PARIS COLEMAN DIDN’T even know how to pronounce Leicester, and most assuredly had never visited the aging mill city in the northern Blackstone River Valley. But the 26-year-old New England Patriots employee came here from his Mattapan home for two reasons.
“Weed,” he said. “Weed and history. I need to find some real haze [a marijuana strain]. I haven’t had real haze since, like, 2008.”
Coleman, who said he’d been smoking marijuana since he was 13, was one of thousands of people who made the pilgrimage to Cultivate in Leicester and New England Treatment Access in Northampton to be among the first to buy pot legally east of the Mississippi River.
They were young and old, black and white, men and women, workers taking the day off, and retirees who didn’t mind standing in the sleet and rain for several hours waiting for their turn to go into the building and check out the mind- and mood-altering herb in all its forms. For some, it was their first experience buying marijuana while a police officer stood by watching.
“It’s kind of weird, standing in line for weed,” said Coleman, noting his usual place of purchase is from a car or someone’s apartment. “Usually it’s an in and out process, but not today.”
A little more than an hour away in Northampton, customers began lining up outside New England Treatment Access about 5:30. The store, which, like Cultivate, has been operating as a medical marijuana dispensary for several years, made its first official sale to Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who bought a $20 candy bar, which he planned on saving, not eating. The purchase at 7:45, 15 minutes before regular customers came in, made Narkewicz the first person on the East Coast to buy legal marijuana. By midafternoon, more than 1,000 people had bought marijuana at New England Treatment Access, according to a spokeswoman.
In Leicester, a small town once famed for making many of the hand cards used in the country for straightening fibers spinning threads and weaving cloth in 18th century America, Cultivate sits in a nondescript warehouse-like building back off Route 9. Also known as Main Street, it is a commercial stretch that has a Walmart, a couple donut shops, a closed drive-in, a nursery and other commercial enterprises. Police Chief Jim Hurley said while Black Friday at Walmart draws several thousand people each year, Cultivate’s first day of recreational marijuana sales rivaled the holiday shopping frenzy but it wasn’t contained to a parking lot outside a superstore, but rather in closed parking areas with people walking along the busy road to get to the store.
“This is far more than we expected,” said Hurley, who put on two details and was calling out for more while he had his four-person shift rotating through to maintain order. “This is cannabis tourism. We had more than 1,000 cars just going by taking pictures by 10 [a.m.] There’s several hundred [customers] in line, about a two or three hour wait. Everybody’s been very peaceful. I think if we come back here next week, it will be like a normal operation, it will be like a liquor store.”
At the Cannabis Control Commission meeting in Boston Tuesday afternoon, Chairman Steven Hoffman hailed the day as the culmination of long hours, hard work, and attention to safety.
“This is obviously a major milestone for the commission and, more importantly, for the state. It is something that we have been working, as a commission, extraordinarily hard on for slightly over 14 months,” Hoffman said. He then quoted Winston Churchill to indicate the commission’s work isn’t done. “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The commission voted to approve two more final licenses for retail outlets in Salem and Easthampton. It also approved another dozen provisional licenses, the next to last step before final approval, to retail, cultivation, and product manufacturing facilities.
At Cultivate, prices were the same as the medical products, though with a 20 percent state and local tax added. Most buds sold for about $50 for an eighth of an ounce to $300 for a full ounce, the maximum amount that can be purchased by law. Single pre-rolled joints are available for $10-$15 each and the store has a mild strain of pot available “for novices” that has a lower THC content, the psychotropic chemical in the plant, for $35 for an eighth of an ounce. Edibles ranged in price from $15 each for cookies to $15 for a 10-pack of marijuana-infused gummy bears. Oils, concentrates, and tinctures are also popular items and offer much more intense highs.
Sam Barber, president and owner of Cultivate, said he and his staff had been working to ensure an orderly first opening by having enough product on hand to satisfy the demand. Other states such as Nevada and Colorado ran out of inventory in the first few days of legal sales when they first allowed adult use and state officials and store owners wanted to be sure to avoid it here.
“I think we’re going to be selling all day,” said Barber, who opened his doors at 8 a.m. for the first sale and was cautiously optimistic he’d have enough to go through the holiday weekend. “We’re doing our best. We’re always growing. We built up a bit of a stockpile for this so we’ll do our best.”
Patricia Gibson came with two retired cousins from about 10 miles away in Millbury. Gibson, who is disabled, said she uses marijuana for her disability but did not have a patient certificate to buy medical marijuana. She said she “asked a lot of questions” and bought some gummy bears and “Moonshine Haze” buds that the customer service representative indicated would be beneficial for her needs.
Lynn Blare, one of Gibson’s cousins, said she uses marijuana recreationally but liked the idea of getting product that was tested and certified safe under state standards. She said she voted for the 2016 ballot question that legalized adult use and had no intention of missing out on the first day, regardless of the weather.
“This is history in the making so why not be a part of it,” she said. “I definitely wouldn’t have waited in the rain if it wasn’t historic.”
But Blare almost didn’t get her $98 purchase, some of which she and her friends said were Christmas gifts. She didn’t bring cash, which was the only form of payment accepted initially. Her cousin loaned her the money for the purchase but others who came with credit or debit cards had to go find an ATM machine, though they were let back in at the head of the line when they returned.
Because marijuana is still federally illegal, credit cards and checks cannot be used for purchases because banks will not process the transactions. The store had planned to accept debit cards but the system was not in operation early on. An ATM machine that was supposed to be in the store had not yet arrived, either.
It wasn’t just Bay Staters standing in line to buy a little buzz. Customers came from all six New England states and New York and even New Jersey, as evidenced by the cars parked in a closed drive-in down the street.
“I wanted to try out something different, a different state, see how the environment was,” said Francisco Rodriguez of New Haven, Connecticut, who dropped $290 on a half-ounce of buds and some concentrate. Rodriguez said it was his first time buying legally but it likely won’t be his last. “You know what you’re consuming, you know what you’re getting.”
Some of those in line said the two-year wait between passage of the referendum and the first day of sales was frustrating but they turned out to send a message that marijuana should be as accessible as liquor.
“I voted for the ballot question two years ago so I wanted to see how today went,” said Bryan Cormier, 31, of Northborough. Cormier, on sabbatical and working on his masters, said he could easily buy marijuana near where he lives but thought it was more important to support the legal industry. “There’s a pretty healthy black market but it’s more kind of about seeing the legislation roll out.”
Don Schmidt, who retired from the insurance industry several years ago, said he has been waiting a long time to buy marijuana the same way he buys beer.
“I graduated from college in 1970 and my criminal justice teacher said pot would be legal within a year,” said the Walpole resident. “That was 50 years ago.”