In honor of 4/20, marijuana activist Mason Tvert discusses the future of pot
Mason Tvert: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Though he doesn't like to admit it, 31-year-old Mason Tvert has changed the way cannabis is viewed in Colorado — and the way Colorado is viewed by the rest of the country. Tvert, a native of Arizona and graduate of the University of Richmond, has been stirring the pot in Colorado since 2005, when he came here to start Safe Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) at the University of Colorado. By that fall, he'd pushed a successful ballot measure through Denver that decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults. In 2006, he went statewide with an initiative to legalize possession of up to an ounce by adults. Although that measure failed, 58.9 percent to 41 percent, the experience helped him calculate how to structure last year's campaign for Amendment 64, which legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use and cultivation, and also charged Colorado with coming up with a way to regulate this state's now-legal cannabis industry.
Now, while the legislature is busy hammering out details for how to start licensing retail marijuana stores as early as July 1, Coloradans are getting ready to celebrate the first 4/20 since marijuana was legalized in Colorado. So we decided to catch up with Tvert to get his thoughts on pot politics, how he thinks the implementation of Amendment 64 is going, and what's next for cannabis in Colorado.
A lot of people see you as the guy behind this. Eight years ago, could you have seen all this happening?
First of all, I want to avoid any of the "I'm the guy behind it." There was so much more to it. I want to avoid any of that douchery.
I mean, it's kind of weird. Since we started SAFER, the mission has never been to change policy. It is to change the way people think about marijuana. When we began, our goal was to change the way people in Colorado viewed marijuana. Specifically, to make people understand that marijuana is safer than alcohol. We ran the city initiatives, we ran the state initiative, and we did those with our primary goal being education.
So it wasn't, at the time, it wasn't like, "Well, is this going to actually win?" It was more like, "Are we going to actually educate people," you know? I never really viewed the victory in the end as "We're going to pass this initiative." It was more, "We're going to have enough people think this."
We've been seeing support grow nationwide. Back in 2005, nationwide, it was in the 40 [percent approval range]. The state had adopted medical marijuana laws...so it wasn't like out of the blue. But I think that it might have come around quicker than people might have expected.
How much of a role did medical marijuana play in that shift in attitude?
There are three general things that made this happen. Number one is the shift in attitude based on public-education efforts and the discussion that was forced here in Colorado. I am a true believer that the more people talk about this issue and hear about it, the more they are going to be supportive of ending marijuana prohibition. There are people who would say, "Well, duh." But you don't see this type of media coverage and discussion taking place in Texas, and people don't really hear about it. It's not a topic of conversation for most people. It is among people who care about marijuana.
When there are things happening on the city and state ballot and there are publicity stunts like billboards going up, it's something people talk to each other about. As they talk to each other, they come across people who support this, because, you know, half the people do support it. Now they are in the position that their brother-in-law supports it, or my boss supports it, and now people are actually thinking about it more. The public-education work that was done was a big part of this.
The other side is medical marijuana and the evolution of that system.... The development of a regulated system for medical marijuana cultivation and sales is the other huge factor in this. People saw that it is possible. They saw that it doesn't cause problems. They saw that local municipalities are able to ban businesses if they want; they saw that tax revenue could be generated. While I don't think that passing medical marijuana laws or the idea of medical marijuana is a stepping stone to legalization, I do think that being able to see that regulated system helped people recognize what a regulated system for non-medical sales would look like.
The third part of this, through both sides of that equation, is the growth of infrastructure. Over the last several years we've been able to develop relationships with local activists as well as other organizations. For example, back in 2006 the ACLU did not support the [statewide legalization initiative]. We talked to them, we knew them, but they didn't support it. But [with Amendment 64], they did.
Are you happy with the direction it's going now? What about the reaction — or lack thereof — from the federal government?
I think the way things are going is positive. What is occurring right now is that our governor and the governor of Washington state have been communicating with the Department of Justice and have come away from that correspondence believing we should continue forward with implementing these initiatives.
And those are the people who should be having the conversation. It's our governor and our state officials who are responsible for representing Colorado in that discussion. And that is a discussion that is taking place. They are providing the Justice Department with descriptions of how these regulations are going to look, what state employee roles will be, what measures will be put in place to prevent interstate trafficking and to ensure the safety of minors.
The federal government has made it very clear that their interest is in preventing interstate trafficking and protecting children. If you look at their involvement in Colorado over the last few years, it has been falling into that category. Where there have been situations where a medical marijuana business or actor has been found to be, or suspected to be, diverting marijuana out of state, they have gotten involved. Otherwise, to my knowledge they have not. The only other time they have significantly interfered is when they instructed those businesses to move away from schools.
Our state officials and the bill that we now need to pass need to respect those concerns.
I think people wanted an immediate response from the government. I certainly wanted to know what they were going to say. But I feel like they've handled it pretty well. I know people are saying it's so funny that they say they are still reviewing it. I've said that. Oh, yeah, like they're still reviewing it. Like they didn't review it in September, let alone in May of last year. But they are definitely being thoughtful, it would seem, unless they are just diabolical. How would they necessarily say this is no good without knowing what "this" is and neither state has decided what the actual system will be?
For them to come out and say, "Nope, this is no good," it's very similar to some of these localities banning these businesses without knowing what these businesses will entail. They don't know what their requirements are going to be; they don't know anything about them. All they do know is that voters supported this initiative — which does allow municipalities to ban.
Obviously, you guys wrote the local ban in there and knew it could happen, but did you expect to see this many municipalities take up bans before regulations had even been passed?
I feel it is premature. I think that there are obviously plenty of times for a locality to take this up once these regulations are finished and before the application process even begins. We put that in there, but if we had left it out, it still would have been the case. We're a home-rule state; localities have a great deal of control. For the same reason that a city can say we are not allowing liquor stores, they could say we are not allowing this. We simply made it clear that they are able to do that, for the same reason we made it clear that this does not make driving while impaired legal. That would have been the case if we didn't make it clear, but we wanted to make it clear.
I think it is premature for localities to be taking these actions absent a very compelling reason. And having not heard from their voters since the passage of the initiative, I would like to think it would be difficult to know where they stand on this. I've heard some of them say that they've heard from their constituents. Sure, you've heard from the ones who care about it.
They could do this by local referendum, and they should do it. Any local official who decides that marijuana businesses should be banned should be absolutely confident that a majority of voters in their locality would support that if it were put in front of them at the ballot box.
What's next for Colorado? Where do we go from here?
It's already happening. It's only been six months since it passed, less than five months since it went into effect. Things are moving very quickly. And seemingly quite efficiently, in my opinion. So I think it will continue to move forward with implementation, and we will establish a system, and then we will continue to address elements of that system as needed. If it becomes clear that something is not working, we will address that. These things will always come out.
I've said this a million times. Don't hate the player, hate the game. There's a debate to be had over whether our legislative system works and represents people versus private interest and how to things get done. It's a valid debate to have. But in light of the fact that this is the current system, that is what is going to need to happen with this.
You're now with the Marijuana Policy Project as their national spokesman. With MPP supporting ten different legalization initiatives this year across the country, how are you approaching it from the national level? What are things you've done right that you're taking with you to other states?
Placing more emphasis on the "marijuana is safer than alcohol" message; MPP never really made an effort to make that message before. With MPP, there is more emphasis being placed on that message. I now have to talk a lot more about medical marijuana, which I've talked about publicly and answered questions about — but it's never been the area of marijuana policy that I've focused on. I defer to Brian [Vicente, the Denver attorney he worked with on Amendment 64].
But now we have bills all around the country that we are working on, so I have to talk about medical marijuana more and more. Talking about decriminalization, which isn't hard — but it's different. A lot of our work is taking place in state legislatures, which I've never really done. Contrary to the Westword comment board, I was not ever involved in any of the medical marijuana legislative activity; it's not my area of expertise. I'm not an attorney. There are people who are working on it, and I trust that they are representing what I want.
It's a lot different educating the public when there's going to be a ballot initiative at some point; it's a lot different than relying on legislators to vote to do the right things. A legislator recently went off on a decriminalization bill. He was all against it and said that he wished for one year he would not have to hear from marijuana legalization advocates.
So I was like, let's take a big coupon to this guy's office that says "Good for one year off," saying we will not lobby in Maryland on marijuana for a full year if you can prove that marijuana is more harmful than alcohol. But we didn't do it, because would other legislators not want to work with us?
Would you say you have had to mature in your approach?
Well, I guess it depends on the definition of "mature." Like, show restraint? If I was mature, I probably wouldn't even think about it.
You've said that you don't often talk about your own cannabis use, but after 64 was declared a winner on election night, did you light one up?
No. Because when it passed, that started the most important — or arguably the most important — 48 hours of my year. When it passed, there was now a substantial amount of media coverage. Not just around Colorado, but around the world. And what was going to be conveyed in those stories? I felt it was absolutely critical to address all of the media that asked. I didn't sleep election night. There was probably a two-and-a-half-hour period of a break for me; that was it. Given the magnitude of what had happened, it needed to be conveyed to the rest of the world in a manner that gave it a good face. Yeah, honestly, that was all that I was focused on.
I don't want to say I didn't have a good time, but I wish I could go back and be able to hang out and catch up with people. Unfortunately, that was part of the job.
What about since then?
It's funny, because it will come up when I'm talking with friends who will give someone some marijuana and say, "Oh, that's legal now." It's weird to think about that, and a lot of people haven't gotten used to the notion that it's not illegal to hand a small bag of marijuana to a friend. When a friend will come to town, they know it, but to say, "I could pull out some marijuana and hand it to you" — they're fascinated.
When you think about it from the perspective of someone who hasn't been around it at all, it is fascinating.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.