18+, the way it had been in the past,” Walsh said. “And I think the fact that they took it to a level of negotiation (allowing Five College students under 21) shows that it wasn’t even clear cut about the law.”
She said there is no history of violence in its nearly three-decade history, during which Extravaganja has brought together musicians, performers, vendors, and activists to celebrate cannabis culture and rally behind an end to the national prohibition of marijuana. The only arrest that took place during the past three years was for counterfeit money, according to Walsh. No cannabis is allowed to be sold at the event and anyone who uses marijuana in the public event does so as an act of civil disobedience not affiliated with the CRC.
Walsh said that it’s “very likely” the CRC would choose a new location for the event next year.
Three County Fairgrounds General Manager James Przypek declined to comment about the list of new restrictions or the future of Extravaganja at the fairgrounds prior to after this year’s event.
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who is a graduate of UMass Amherst, said he would welcome the move. He said he thinks the event belongs on the UMass campus.
“Talk about a place that has a large enough venue,” he said. “Have it at the Mullins Center. It is odd to me that a UMass organization funded with UMass student-paid funds as part of a student organization isn’t holding an event on their own campus.”
Walsh said the CRC has been advised by the university and their college advisor not to have the event at UMass Amherst because the university would be forced to shut the event down if anyone was caught smoking marijuana, which remains against federal law.
“That’s been a standstill for a while,” she added. “The university is federally funded, so they don’t want to support anything that has to do with cannabis.”
UMass Amherst Spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said the university will work with students as they decide how to best conduct the event in the future.
Narkewicz said the city has backed Extravaganja’s political cause.
“I think it’s fairly well documented that [the city of Northampton] has been supportive of legalization,” Narkewicz said.
Age restriction has been an ongoing issue for the CRC, she explained. During the first year of the event at the fairgrounds in 2017, the event was all ages. The second year included an 18+ age limit.
Walsh said Extravaganja requires permitting from the city of Northampton and in order to be approved, CRC members must attend meetings with members of the city’s Board of Health, police department, and fire department. The first meeting for this year’s event took place in December 2018.
Narkewicz got involved for the first time this year because the city’s health department told organizers that the 21+ requirement was necessary to comply with new state laws surrounding cannabis, Walsh explained.
Walsh and Northampton City Solicitor Alan Seewald negotiated over the age restriction over email in March. In an email dated March 19, Seewald wrote, “The city would agree to 18+ with Five College Student ID and 21+ for all others.”
Walsh said initially the city of Northampton had required the event only be 21+ then amended that agreement to allow UMass Amherst students 18+ before ultimately allowing all five college students with a student ID.
“Basically, we’ve been really disappointed with the way the town handled it,” she said. “They were very unwilling to respond. They were not good to work with in terms of communication as well as not providing any evidence as for the reasons for their requests. Now we have a lot of people who can’t come to the event because of this.”
Narkewicz said the last exchange between the CRC and the city of Northampton was a compromise to which the CRC “happily accepted.”
On March 19, the CRC responded to Seewald by stating, “That is a great reassurance to hear, thank you very much!” in response to Seewald mentioning that the city had confirmed the compromise with Police Chief Jody Kasper and Health Director Merridith O’Leary and that no further documentation was needed.
Walsh stated the reason why the CRC accepted the negotiations was because the group was running out of time to finalize a contract with the fairgrounds in order for the event to take place.
The CRC is also upset by new restrictions reducing attendance and restricting ticket sales to online only, according to Walsh. Last year, it was estimated that 15,000 people attended the rally. This year, there is a cap of 12,000 attendees, which was placed on the event by the fairgrounds and the city due to traffic control.
As for the online only requirement, Walsh said it cuts off access to the event for certain people.
“In order to pre-purchase a ticket you need a computer, a credit card, a phone to potentially put your ticket on or a printer to print your ticket out,” she said. “In the past, you show up and you show your ID and you get to come in.”
Narkewicz confirmed that the cap on attendees was established by the fairgrounds working in conjunction with the Northampton Police Department. He said the city has to work with fairground neighbors and neighboring communities with large-scale events.
“One of the issues that has happened in past years has been traffic tie ups from Hadley and [Interstate 91],” he explained. “When we have these huge events there’s a concern about the scale and capacity. I’ll mention the Hot Chocolate run, which routinely sells out two or three weeks before the race because they’ve put a hard cap on the number of runners and walkers they can accommodate.”
Walsh said she thinks the city of Northampton is interfering with the event more this year than in the past.
“I think the town is focusing on it more this year because they see a chance to cut off people under 21 from having anything to do with cannabis and that’s just not right in my opinion,” she added.
Chris Goudreau can be reached at email@example.com.