Marijuana advocate Mason Tvert on why he joined a ballot-petition lawsuit -- and the future of his marijuana-legalization initiative

On Tuesday, we told you about a lawsuit over the rules pertaining to ballot initiatives that's supported by some strange bedfellows -- among them the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara and Mason Tvert, the marijuana advocate who fronts SAFER (Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation).

Tvert says he isn't the driving force behind the suit, which is being put forward by David Lane, an attorney who's represented everyone from Ward Churchill to Balloon Boy dad Richard Heene. However, he fully supports the mission.

"We've run ballot initiatives in the past, and we certainly plan to do so in the future," he says. "And many of these rules make it almost impossible for a lot of smaller groups to carry out these types of efforts. They have a chilling effect."

The rules to which Tvert objects mostly pertain to the collection of signatures required to get initiatives on the ballot -- among them, a prohibition against people with criminal backgrounds taking part in the process.

"I don't see why that's an issue," Tvert allows. "Number one, these people deserve to find employment. And number two, it's not as if collecting someone's signature on a petition poses any kind of a threat to public safety. You have people on the news sensationalizing this -- saying, 'My gosh, someone with a criminal history is collecting your information!' But this is all information you could walk into the Secretary of State's office and pick up anytime you want. And to my knowledge, there's never been a problem associated with it. So it was really just a reactionary kind of thing, and I think it does a disservice to the people of Colorado."

He feels much the same way about rules preventing out-of-staters from collecting signatures.

"I don't really think that makes much sense. It's certainly not a problem for a candidate running for office to hire a consultant from out of state. So I just don't see why it's relevant. What's most important is that people in this state are voting on it; it's not as if people are being bused in from other states to votes. It's a professional service, and there are only a limited number of people interested in doing that work. It makes sense that often they have to travel to do that."

Another target of the suit is the restriction against paying collectors per signature. According to Lane, the rule states that 20 percent of fees can go toward the number of scrawls gathered, with supporters of the mandate arguing that it helps prevent fraud. Tvert doesn't see things that way.

"We've paid for signatures in the past, and we're not stupid. If someone brings in a petition, we do spot checks. You can check against the registration list to see if someone has simply filled in the names themselves. And, of course, that person will not be paid if he didn't do it correctly, and they won't be asked to continue doing it. So I don't see what the purpose of it is. I don't think people have an incentive to do anything fraudulent, because no one wants to pay for fraudulent signatures regardless."

Last week, Tvert filed preliminary paperwork to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the 2010 ballot, although he hasn't committed to doing so yet. He says this move is unrelated to the suit.

"We do have plans for an initiative in the future, and potentially this year, but it wasn't like it was a coordinated thing," he says. Among the factors he'll consider before deciding to go forward with the initiative is the progress of a bill to regulate the medical marijuana industry, which is currently before the Colorado legislature, and whether fellow advocate Brian Vicente pushes a dispensary regulation initiative he's got on hold, too.

"The potential for raising funds is always a question, too," he acknowledges. "And then, you have to consider the general state of where things stand in the state as we get closer. We still need to see if this is the best time to do it -- if it's the best strategic move, or if we should run local initiatives and carry on with other activities."

The lawsuit probably won't be resolved in time to make collecting signatures easier this year -- but it could do so in the future.

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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