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Colorado Activist Mason Tvert Looking for National Impact in Marijuana Legalization

Come January, the state will have looser standards than Holland, but the goal is setting an example for the rest of the U.S.

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Mason Tvert speaks to the media outside Synergy Youth Drug Treatment Center in Denver, Colorado, on February 7, 2006. (Craig F. Walker/The Denver Poster/Getty Images)
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To find perhaps the most influential marijuana activist in the country, you have to go to Denver. Your journey starts near the Colorado statehouse, which in May passed legislation establishing a framework for the regulation and taxation of marijuana that, when it goes into effect next January, will be more permissive than Holland’s.

From the statehouse, keep driving past Lincoln Street and then Sherman Street. Take a right onto Grant Street, where you’ll find the Creswell Mansion, a red sandstone house on the National Historic Registry. Built just four years after the death of Ulysses S. Grant, the house faces west toward Manifest Destiny and the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Inside is the office of the advocacy group Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation, known by its acronym, SAFER.

SAFER’s executive director is Mason Tvert, a 31-year-old political operative who came to Denver nearly a decade ago with the objective of turning it into a test lab for relaxing marijuana laws in the United States, where it has been branded a Schedule I controlled substance since 1970. Last November, largely thanks to Tvert’s work, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which allows adults over 21 to possess small amounts of marijuana or pot-laced products for personal use. Starting next year, people will be able to set foot in Colorado, buy a sack of weed or artisanal edibles, and contribute tax revenue to the state.

For all the marijuana lobby’s considerable progress in the past 10 years, the federal government has not even slightly changed its posture on the drug’s prohibition in more than 40 years. Despite the advent of local and state initiatives legalizing marijuana for medical use, it remains common to hear of federal raids on dispensaries in California and growers in Oregon. But proponents of marijuana legalization imagine that, as with same-sex marriage, the national stance on the issue could change quickly—given the right test case.

Tvert, who doubles as a spokesman for the national Marijuana Policy Project, is now the man chiefly responsible for figuring out how to ensure that Colorado becomes the turning point in the national conversation about pot. SAFER’s website lists his professional responsibilities in this order: “Strategic planning, media relations, lobbying, fundraising, and other assorted mayhem.” They might as well be books of the policy-initiative Bible: Genesis is Strategic Planning, Exodus for Media Relations (shemot means “names”), Leviticus for lobbying (vayikra means “he called”), and Numbers for fundraising. The fifth and final book is Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name is Dvarim, or “spoken words,” and covers the publicity stunts — “other assorted mayhem” — that have become Tvert’s calling card. From holding comic press conferences tailored for the 11 o’clock TV news to running subversive ads, Tvert’s efforts have been instrumental in raising awareness about the legalization issue and bringing new supporters, including religious leaders and libertarian politicians, into the movement.

Tvert joins a long list of Jewish activists in the pro-pot movement. A cursory glance at the leadership roster of NORML, the best-known of the national marijuana-legalization lobbying groups, would place you within a stone’s throw of a minyan. Last month, Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn opened a medical marijuana dispensary called the Takoma Wellness Center opened in Washington, D.C., and bedecked the office with hamsas. Ethan Nadelmann, who leads the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to reforming drug laws across the board, is the son of a rabbi.

“What Mason accomplished in Colorado was quite remarkable,” said Nadelmann, whose organization announced this week that it is honoring Tvert with an award. “He made history, and his work made history, in Colorado.”

The question now is whether he can become the Joshua of the marijuana movement nationwide. “Mason is pretty much the most involved individual in all of marijuana activism,” said Ean Seeb, a Denver marijuana-dispensary owner who moonlights as a leader in the city’s Jewish community. “I look forward to seeing a bronze sculpture of him in Colorado or D.C. before I die.”

***

Two framed items hang above Tvert’s desk inside Creswell Mansion on Grant Street. The first is a copy of his elementary-school D.A.R.E. certification of achievement, issued by the police department in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Tvert grew up. Signed by four different officials, it lauds Tvert for making “a personal commitment to avoid pressures to begin using new drugs.”

Beneath it is the essay Tvert wrote for the D.A.R.E. program. Its title—“Drugs”—is written in crayon, each curlicued letter a different shade of blue or green. In it, a young Tvert lists the dangers of illegal drugs and, as the government does, lumps marijuana in the same group as heroin, LSD, and speed. “It says marijuana’s bad, and then it says all those drugs are illegal, but there are some legal ones like alcohol and cigarettes. Both are bad, but not as bad as illegal drugs,” Tvert says now. “Why did I think that? I don’t know how old I was when I wrote that. Fifth grade or fourth grade? I don’t know. But for some reason I felt like alcohol and tobacco are perfectly acceptable, but marijuana is absolutely not.”

But that was, of course, the objective of D.A.R.E., a nationwide program that originated 30 years ago in Los Angeles and is in the minds of an entire generation inextricably linked with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign—itself created by the Florida-based advertising entrepreneur Jordan Zimmerman, then a college student at the University of South Florida.

It’s now been more than 20 years since Bill Clinton was forced to insist he never inhaled. In the interim, Americans have elected a president who not only smoked pot but hung out in a group known as the Choom Gang. This year, New York City Comptroller John Liu—a candidate in the city’s mayoral race—declared it was “time to recognize that the prohibition of marijuana has failed.” On CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta offered that “sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.”

Tvert, who was bar mitzvahed at a Reform synagogue, found his calling as a college student in Richmond, Va., where he was named as a suspect by a local anti-marijuana task force. As a result, in 2001, he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. Meanwhile, underage students were being hospitalized for drinking to excess and walking away, often without consequences. “It was pretty obvious to me early on that these were foolish laws,” he said.

Tvert speaks at a SAFER press conference unveiling the Ricky Williams billboard
Tvert speaks at a SAFER press conference unveiling the Ricky Williams billboard in Denver on October 2, 2007. (SAFER Choice/Flickr)

In 2004, after graduating with a degree in political science and journalism, Tvert moved out to Colorado with his best friend Evan Ackerfeld, where they founded SAFER. To make measurable progress, marijuana activists were not only tasked with defeating their opponents, but also with convincing their skeptics. The chosen tactic was to highlight that marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol, which, according to Tvert, had never been the central point argued by an organization or put forth in a campaign.

Conveniently enough, many leading politicians in Colorado also happened to be beer barons. The current governor, John Hickenlooper, was the co-creator of Denver’s first brewery before becoming the city’s mayor and then moving to statewide office. Pete Coors, a leading state Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Senate, is the great-grandson of brewing legend Adolph Coors and the chairman of the behemoth brewer MillerCoors. In 2006, Tvert publicly challenged them both to a “drug duel” to be held at high noon, in which Tvert would smoke, they would drink, and the winner was the one who died last. Both men declined, but Hickenlooper’s office issued a statement commending Tvert for his moxie: “You’ve got to give this guy credit for his creativity. He’ll do anything to get himself and his cause into the media.”

Famous last words. In October 2006, just weeks before elections that featured a legalization initiative on the ballot, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration announced a major marijuana bust with a heavily publicized press conference. Outside the DEA office, Tvert staged his own press conference with matching trappings: a table full of bottles of the mayor’s beer and wanted posters with his picture. Relying on the Yellow Pages to count liquor stores, Tvert announced the existence of “more than 1,000 operations selling a more dangerous drug than marijuana throughout Denver.”

The stunts made for good copy and slowly started having a noticeable impact on public opinion. “The goal was to get people thinking about this and talking to each other about it,” Tvert said. “There’s no better way than to get a message into the news in a compelling and fun-to-talk-about manner.” When I asked him which stunt had been his favorite, Tvert demurred, explaining that “the one that worked last is the best one.”

The last one, in fact, was his first major success outside Colorado. In July, Tvert bought ad space on the Jumbotron outside the annual Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis—one of NASCAR’s biggest races, hosted on the same track as the iconic Indy 500 and sponsored by both Miller and Crown Royal. Tvert’s ad hawked a “new beer” that didn’t have calories, didn’t cause hangovers or overdoses, and wasn’t linked to domestic violence. “Marijuana,” a narrator boomed, “Less harmful than alcohol and time to treat it that way.”

The ad was pulled before it aired at the racetrack. Instead, the ad appeared on CNN as Tvert and the anchor Don Lemon bantered about why the ad had been yanked. Tvert dispensed talking points about how marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol and decried the apparent decision of the media company that was set to host the ad to squelch his free speech. “In this country, everyone accepts the fact that alcohol is available for adults 21 and older, they accept the fact that family sporting events like NASCAR races can be sponsored by beer companies,” Tvert said. “It’s simply a matter of fact that when we start talking about marijuana being a safer product for adults, all of a sudden, people get upset.”

***

Colorado was one of the first states to pass a medical marijuana program, which it did in the 2000 election, when it also handed the state’s eight electoral votes to George W. Bush by more than eight points. The state’s strong libertarian streak had made it fertile ground for marijuana activists to build a diverse coalition—one that, for last year’s successful initiative effort, brought together local rabbis and clergy, Melissa Etheridge, and Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado Republican congressman who ran for president on an anti-immigration platform in 2008. “In many ways, it really was just an ‘It’s about time’ because attitudes had shifted,” Tvert said. “In 2006, when we ran a ballot initiative relating to marijuana, none of the organizations—or at least many if not most of them—were not publicly supportive. It was emblematic of how attitudes had shifted.”

While Tancredo, a Tea Party Republican, argued that the marijuana prohibition represented a wasteful failure of government enforcement that had handed victory to drug cartels and nanny-staters, the religious leaders supporting Tvert’s efforts took a different view. “As clergy, we have the responsibility to talk about what policies serve our community best,” said Rabbi Steven Foster, the former leader of Denver’s Temple Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in Colorado. “You do not have to use marijuana—or even approve of marijuana—to see that our current laws are not working.”

In late August, Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of Colorado and Washington that the Department of Justice would take a “trust but verify approach” with the new states’ legalization laws. In other words, the government wouldn’t interfere with the regulation and taxation of marijuana. As the system goes into effect, the Department of Justice will reserve its right to sue in the future, citing marijuana’s illegal status under the Controlled Substances Act. While momentum may be on Tvert’s side, he knows his work is far from done.

“There’s always going to be place for high jinks,” he said, “and more coalition-building.”

***

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Colorado Activist Mason Tvert Looking for National Impact in Marijuana Legalization

Come January, the state will have looser standards than Holland, but the goal is setting an example for the rest of the U.S.