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Colorado Activist Mason Tvert Looking for National Impact in Marijuana Legalization

Come January, the state will have looser standards than Holland, but the goal is setting an example for the rest of the U.S.

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Mason Tvert speaks to the media outside Synergy Youth Drug Treatment Center in Denver, Colorado, on February 7, 2006. (Craig F. Walker/The Denver Poster/Getty Images)
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To find perhaps the most influential marijuana activist in the country, you have to go to Denver. Your journey starts near the Colorado statehouse, which in May passed legislation establishing a framework for the regulation and taxation of marijuana that, when it goes into effect next January, will be more permissive than Holland’s.

From the statehouse, keep driving past Lincoln Street and then Sherman Street. Take a right onto Grant Street, where you’ll find the Creswell Mansion, a red sandstone house on the National Historic Registry. Built just four years after the death of Ulysses S. Grant, the house faces west toward Manifest Destiny and the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Inside is the office of the advocacy group Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation, known by its acronym, SAFER.

SAFER’s executive director is Mason Tvert, a 31-year-old political operative who came to Denver nearly a decade ago with the objective of turning it into a test lab for relaxing marijuana laws in the United States, where it has been branded a Schedule I controlled substance since 1970. Last November, largely thanks to Tvert’s work, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which allows adults over 21 to possess small amounts of marijuana or pot-laced products for personal use. Starting next year, people will be able to set foot in Colorado, buy a sack of weed or artisanal edibles, and contribute tax revenue to the state.

For all the marijuana lobby’s considerable progress in the past 10 years, the federal government has not even slightly changed its posture on the drug’s prohibition in more than 40 years. Despite the advent of local and state initiatives legalizing marijuana for medical use, it remains common to hear of federal raids on dispensaries in California and growers in Oregon. But proponents of marijuana legalization imagine that, as with same-sex marriage, the national stance on the issue could change quickly—given the right test case.

Tvert, who doubles as a spokesman for the national Marijuana Policy Project, is now the man chiefly responsible for figuring out how to ensure that Colorado becomes the turning point in the national conversation about pot. SAFER’s website lists his professional responsibilities in this order: “Strategic planning, media relations, lobbying, fundraising, and other assorted mayhem.” They might as well be books of the policy-initiative Bible: Genesis is Strategic Planning, Exodus for Media Relations (shemot means “names”), Leviticus for lobbying (vayikra means “he called”), and Numbers for fundraising. The fifth and final book is Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name is Dvarim, or “spoken words,” and covers the publicity stunts — “other assorted mayhem” — that have become Tvert’s calling card. From holding comic press conferences tailored for the 11 o’clock TV news to running subversive ads, Tvert’s efforts have been instrumental in raising awareness about the legalization issue and bringing new supporters, including religious leaders and libertarian politicians, into the movement.

Tvert joins a long list of Jewish activists in the pro-pot movement. A cursory glance at the leadership roster of NORML, the best-known of the national marijuana-legalization lobbying groups, would place you within a stone’s throw of a minyan. Last month, Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn opened a medical marijuana dispensary called the Takoma Wellness Center opened in Washington, D.C., and bedecked the office with hamsas. Ethan Nadelmann, who leads the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to reforming drug laws across the board, is the son of a rabbi.

“What Mason accomplished in Colorado was quite remarkable,” said Nadelmann, whose organization announced this week that it is honoring Tvert with an award. “He made history, and his work made history, in Colorado.”

The question now is whether he can become the Joshua of the marijuana movement nationwide. “Mason is pretty much the most involved individual in all of marijuana activism,” said Ean Seeb, a Denver marijuana-dispensary owner who moonlights as a leader in the city’s Jewish community. “I look forward to seeing a bronze sculpture of him in Colorado or D.C. before I die.”

***

Two framed items hang above Tvert’s desk inside Creswell Mansion on Grant Street. The first is a copy of his elementary-school D.A.R.E. certification of achievement, issued by the police department in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Tvert grew up. Signed by four different officials, it lauds Tvert for making “a personal commitment to avoid pressures to begin using new drugs.”

Beneath it is the essay Tvert wrote for the D.A.R.E. program. Its title—“Drugs”—is written in crayon, each curlicued letter a different shade of blue or green. In it, a young Tvert lists the dangers of illegal drugs and, as the government does, lumps marijuana in the same group as heroin, LSD, and speed. “It says marijuana’s bad, and then it says all those drugs are illegal, but there are some legal ones like alcohol and cigarettes. Both are bad, but not as bad as illegal drugs,” Tvert says now. “Why did I think that? I don’t know how old I was when I wrote that. Fifth grade or fourth grade? I don’t know. But for some reason I felt like alcohol and tobacco are perfectly acceptable, but marijuana is absolutely not.”

But that was, of course, the objective of D.A.R.E., a nationwide program that originated 30 years ago in Los Angeles and is in the minds of an entire generation inextricably linked with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign—itself created by the Florida-based advertising entrepreneur Jordan Zimmerman, then a college student at the University of South Florida.

It’s now been more than 20 years since Bill Clinton was forced to insist he never inhaled. In the interim, Americans have elected a president who not only smoked pot but hung out in a group known as the Choom Gang. This year, New York City Comptroller John Liu—a candidate in the city’s mayoral race—declared it was “time to recognize that the prohibition of marijuana has failed.” On CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta offered that “sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.”

Tvert, who was bar mitzvahed at a Reform synagogue, found his calling as a college student in Richmond, Va., where he was named as a suspect by a local anti-marijuana task force. As a result, in 2001, he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. Meanwhile, underage students were being hospitalized for drinking to excess and walking away, often without consequences. “It was pretty obvious to me early on that these were foolish laws,” he said.

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Colorado Activist Mason Tvert Looking for National Impact in Marijuana Legalization

Come January, the state will have looser standards than Holland, but the goal is setting an example for the rest of the U.S.