April 27, 2006 News » Cover Story

Pot shot 

Mason Tvert's movement to legalize marijuana is causing reefer madness

click to enlarge Mason Tvert, campaign director for Safer Alternative For - Enjoyable Recreation. SAFER is collecting signatures to - place a measure on the November ballot that would - make it legal for people 21 and older to possess 1 ounce - or less of marijuana. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Mason Tvert, campaign director for Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation. SAFER is collecting signatures to place a measure on the November ballot that would make it legal for people 21 and older to possess 1 ounce or less of marijuana.

Kicking up his bare feet at his desk and placing his hands behind his head, Mason Tvert says Colorado would be a better place if residents could light up big, fat joints legally.

That's the message the 23-year-old toils to impart from his Denver office. The space, which doubles as his bedroom, is the statewide headquarters of a political initiative that aims to ask voters this November to legalize adult possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Aided by a laptop and some 400 volunteers around Colorado two dozen hailing from the Colorado Springs area Tvert and a full-time campaign assistant are leading the push to get the 68,000 valid signatures needed to place the marijuana initiative on the ballot. Their effort is referred to as SAFER, or Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation.

Tvert lurches forward in his office chair, firing arguments supporting his initiative in rapid succession.

Research, statistics, polls and assorted news reports, he says, show that marijuana is a safer recreational intoxicant than alcohol.

Consider the recent death of Jesse Gomez, an 18-year-old student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Tvert says. News reports indicate Gomez was drinking at a fraternity party the night he died.

If pot had been legal, Tvert suggests, Gomez might have smoked instead, and still would be alive.

"This is public-policy harm-reduction," Tvert says of the initiative. "Marijuana is a safer intoxicant for partying. It's that simple."

Legal challenges

Tvert's arguments have infuriated some, including Attorney General John Suthers. Suthers is working with Gov. Bill Owens and top police around the state to establish a political committee to persuade voters that Tvert's campaign is misguided.

"I find this group's message particularly troubling," Suthers says. "It's a moral relativism message that we have two evils, and [in their assessment] marijuana is a lesser evil than alcohol, so [they] promote that evil. There's another alternative here: Let's promote sobriety as an alternative to intoxication of any form."

Pro-pot campaign posters and bumper stickers clutter Tvert's wall, which also displays an essay titled "Drugs," written in curling script with green marker.

It's an inspiration to Tvert, a recent graduate in political science from the highly selective and private University of Richmond in Virginia.

"Just say no to drugs," declares the essay, which Tvert wrote years ago as an elementary-school student in Scottsdale, Ariz.

His parents framed the essay, along with a certificate of completion from D.A.R.E., the nation's Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, after Tvert convinced Denver voters last year to relax that city's marijuana possession laws in a 54 to 46 percent vote.

Tvert chuckles at the essay, calling it the result of a government propaganda campaign aimed at children.

"I was wrongly taught that because marijuana is illegal, it is bad," he says. "That's just not true."

Tvert says Suthers and other opponents incensed by his statewide campaign can blame Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. Last year, after SAFER's Initiative 100 passed in Denver, Morrissey announced he would continue to prosecute marijuana cases by encouraging police to use state law.

"They have ignored the will of the voters," Tvert says. "What we're doing is taking this up to the next level and changing the state law."

If successful, the initiative would amend drug statutes so that people 21 years and older may possess 1 ounce or less of marijuana legally in Colorado.

Under current state law, it is a petty offense to possess less than 1 ounce, with a maximum fine of up to $100.

Should the initiative pass, many of the legalities would need to be sorted out.

click to enlarge Attorney General John Suthers (center), with U.S. drug - czar John Walters and Gov. Bill Owens, during a February - meeting highlighting drug policy.
  • Attorney General John Suthers (center), with U.S. drug czar John Walters and Gov. Bill Owens, during a February meeting highlighting drug policy.

For instance, cities with existing laws that make marijuana possession illegal such as Colorado Springs, where residents who possess or consume less than 1 ounce of marijuana face up to 90 days in jail and fines up to $500 may be insulated against the initiative.

But Deputy Colorado Springs Attorney Kathy Moore is unsure of what actually would happen. The city would probably assert "home rule," a kind of city autonomy from Colorado law, and continue to prosecute cases until there was a legal challenge, Moore says.

Should the initiative pass, federal law would be the only law prohibiting marijuana possession in some parts of the state, including Denver. Federal law includes stiffer penalties of up to one year in prison and fines of up to $1,000 for possession of 1 ounce or less.

Yet Suthers, a former U.S. attorney for Colorado, says the federal government would be unlikely to go after people who possess such small quantities of marijuana.

"As a practical matter and I have great experience in this area the feds are not going to have any enforcement efforts directed toward people possessing small amounts of marijuana," Suthers says. "They have thresholds [such as] 100 plants, [and] so many pounds."

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for Colorado U.S. Attorney William J. Leone, agrees with Suthers, saying that federal investigators and prosecutors focus on large-scale traffickers, rather than people possessing small amounts for personal consumption.

Working the grassroots

If you're at a gay pride festival in Colorado Springs, a fair in Denver or a campus get-together, Tvert expects to be there. He's constantly filling out applications to secure tables at such events to peddle his literature and petitions.

He does this on a "shoestring" budget that, at the moment, he refuses to further discuss. He also declines to state whether or not he currently smokes pot.

"I don't answer that on the record because I don't think it is pertinent," he says.

Tvert indicates he has smoked pot before. He tells the story of visiting a country music festival in Arizona during his senior year at high school and getting so drunk that he had to be hospitalized.

Authorities didn't pay much attention to the incident, he says, though he broke the law by drinking underage.

Later, while at college, police approached him merely out of suspicion that he was smoking pot, threatening him with arrest and charges if he didn't turn in a suspected pot dealer.

"Look at how much they cared about me smoking pot," he says. "But when I nearly drank myself to death, where were they?"

Last year, SAFER won major political victories after convincing students at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins to take a pro-marijuana stand. Students at the two universities were the first in the nation to pass resolutions asking administrators to set the same penalties for being caught with marijuana as for being caught with alcohol.

Since then, as Tvert has focused on laws in Colorado, SAFER Executive Director Steve Fox has spearheaded the campaign at several other campuses across the country. Students at the University of Maryland passed a resolution two weeks ago, becoming the fifth campus bloc to join the effort.

The resolutions don't have any power to change policies at the schools, and no administration to date has buckled.

Meanwhile, in his efforts to pressure administrators, Tvert is mining the local news for alcohol-related tragedies.

Following the April 9 death of CU-Boulder student Gomez, who was reportedly drinking at a fraternity party the night he died, Tvert issued a press release saying the university was "guilty of negligence" because it had not relaxed its stand against marijuana.

"How many tragic events must occur before the university can simply say to its students, "Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol?'" he asked. "Our federal government and the law enforcement community in this country seem to enjoy demonizing marijuana, and tragic alcohol-related incidents such as these are partially a consequence of this misinformation campaign."

Barrie Hartman, a spokesman for CU, notes the Boulder County Coroner's Office has yet to issue an official cause of death in the case.

He says the university hasn't changed its stand against marijuana. Still, he adds, "smoking pot is illegal, booze is not."

The university prefers students choose neither, Hartman continues.

Tvert says CU is in denial: "If you think college students are not going to party, you're crazy."

Studies vs. studies

Attorney General Suthers worries that recreational marijuana smokers could cause an increase in fatal and injurious accidents.

"If Mr. Tvert was successful in getting everybody that drinks alcohol to get high on marijuana, I think you'd see a lot more driving under the influence of drugs," Suthers argues.

Tvert counters that if his measure passes, alcohol accidents would decline.

Tvert points to studies and statistical surveys, such as research published in 2004 by doctors including Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They concluded that 85,000 people died as a result of alcohol abuse in 2000.

In the past three years, the Colorado State Patrol has tracked 300 substance-abuse-related driving deaths on the state's highways. Ninety-nine percent of those deaths were the result of alcohol abuse, says State Trooper Eric Wynn.

Renee Brown, a spokeswoman for the CDC in Atlanta, is unable to locate any data linking deaths directly to marijuana and says that if numbers do exist, they are likely small.

Yet federal officials, including John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and Charles Curie, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administrator, have recently highlighted studies linking the smoking of marijuana to serious mental health problems.

"New research being conducted here and abroad illustrates that marijuana use, particularly during teen years, can lead to depression, thoughts of suicide and schizophrenia," Walters stated in a press conference last year.

Other studies have failed to find links between marijuana and mental illness.

One study published last April in Psychiatry Research found no link between smoking marijuana and schizophrenia.

Some doctors prescribe marijuana to relieve pain and even to slow the progression of cancer. Voters made medical marijuana legal in Colorado in 2000 when they passed Amendment 20.

Campaign issue

Tvert believes Suthers may be opposing SAFER's initiative for another reason. The battle over marijuana legalization may become a campaign issue for the attorney general, who is running to keep the office to which Gov. Owens appointed him in January 2005.

"I think that this issue gets a lot of people who don't usually vote out to the polls," he says, adding that Suthers' opposition to it could backfire.

That hasn't changed Suthers' resolve to defeat the initiative.

"If I saw a poll tomorrow that said 75 percent of Coloradans were in favor of this measure, I'd still be against it," he says. "This is not something that I come to because of my assessment of the political winds. I've been on this side of the debate for decades."

Suthers says Tom Gorman, who heads the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, will lead a political committee that Suthers and Owens suspect will unite a coalition of police, drug counselors and others.

The committee probably won't find large amounts of money to launch a counter campaign of television advertising, Suthers says.

"You're not going to get interest groups writing multi-thousand-dollar checks to this opposition campaign," he says.

Instead, the campaign will use the expertise and credibility of its members to convince voters through staged events, such as press conferences.

Tvert worries federal and state officials might suddenly find funding to run nonpartisan governmental commercials with strong anti-drug messages. He's considering filing paperwork for what would be a pre-emptive legal injunction to prevent such commercials from airing statewide in the weeks approaching the election.

"We think they might try that," Tvert says, "and want to make sure they don't pull that on us."


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