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On a Monday in August, dozens of marijuana advocates showed up at the Denver City Council meeting. The graying council, elevated in their leather swivel chairs, gazed down upon the eclectic crowd. Many were dressed in simple T-shirts and sunglasses. Some had dreadlocks. The topic at hand: a proposed ballot initiative to make the enforcement of Colorado’s marijuana laws the lowest priority of the Denver Police Department. Citizens wanting to speak before the council were given three minutes.
When Mason Tvert, the 25-year-old founder of Safe Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), stepped up to the witness stand, the council members’ faces soured. They had heard Tvert’s message—that marijuana is safer than alcohol—countless times.
“Alcohol is out there, it’s being used,” said Tvert, clad in a pinstriped gray suit and Jerry Garcia tie. “The city is endorsing its use. Marijuana is out there as well, and we’re criminalizing people for making the safer choice to use it. I think it’s hypocritical.”
He continued his calm tirade until his three minutes were up and the panel could respond.
“This (initiative) is all about people doing what they can to elevate themselves,” said council President Michael Hancock, visibly disgusted and glaring at the smirking Tvert. “This is not a serious initiative. This is an unfortunate, disingenuous effort.”
His colleagues—bristling at Tvert’s “hypocrites” characterization—piled on. Councilwoman Carol Boigon accused Tvert of making a joke of the electoral process. Councilwoman Judy Montero said she was tired of the game he was playing. And new councilman Chris Nevitt openly questioned the substance of his mission.
Still, after the debate, the council put the initiative on the ballot, its hand forced by thousands of signatures of Denver voters. Chalk up another one for Tvert—for the past three Novembers, he’s succeeded in getting a pot amendment or initiative on the ballot, all part of his long, slow slog to legalize marijuana for Colorado adults.
Tvert didn’t start SAFER until moving to Colorado in 2005, but his “marijuana is safer than booze” worldview harkens back to his high school days. As a teenager in suburban Phoenix, he once drank so much at a country music festival that he had to have his stomach pumped; after a half-day in the hospital, he was released to friends and went back to the concert. He compares that to being interrogated in college by federal, state, and campus authorities after someone ratted him out for smoking pot.
“I almost drank myself to death and the government couldn’t care less,” he says. “Yet, if they think you might be using marijuana—which doesn’t lead to overdose death, which doesn’t lead to fights and sexual assault—then they’re going to investigate you with the full force of the law. That struck me as odd and really pissed me off.”
After finishing his political science and journalism degrees at the University of Richmond in 2004, Tvert worked for the Marijuana Policy Project in Arizona. There, he learned about guerilla grass-roots tactics and confronting public officials—tactics he’s used to great effect in Colorado.
“People have been trying to pussyfoot around politicians and treat ’em like gods for too long,” says Tvert on the front porch of the Capitol Hill house he rents with two roommates. He’s sitting in a broken chair next to an empty beer bottle; cigarette butts litter the ground. “It’s basically been this notion of, ‘If we kiss their asses forever, they’re going to help us.’ That’s been going on for 70 years and nothing has changed. More people are being arrested for marijuana possession than ever before in history, not only in this country, but in this city.”
Tvert doesn’t pussyfoot. He’s shouted down the governor and attorney general with a megaphone. He arranged for Mayor Hickenlooper to be followed around by a man in a chicken suit (the infamous “Chickenlooper”). He crashed an appearance by the federal drug czar. He angered the mother of a CSU student who died from alcohol poisoning by suggesting her daughter would be alive if she’d smoked marijuana instead. He antagonized domestic violence advocates by arguing women would be safer if men smoked pot rather than drank beer. “Mason brings a rather uncanny knack for political theater and a pronounced streak of persistence and tenacity,” says political analyst Eric Sondermann.
That knack for theater has helped SAFER’s campaigns: In 2005, Denver voters approved an initiative to decriminalize the adult possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. The city, however, ignored the vote and continued to enforce the stricter state marijuana law. Tvert tried to change state law in 2006, but Colorado voters weren’t as partial to weed as Denver, and the effort failed. The 2007 initiative—the one being debated at the City Council meeting—is a new tactic: an end-run around state law by asking the Denver police to essentially ignore adults with small amounts of marijuana.
Despite his record of working within the system, Tvert’s tactics have earned him the scorn of Colorado’s political establishment. “Mason is incapable of keeping himself under control,” Attorney General John Suthers says. “I believe his tactics have ultimately hurt his cause.” Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, senior adviser to the mayor, agrees. “Many people wonder if his approach is less about making changes and more about making headlines,” she says.
Even his fellow political operatives, a relatively tight clan despite significant political differences, don’t think highly of his methods. “Mason Tvert operates on the squeaky wheel principle, making wild claims and leveling outlandish attacks on his opponents,” says Katy Atkinson, a local political consultant. “His abrasive style gets him attention, but it doesn’t give him credibility.”
“Obviously, I’m a spoiled media slut,” Tvert says, dismissing the criticism. “[But] we’ve come to accept the fact that this is an issue that the press doesn’t cover. This is an issue that elected officials won’t just take up. It has to be put in front of them.” If that means another year of the Chickenlooper, hammering away at the SAFER message, so be it. “We want to change the laws, but ultimately our goal is to change people,” Tvert says. “And we want to change people so they want to change the laws.”