Marijuana advocate Mason Tvert blames continued unnecessary pot prosecutions on Mayor John Hickenlooper

Last week, reporter Joel Warner told you about marijuana advocate Mason Tvert's call for removal from the Denver Marijuana Review Panel of fellow member Lieutenant Ernie Martinez, head of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association. Martinez's sin? He wrote a 2006 letter comparing marijuana legalization to cancer.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, who appointed the members of the panel, rebuffed that demand through his office, prompting a press conference by Tvert protesting the decision prior to yesterday's panel meeting.

In addition, Tvert is upset at what he sees as the unjustifiably high number of pot prosecutions in Denver despite the passage back in 2005 of a measure decriminalizing possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults in the city.

Regarding the press conference, Tvert says, "We held it at the Denver City and County Building, and there were probably thirty folks there -- all of them Colorado voters, many of them Denver voters. They made a large sign that read, 'We are not a cancer. We are Colorado voters.'"

The placard was intended as "a message to Mayor Hickenlooper, who's seeking statewide office," he continues. "It was a way of letting him know that he needs to stand up for these voters -- voters who are certainly not a cancer. Recent surveys have shown that there's about 50 percent support for making marijuana legal statewide, and about two-thirds support in Denver. These are the people Lt. Martinez referred to as a cancer, and we're concerned that Mayor Hickenlooper would appoint someone like this to a panel dealing with marijuana policy -- and we hope it's not a sign of things to come should he be elected to statewide office."

In Tvert's view, placing Martinez on the panel "is on par with appointing Tom Tancredo to the Latino Commission. This guy's mission runs counter to the mission of the panel, which is legally charged with implementing the measure to the greatest extent possible. After all, he's the president of an organization that's outwardly fighting us at every turn and calling us a cancer. If someone on the immigrant commission said immigrants were a cancer on a society, there would be outrage. And this should be no different."

Additionally, Tvert and his supporters created a mock-up of a Lowest Priority For Dummies book on view here in reference to a statement released by Hickenlooper's staff describing why Martinez shouldn't be removed from the panel. That release reads:

The Marijuana Policy Review Panel (MPRP) intentionally represents a variety of viewpoints, including those of Lt. Martinez. The MPRP has 11 appointed positions (the appointment of the District Attorney was declined) and there are 10 voting panelists in practice.

Lt. Martinez is one voice on the panel. Police officers and recreational users of marijuana may, understandably, have very different perspectives on the phrases "lowest law enforcement priority" and "greatest extent possible." The role of the MPRP is to determine what this ordinance means, in practice, after incorporating all viewpoints -- not just those on one side of the debate. The MPRP's upcoming report to City Council should shed more light on this matter.

To Tvert, the attempt by the Mayor's office to suggest differing interpretations of the phrase "lowest law enforcement priority" is "absurd. These are simple concepts. If police aren't pulling people over for driving five miles per hour over the speed limit or for jaywalking, they shouldn't be citing anyone for marijuana possession."

This subject was debated throughout the panel get-together that followed the press conference. Lt. Martinez wasn't able to attend due to a personal matter, but assistant city attorney Vince Dicroce was on hand to provide data regarding the number of marijuana-possession cases for adults 21 and over filed by the city attorney's office over the past four years. And surprisingly, the totals are actually higher after the decriminalization ordinance passed than before it. The numbers:

2005 -- 1,485

2006 -- 1,841

2007 -- 2,105

2008 -- 1,658

2009 -- 1,694

These totals frustrate Tvert for many reasons, not the least of which is the example provided by Seattle, whose marijuana-possession law is very similar to Denver's. Last month, the Seattle city attorney announced that he would dismiss all pending marijuana-possession cases. Moreover, Seattle's overall prosecution figures were already much lower than Denver's -- just 62 marijuana-related cases filed during the first six months of 2009.

Tvert says the marijuana panel called for such a dismissal of cases in Denver "over a year ago," and he quotes Dicroce as saying that city attorney David Fine could make a decision to do so if given the go-ahead by Mayor Hickenlooper. However, such permission has not been granted -- and as a result, Tvert says, "we're sending nearly 2,000 people a year through the Denver court system for something the majority of people here don't think is a crime. It's just a waste, not to mention the fact that these people are faced with having this on their permanent criminal record. This flies in the face of the voters and is a policy that most of the state no longer supports."

The next big project for the marijuana panel is what Tvert calls "an analysis of what's been happening over the course of the years since this passed -- what the costs have been, what the trends have been, whether there have been any noticeable effects." But the early stages of assembling the report, which will be made public in mid-August or thereabouts, have been challenging because "the city and the city's attorney's office has really obstructed us. They've been reluctant to give us the data we need, and either they're not giving us the information they have or they're completely incompetent and we have a terrible city government structure. It's chaos."

In the immediate future, however, Tvert wants to keep the pressure on Hickenlooper regarding Martinez and the continued marijuana-possession prosecutions. If the mayor doesn't act to remedy these situations, he sees the potential for negative repercussions on his gubernatorial campaign.

"I'd much rather see Mayor Hickenlooper in office than Scott McInnis," he concedes. "But you can't ignore that he's appointing people with such extremist marijuana views. The panel is dedicated to reducing marijuana arrests and prosecutions, and he's nominated someone who wants to maintain marijuana arrests and prosecutions.

"There are now tens of thousands of medical marijuana patients in Colorado, and thousands more who support the legalization of marijuana for responsible adults statewide, and Mayor Hickenlooper needs to recognize those voters. Many of them might not vote against him because of his positions here, but they might refrain from giving him their vote, and in a close election, that could make the difference. The people of Denver have made it abundantly clear that they want this, and yet he's been a roadblock to progress. It's time for a change."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts