"Mind if I smoke?" asks Frank Rich, Denver's drunken ambassador.
Who could mind?
We're sitting in Club 404, a 53-year-old bar in the heart of Denver, a town that's suddenly turned into America's new-age sin city, a place where vice is very nice -- if, in fact, it qualifies as vice at all. Last fall, Denver was toasted as "The Drunkest Big City in America" by Men's Health magazine, and while the stated reasons for that honor did not cite Rich, who founded Modern Drunkard magazine here in 1996, they certainly should have. He's about to crisscross the country on a book tour, touting this town's liquid assets as he talks up The Modern Drunkard: A Handbook for Drinking in the 21st Century, a malted manifesto already bubbling up the Amazon charts.
Frank Rich and Mason Tvert
And just three weeks ago, Denver voters stunned poll watchers and pundits by passing Initiative 100, which legalizes the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in this city. The Make Denver SAFER campaign was led by Mason Tvert, a 23-year-old from Phoenix who graduated from the University of Richmond in May 2004, moved to Boulder in January and pulled off the upset of the election season, taking this town one toke over the line. He, too, is crisscrossing the country, talking about his victory and helping other groups strategize similar campaigns.
But right now, Denver's viceroys of vice, these two sultans of sin, are meeting for the first time.
"You didn't have to attack alcohol," Rich says, hoisting a glass of PBR.
"The logic behind the campaign," Tvert explains, "was simply a method for pointing out the hypocrisy of many people within our system and the irrationality of many laws. I wholeheartedly do not have a problem with alcohol."
"You obviously do," Rich fires back. "Have you ever read your website?"
"I wrote it."
Rich pulls out a file of pages he's printed off SAFER's site, pages full of screeds and stats pointing out the hazards of alcohol. For Rich, drinking isn't all fun and games -- although his book is full of both. He has his own sets of stats regarding the healthful aspects of alcohol.
"Less harmful and more harmful does not mean better or worse," Tvert responds.
"That's exactly what it does," Rich says.
"Alcohol is more harmful than marijuana," Tvert insists.
"How is alcohol more harmful?" Rich asks.
"You can overdose on it."
"You can overdose on aspirin."
(Were this discussion being fueled by marijuana rather than beer, at least the voices would be lower -- and slower. Already, my cramped fingers are aching to pop the top off an aspirin bottle.)
"Alcohol saves more lives than it takes away," Rich continues.
"Alcohol safer than marijuana? That's statistically impossible," Tvert counters, then tones it down. "I think we do agree that whether it's alcohol or marijuana, they are drugs that people want to use; they do have benefits. They also have potential harms. I never say that marijuana is harm-free. Never. I always say that the policies that keep marijuana illegal while keeping alcohol legal are more harmful than policies that would allow people to use marijuana as well as alcohol."
"I support the legalization of marijuana. I think most drinkers do," says Rich. "Drinkers are more laissez-faire about legalizing pot than your average person."
Another PBR later, Rich is no more laissez-faire about SAFER's anti-alcohol campaign. "It reminds me of two beleaguered swimmers in the social current, and one of them is trying to stand on the other guy's head to save himself," he says.
"The idea wasn't that we were attacking alcohol so much..."
"Oh, come on."
Hey, Tvert insists, he would have liked to have run a pro-marijuana campaign. But the billboard company wouldn't let him use the message "Marijuana is SAFER than alcohol" because it wouldn't permit the word "marijuana." And it was the city that told SAFER the ballot measure couldn't be called the "Alcohol/Marijuana Equalization Initiative." So, yes, alcohol wound up the heavy, but all he was looking for was equal treatment under the law: If alcohol is legal, then marijuana should be, too.
Without the alcohol angle, Tvert points out, "there would have been no media coverage at all." And even negative coverage -- say, of the time Tvert called Denver mayor John Hickenlooper a "drug dealer" because he owns bars, or of a proposed SAFER billboard showing a battered woman that made it look like Initiative 100 was simply an attempt to put more cops on the street -- helped the cause.
"This is Denver," Rich disagrees. "Voters could read the word Œmarijuana.'"
In the drunkest big city in America, who's going to vote against a little pot?
But Tvert doesn't back down. "I never lied once," he says. And besides, the campaign worked: "Marijuana wasn't legal before, and now it is."
For Tvert, this is just the beginning. He's gotten calls from politicos around the country. "Everyone is polling to find out what the hell happened," he says. He's just back from the national Drug Policy Alliance Conference in California -- "There was no discussion of alcohol there, because alcohol is a legal drug," he notes -- and next he's off to Washington, D.C., where he'll see friends and maybe do a little politicking. Then it's back to Colorado, where he'll pick up the pro-marijuana campaigns he introduced on the University of Colorado and Colorado State University campuses this past spring. Although both schools changed alcohol policies after students died on campus, "they're still doing things wrong," Tvert insists. And soon he'll be talking with Sensible Colorado, an outfit that wants to push for legalizing marijuana statewide in 2008. "We'd like to help them see that through," he says.
"I think you'll have a difficult time if you're attacking alcohol," says Rich, a former Army Ranger. "I'll make sure of that. I'll start a campaign."
Where there's smoke, there's still ire.
Back in their corners, the two agree to disagree...for now. They start comparing notes on other sin cities. Alcohol consumption is much higher in Amsterdam than it is here, for example, even though drugs are legal. "But I'm pretty sure that's tourists," Tvert says. They debate whether alcohol or marijuana is the more social drug. They talk about alcohol and assorted city officials, alcohol and the arts. "Look at Ernest Hemingway," Tvert says. "We wouldn't have The Old Man and the Sea without it."
Rich, who will be signing copies of his own book in New York City the next day, casts a conversational net for similar dope-inspired masterpieces, but it comes back empty. "I totally feel for you guys," he says, his hand around a fresh PBR. "We just wouldn't attack you. What's the honorable thing to do, rather than attack a beleaguered swimmer?"
"I have nothing against alcohol," Tvert says. "I'm pro-choice all the way around."
"But there will be a backlash," Rich warns. "People are moving to prohibition. There's less consumption of alcohol every year."
The campaign was just politics, Tvert repeats. He's not called "Karl Rove for the pleasantly stoned" for nothing.
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Not that he'll officially say whether he's ever inhaled: "Would you ask a pro-choice person if they've ever had an abortion?"
If you're Frank Rich, you would. "Do you smoke?" he asks Tvert. "I'm pretty sure you do."