On the heels of two fatal alcohol poisonings at two Colorado Universities, then-recent University of Richmond Political Science graduate and new Southwest resident Mason Tvert successfully splintered all stereotypes of sloth associated with marijuana legalization advocates. Indeed, Tvert was proactive and magnanimous.
The 26 year-old dynamo, the founder of SAFER (Safer Alternatives For Recreational Enjoyment), collected hundreds of thousands of signatures from Denver residents and Coloradoans alike to overturn the conventional thinking that was poisoning the minds of the populace.
The consequent Denver referendum was a rousing success that made international news. However, in a fantastic display of democracy contempt, state authorities still insisted that police could enforce marijuana law in Denver using state code.
Regardless, the simple truth – that alcohol users were in fact more prone to physical addiction, vehicular homicide, and violence in general – finally hit home, and all of the racist and medically unsound lies fell to pieces at the feet of the powerful and terrible. Denver is a landmark for common sense victorious.
With the tide of another Denver referendum this Fall to make marijuana arrests the lowest possible priority for law enforcement, I had to catch up with Tvert.
Tyler Bass: This proposition was for the entire state of Colorado?
Mason Tvert: In 2006, we had a statewide initiative that was on the ballot in Colorado. In 2005, we had a citywide initiative in Denver. We actually have another initiative that should be on the Denver ballot this November.
TB: So, obviously, the Denver one was very successful. Obviously, the Colorado one wasn’t. What is the nature of this new Denver initiative?
MT: The first initiative that we ran – well, first of all, we started at Universities: The University of Colorado, Colorado State, but then we moved to Denver. And we ran a citywide initiative in 2005, which successfully removed all penalties for private adult marijuana possession under city ordinances and effectively made Denver the first city in the country to make marijuana legal for adults.
TB: So obviously with marijuana legalization, there’s all sorts of new regulations that have to be taken into effect. The idea is obviously that people can grow marijuana for their own personal use, but if the idea is that not only that the cops don’t interfere with someone using marijuana, my thought is this: if someone gets marijuana stolen from them, it’s obviously a crime against property in the case that marijuana is legalized. So you are comfortable with the idea of cops actually being involved with making sure people can secure their marijuana, not have it stolen from them?
MT: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, look at like for example – well, you guys really don’t have any frame of reference in Virginia, but in Colorado, there is medical marijuana law that is effective. And there have been multiple cases where patients have been, where patients’ orchards have been raided by police and their medical marijuana has been confiscated, and then it ends up being given back to them. And it’s actually in the state law here, in the Constitution, that the police actually have to take care of the marijuana they confiscate that may potentially be medical, and they need to keep it alive until that person is tried. So just recently they gave it back to a guy because the police didn’t know how to take care of it and weren’t able to do so. So there are already, we already have those types of regulations happening with regards to medical marijuana. We obviously have it already happening with regards to other drugs such as alcohol and tobacco that are legal. Obviously, if you own a bar, or if your home bar was robbed, you would probably expect us to call the police, as a substantial amount of your property was taken.
TB: If certain states do choose to legalize marijuana, are there any serious negative consequences from the Feds, like federal funding? Do they defund the DMV?
MT: You know, that’s a good question. There hasn’t been a case where that’s come up yet. For example, in Colorado, there was a proposal a few years back by [Coors Brewing Company Chairman] Pete Coors, and by others, to change the drinking age in Colorado, to lower it, and that was received with a lot of, you know, blowback. And the Federal Government from what I understand – I didn’t live here at the time – threatened to withhold certain federal funding for highways and so on, but that’s like specifically tied to federal funding, so I think that there’s a legitimate reason. If you look at, for example, medical marijuana, no state that has an active medical marijuana program has had any other than the federal government potentially raiding them or so on into offices of caregivers. There’s been no such effort by the federal government to keep states in line. And its actually not possible for the federal government to force a state to enforce federal law. It’s not legal. It’s just not possible. So you know that why we have states like California, Colorado, the other ten, eleven medical marijuana states that have effective medical marijuana programs. They have state agencies running these programs. For example, the Department of Health here in Colorado has this program and the federal government really can’t do anything about it, other than bust people. And if that’s what they choose to do… which, you know, does happen. It happens more in California than anywhere, but obviously it’s a lot bigger there than anywhere.
TB: What is the social cause? I mean, obviously marijuana is a lot better for you than alcohol. It seems thoroughly clear to me, and obviously more than tobacco. Considering that there is no LD-50 level for marijuana, why is it that the federal government – whether it’s scheduling marijuana with Ecstasy – what is the benefit to the government or to the governmental system, or the state governments, in keeping marijuana illegal?
MT: That’s a really good question. It’s a very deep question. I am sure that depending on the person you ask you could get a number of answers. I mean, some people might argue that it’s, you know, an attempt to maintain the current status quo of pharmaceuticals, or the alcohol or tobacco industries or whatever. You always hear people say, “Oh, well, it’s alcohol and tobacco companies that are keeping marijuana illegal.” This isn’t…
TB: Do you believe that?
MT: … necessarily directly true in order to actually have lobbyists lobbying against marijuana related stuff. But [alcohol and tobacco industries] do give a lot of money to these people. So these people who are being brought into office do undoubtedly have an interest in maintaining their interests. So look at for example, Republican congressional members receive more money from the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which is the nation’s largest alcohol-beer-liquor lobby. They receive more money from that one individual [Political Action Committee] than any other special interest. And that’s something people always talk about: oil, pharmaceuticals, and so on, but booze pays for quite a bit. Are they paying to keep marijuana illegal? I don’t necessarily think so, but they are certainly paying to keep certain people in power, and those people don’t want marijuana legal.
TB: You seriously think that alcohol executives say to themselves, “Oh, well, people are getting high all the time in place of doing this, they won’t buy beer”?
MT: No, I don’t. I don’t think they’re saying that at all. What I am saying is that a lot of people have this notion that there is there is a direct initiative like that for alcohol companies to keep marijuana illegal, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think certain alcohol companies keep certain individuals in power and those are the types of individuals who are certainly not interested or willing to make marijuana legal. What I am saying is Republicans.
TB: For example, I have seen on two separate occasions – once when I was a teenager and once when I was in college – I saw people who had never used marijuana ever and then they used it, and they were people who were generally kind of sheltered or something like that. And they would then all of a sudden, they would feel queasy, they would feel weird, and they would just be uncomfortable with the feeling, and they would say, “Oh, I need to go to the hospital.” And the one situation where I was around this, I said, “Well, that’s absurd. You can’t overdose. You just need to calm down.” But they would just generally have the feeling that they would need to go to the emergency room to get taken care of even though, you know, the effect of the drug is only two hours and you can never conceivably overdose.
TB: I think that given how harshly people consider marijuana, like, why is it that all of this myth has started? Its just impossible to die from this substance. It’s funny! It’s actually funny that, you know, there is so much effort put into teaching kids just the phrase “drugs and alcohol” for example.
MT: Oh, yeah, you’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. I’ve got my philosophy on my wall hanging in my bedroom and it says basically, “Drugs are bad. Some drugs are good, like alcohol or tobacco if you are overage.” We’re taught that from an early age, and people have been taught that for the last 60-70 years. And there’s no doubt that our federal government has implemented programs to misinform people about the harms of marijuana. If you look at it, what they’ve done is tried to make people think it’s as harmful as possible, and what you see is that when marijuana was first arriving in this country in the early twentieth century, in the 1900’s, people didn’t associate it with much harm. It wasn’t perceived as harmful. People didn’t know about it, right?
*Editor’s Note: Tvert was wrong about the date of introduction of cannabis to the United States. George Washington, to name just one, intentionally grew smokable marijuana.
MT: It was therefore not restricted. And then all of a sudden, they started making up all of this shit about Mexicans and black people raping white women and so on and all this and all that. So what they did is increase the perception of harm of marijuana and it became illegal. Then we saw like the 60’s and the 70’s roll around, and then all of a sudden the perception of harm for marijuana dipped. People started thinking it was less and less harmful. And it came to the point where it was almost made legal. The Carter administration was campaigning when he became president on changing marijuana laws. And obviously there’s some political things that led to that crumbling, but then the Reagan years came, and it kind of picked back up, and people have been more and more increasing the perception of harm of marijuana. So what our organization, SAFER, is trying to do is decrease the perception of harm by educating that this is a drug less harmful than alcohol, which is legal. Because unfortunately most people don’t know that or don’t expect that. And basically our whole organization is based on the notion that of the population, virtually any population, but in our country, about 33% – about one third – knows that marijuana is safer than alcohol, it’s less harmful. That’s you, that’s me, and so on. Then there’s 33% of the people who think they’re just as harmful. You know, it’s not worse, it’s not better, it’s not safe. Then there’s about 33% of the people who think that it’s absolutely more harmful than alcohol. So if you look at just the population of people who think it’s safer: you, me, the 33%; within us, there’s more than 70% support for making marijuana legal and regulated like alcohol. So basically, what we are trying to do is expand this 33% – that’s you and me and so on – to be bigger. Let’s say that was 40 or 50% that know marijuana is safer than alcohol. Well, all of a sudden, that 70% of us is going to be a whole lot bigger.
At this point in the interview, the reporter went off on some irrelevant, grandiose, and self-congratulatory tangent about his own struggles against The Man. Eventually, the meaningful conversation came back into fruition when Bass suggested that the reason that alcohol is legal and marijuana is not is because it is so comparatively easy to privately produce small amounts of marijuana for one’s own use than it is to brew alcohol.
MT: That’s actually not necessarily true, though. I mean, look at it. Basically, alcohol was completely prohibited. Before it was prohibited it was being made by people in their homes and whatnot. They decided to regulate it, and by regulating it, they allowed companies and so on to produce it, and ultimately, people said, “Hey, we want to make this stuff in our own houses. I want to create my own distillery. I want to homebrew.” And that’s when Jimmy Carter passed the Homebrewing Act, saying, “Hey, go ahead and produce your own beer.” Because there’s no real motivation to selling or abusing homebrewing, because it’s just not economic. You can buy more and better beer from a company. And the same goes for marijuana. And the same goes for tobacco. Could someone theoretically grow it in their own house, and cultivate it? Yeah, but the fact is that’s a pain in the ass. Just like with marijuana, granted, yeah, you could grow it, but to grow good marijuana or usable marijuana, it’s either expensive, timely, you need to have certain skills, and some people might be willing to do that, but others would just as soon buy it from someone else who knows how to do it better.
TB: I think the medical information is out there for people who are interested. But at the end of the day, I think if politicians really look at it, given the generation that most of these guys – the senators, the president – when they came around, they know what these things do. Like they are going to tell kids, “Oh no. We had no idea what it did. Oh my god.” But I mean like I hear that so often, but it’s not that they’re naïve. Here’s the thing, you have to give off to that 33% … as you know there are three types of people in this: there are people who claim to never have smoked pot and they are very well meaning, but they are the kind of people who you would hear say “do pot” or “smoke drugs” or something. (Well, you can smoke really, really bad drugs, but …) they will basically think, “Did you overdose on marijuana?” You can actually find adults who believe this. It’s really out there. It’s absurd, but I have found it a few times.
MT: I talk to members of the legislature, with city council, who do honestly believe that. A lot of these people are not conspiring against marijuana and they know that it should be legal. A lot of them are misinformed or ignorant or have been led to believe that it’s more dangerous than it is. You’ll hear for example, one of the biggest things you’ll hear is that marijuana is so much more potent. The reason they use that argument is because all of these people who are now 50, 45 years old and now serving in the legislatures, city council and so on, used to smoke pot. They need to convince those people that, “Hey, this isn’t that safe pot. This is new, really crazy hardcore damaging pot.”
TB: Yeah, I saw a study on Fox (well, sheesh, not a “study”) – I saw a story on Fox News that claimed – it was like something from the 1930’s – that they’ve found this new, killer weed and that – I think they were quoting a DEA agent – who was kind of using hyperbole, but he said, “This stuff could kill you.” And then, of course, they air that, and it was so absurd.
MT: We’ve seen it all.
TB: It sounds like something Fox News would have been joking about, liking running a story that says, uh, “John Kerry is a fag communist.” It sounds like something that they would go completely like, “uh, whoops!” but it aired. I was just amazed by it. I met someone who volunteered for you. I just came back from France and was talking to someone from Colorado. I met a girl named Cary who said she worked for SAFER, so that’s how I heard your name.
TB: Just one more thing. Thanks for talking to me. It’s on principle, and I totally understand why you do this because it is irrelevant, but you never whether you smoke pot yourself. I totally see what you’re talking about. Why does it matter?
TB: I think what came about with it was this. I don’t think that it’s the most important issue in the entire public discourse, but when it comes to something like … it’s kind of like this: Fornication is illegal in many states, but 95% of everyone ends up doing it. If you go out in there, and you say, “Legalize fornication. This is ridiculous,” people will assume, “Oh, you must really like that fornicating (tone of intense mock scorn).” And so I think that, I think that … do you see any parallel there?
MT: Uhm, no, I mean, basically, yeah, I think that people should be … I don’t think people should be … I think people confuse the notion of being proud of that they use marijuana versus proud to exercise their beliefs on marijuana. I hear people say, they get out there, they’re like, (stoner voice) “I use marijuana, and I am going to smoke in front of the capitol building to protest.” And, you know, that’s one thing, but what we find more often are people who are even unwilling to say they support changing marijuana laws, which clearly is not an issue for me. But let me put it this way: I was investigated by a multi-jurisdictional grand jury in Richmond, Va. for supposedly being involved in using marijuana, so, you know, they don’t subpoena those people because they have no clue.
TB: Yeah. Yeah.
MT: So go figure.
TB: Yeah, go figure, right?
Tvert’s organization’s website is SaferChoice.com.
UPDATE/CORRECTION (4 December 2007): The old URL is dead. Check out SaferChoice.org.