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Mason Tvert Q&A: The burning ambition of an advocate who's been pushing pot for a decade

Mason Tvert, featured in the following wide-ranging Q&A, has played a key role in Colorado's legalization of marijuana since 2005.

Beginning with pro-pot campaigns at Colorado State University and the University of Colorado, Tvert and his SAFER organization advocated for statewide recreational marijuana legalization for eight years, working step by step on MMJ initiatives and then decriminalization on city and state levels until Amendment 64 passed in November 2012.

Now communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, Tvert has begun work on vaporizing marijuana laws outside of Colorado. Before states like Alaska and California steal him away from us, we sat down with Tvert to get his take on the black market, contact highs, smoking in public, and why he feels it's too early to tell what the legal weed world is going to look like.

Westword: I've always seen your campaigns as outrageously funny for those who are in on the joke. I'm thinking of the drug czar billboard you erected on the day of his arrival in Denver, where his face was displayed next to an isolated quote of his: "Marijuana is the safest thing in the world." Or the beer parody commercial you ran at a NASCAR event. Were these just straight campaign strategies, or you having a laugh?

Mason Tvert with Toni Fox on January 1, when recreational marijuana sales became legal in Colorado.
Mason Tvert with Toni Fox on January 1, when recreational marijuana sales became legal in Colorado.
Photo by Brandon Marshall

Mason Tvert: Both. I certainly have an appreciation for humor, but by making the news humorous or controversial, it makes it more likely that people will hear about it and talk to others about it. Our goal has always been to get the message out to the public that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, and when it's done in a humorous way, the news is more likely to cover it.

WW: What are the most common arguments you hear from those fighting legalization?

MT: Generally, there are two types of opponents: those who are still just ranting and raving about how evil marijuana is, and the more sophisticated opponents, who have begun to evolve in their misinformation. We still hear people talking about marijuana being so addictive that it needs to be illegal, despite the fact that it's been demonstrated to be far less addictive than alcohol, tobacco and, in some ways, even caffeine.

And, of course, we still hear the argument of needing to protect teens. Yet they seem to fail to recognize that 80 percent of high-school seniors already say they can get marijuana easily under a system of prohibition.

WW: And your position is that regulated marijuana will decrease that number?

MT: Yeah, exactly. If the goal of arresting hundreds of thousands of adults to help keep marijuana away from teens is resulting in 80 percent of teens saying they can get marijuana easily, it's clearly not a good policy. We've seen use of alcohol and tobacco among teens decrease over the years, while they've remained steady for marijuana -- and that suggests that regulation works.

WW: Historians often tie the marijuana prohibition of the 1930s to racism, claiming it was a way to criminalize Mexican immigrants and African-American jazz clubs. Do you think there's still an undercurrent of racism in today's criminalization of cannabis?

MT: Well, there's absolutely no doubt that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws. An ACLU report came out last year showing that despite having generally equal rates of use, blacks are arrested at more than three times the rate of whites for marijuana possession. In a lot of places, it's even greater than that -- though that's probably more symptomatic of problems with our law enforcement in general than just marijuana laws.

WW: Critics of Amendment 64 make the argument that its stringent regulations -- along with exceptionally high tax rates -- are forcing the legal marijuana market to charge disproportionately high prices compared to the black market.

MT: That's an absurd notion. It's absurd for anyone to try and draw conclusions about the underground market within three weeks of the legal market establishing itself. I shouldn't even say "establishing itself"; it's only just commencing. A fraction of the businesses that are going to exist currently exist. There's been no opportunity for buyers to go to multiple businesses to determine which one will have the lower price. So competition hasn't even begun, and yet I'm already hearing from business owners who are starting to lower their prices.

Continue for more of our interview with Mason Tvert.

WW: There are a lot of people who think they're smart or clever by trying to make this case, but it's currently unfounded.

MT: Most people who decide that they want to buy marijuana aren't going to call around to a bunch of people to see who might have some, drive to see them, and then deal with a limited variety and a seller with little knowledge of what the product is -- as opposed to stopping at the store nearby and paying a few dollars more. This is a market that's going to be driven by price, convenience, variety and safety. The last two are currently being met by this legal market, while convenience will be met once more stores open. And I have no doubt that the price will continue to go down.

WW: Another economic component is tourism. Do you think that when Washington state rolls out its recreational shops in the months ahead, it will have an impact on Colorado tourism sales?

MT: I don't think so. I've never been one to think that legalization is going to lead to a massive influx of tourism. Anyone who tries to apply what's gone on in the first month of retail marijuana sales to what will happen in the future is a fool. That would be like looking at opening-day box-office numbers of a movie and suggesting that every day after it is going to be the same. People were looking at January 1 and saying, "Look at the sales, look at the tax revenue," but you can't base anything on that, because it's the first day in history. For the rest of eternity, things won't be the same, because there won't be the novelty of it being the first time. People won't be lined up around the corner to buy marijuana in the next month, let alone the next year.

Mason Tvert during an appearance on CNN.
Mason Tvert during an appearance on CNN.

WW: So are you satisfied with the way things turned out with the taxes and regulations surrounding Colorado's legalization?

MT: I don't think anyone, whether they're for or against marijuana legalization, could say they're happy with everything. But ultimately, the taxes that were set were chosen by the voters of Colorado, and they're intended to fund the regulatory system, which is crucial to survival of the system. The federal government has made it abundantly clear that if there aren't regulations in place, and those regulations aren't enforced, they will interfere.

WW: Looking at how things turned out for Colorado, what have you learned that will affect how you approach similar campaigns in other parts of the country?

MT: I'm not really the one who will get into the nitpicky language of things. I have general concepts that I feel need to be in place, like ensuring that the laws allow for home cultivation, and ensuring that they don't include a DUID limit per se. But I've not been involved in much of the regulatory or implementation stuff. I've probably spent a small fraction of my time on Colorado-related stuff over the last year.

WW: What has been keeping you occupied over the past year?

MT: Basically everywhere else. The Marijuana Policy Project has been working with legislatures and ballot initiatives around the country, and we also have efforts going on in Congress, and broader education campaigns. When I've been involved in Colorado over the last year, it was because someone wanted to do something really stupid, like propose repealing the initiative, as John Morse did, or propose that it be a crime to use marijuana on your balcony or front porch, like our city council did. In those cases I took part in holding press conferences and carrying out public action. But when it comes to everything that was occurring in the legislature or city council, I've really not been involved; it's not what I do. I'm not an attorney; I'm not involved in regulatory issues. My job is to change the way people think about marijuana.

WW: Even if this isn't your forte, do you think it's essential that cities legalizing marijuana provide public places where it is legal to consume marijuana -- say, in a music venue or comedy club?

MT: We wrote the law so that private businesses can regulate the use of marijuana on their property. And that would entail something like a concert venue. Smoking marijuana has been added to the Colorado Clean Indoor Act, but there are other forms of marijuana consumption that would be allowable. And even under the Clean Indoor Act, there are still businesses where cigarette smoking is allowed, like uncovered patios.

WW: Whenever there's an argument over whether marijuana smokers should be allowed to consume in public places, the issue of "contact highs" arises. This is pretty much a debunked myth, right?

MT: They aren't non-existent, but they are incredibly difficult to produce. We all know that secondhand tobacco smoke has significant health implications, but there's little evidence that marijuana poses the same potential problems. In 1986, the National Institute on Drug Abuse did a major study on this, where it put people in an unventilated eight-by-seven room and burned four joints for a continuous hour on six consecutive days; most of the participants in the study had no trace of marijuana in their system, let alone an actual high. There were a couple of people who had metabolized THC in their urine, but they were never considered to be under the influence.

It wasn't until they got to sixteen joints burned consecutively for an hour on six consecutive days that it reached the effect of consuming a joint. It's obviously pretty rare that someone is going to be in an eight-by-seven room where sixteen joints are smoked inside of an hour, so it's an unfounded concern.

WW: What projects do you and the Marijuana Policy Project have on the horizon?

MT: We're supporting a campaign that's being run by local activists in Alaska; they submitted a petition a few weeks ago, and if that measure qualifies for the ballot, it will appear in August. And we're planning to support initiatives in six other states in 2016: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada. And, of course, all of this depends on how much money we're able to raise.

More from our Marijuana archive circa January 2: "'Marijuana prohibition was a failed experiment,' says Mason Tvert at 3D Cannabis."


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