A step in the right legal direction

By Billy Rainsford

Hannah Cohen/Collegian
Hannah Cohen/Collegian

Extravaganja, of course, is the famed yearly festival where the town of Amherst plays host to marijuana reform activists from all over the Northeast United States. The event is certainly controversial, if for no other reason than its celebration of an illegal drug. But even within the community of regular tokers, there remains disagreement over the effectiveness of Extravaganja: Does it really help change public opinion on marijuana? Does it help or hinder the marijuana reform cause?

This year’s especially extravagant Extravaganja, lasting two days instead of one, should lay these doubts to rest. Extravaganja is as effective a protest as any out there, and produces tangible results for the reform movement.

It’s no coincidence Extravaganja takes place in a state with relatively relaxed marijuana laws. Extravaganja predates the 2008 Massachusetts ballot measure that decriminalized small amounts of the drug by over 15 years. The measure was passed in spite of the fact that the college students and imported pot heads from around New England who make up the majority of Extravaganja’s crowd are not known for their voting record.

Instead, events like Extravaganja raised public awareness of the safety of marijuana to the point where more Massachusetts residents were willing to vote in favor of the 2008 decriminalization measure. Public support of marijuana reform has greatly increased over the years. In a February 2011 poll conducted by The Economist, supporters for marijuana legalization and regulation outnumbered opponents by a 2-1 margin.

Marijuana activists reached this point through the time-honored practice of in-your-face activism. Americans have never been shy about forcing issues onto the public agenda. More famous examples from history are from the greater societal movements, such as African-American sit-ins during the civil rights movement or gay pride parades marching through the streets of major cities. The point behind acts like these is to expose the rest of the public to the issue, by putting it plain sight.

Extravaganja exposes the public to marijuana use. By holding the event out in the open –  right on Amherst Commons – the public has no choice but to pay attention to the event. More importantly, though, is that the public also sees the results of marijuana usage. It can see that not every smoker is a doped-up hippie; many are instead very positive forces and contributors within the community.

In order to maintain this positive image, Extravaganja must remain a peaceful and orderly event, and, for 20 years, it has been successful in doing so. This past weekend, no arrests were made for marijuana-related offenses. Amherst police did issue 17 citations for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, according to Masslive.com. This was likely due to confusion over whether smoking marijuana was actually allowed on the Amherst Commons.

The widely held belief is that the Amherst police “look the other way” when it comes to Extravaganja. However, Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone told Masslive that the police “never made any kind of agreement that said police weren’t going to enforce the laws.” The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but in any case a mere 17 citations out of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Extravaganja party-goers is an impressive record.

Just as important is the issue of noise. The town of Amherst deals with plenty of noise every weekend, resulting in some strict town bylaws. Extravaganja ended promptly at 7 p.m. both days and had cleared out long before a large crowd in the center of town would have become a nuisance. By respectfully following every town law Extravaganja represented the marijuana reform community splendidly.

The UMass Cannabis Reform Coalition, the organization that organizes Extravaganja each year, deserves credit for the event’s success. It’s not easy to get a loaded subject like illegal drug use on the public’s radar and then start changing opinions on it.

College students, of course, have a long tradition of activism, and though they may not vote in very high numbers, their influence shouldn’t be underestimated. The CRC carries on the tradition of student activism by championing a cause that, thanks to organizations like the CRC, is important to many Americans.

Personally, I do not use marijuana. But I am one of many non-smokers whose opinions have been swayed by the efforts of those who took part in Extravaganja. When I looked around at my fellow UMass students this past weekend, I did not see a noticeable difference in crime or rowdiness or disorderly behavior that could be chalked up to drug use. Extravaganja showed that these bad behaviors would not result from simple marijuana use.

The 20th Extravaganja festival showed off everything that was right about marijuana legalization. The people, at least of Amherst and New England, have spoken on the issue. If there’s one thing Extravaganja convinced people of, it’s that the time to take action on reform is now.

Billy Rainsford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].