Mason Tvert Q&A: The burning ambition of an advocate who's been pushing pot for a decade
Mason Tvert, featured in the following wide-ranging Q&A, has played a key role in Colorado's legalization of marijuana since 2005.
Big photos below.
Beginning with pro-pot campaigns at Colorado State University and the University of Colorado, Tvert and his SAFER organization advocated for statewide recreational marijuana legalization for eight years, working step by step on MMJ initiatives and then decriminalization on city and state levels until Amendment 64 passed in November 2012.
Now communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, Tvert has begun work on vaporizing marijuana laws outside of Colorado. Before states like Alaska and California steal him away from us, we sat down with Tvert to get his take on the black market, contact highs, smoking in public, and why he feels it's too early to tell what the legal weed world is going to look like.
Westword: I've always seen your campaigns as outrageously funny for those who are in on the joke. I'm thinking of the drug czar billboard you erected on the day of his arrival in Denver, where his face was displayed next to an isolated quote of his: "Marijuana is the safest thing in the world." Or the beer parody commercial you ran at a NASCAR event. Were these just straight campaign strategies, or you having a laugh?
Mason Tvert: Both. I certainly have an appreciation for humor, but by making the news humorous or controversial, it makes it more likely that people will hear about it and talk to others about it. Our goal has always been to get the message out to the public that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, and when it's done in a humorous way, the news is more likely to cover it.
Photo by Brandon Marshall Mason Tvert with Toni Fox on January 1, when recreational marijuana sales became legal in Colorado.
WW: What are the most common arguments you hear from those fighting legalization?
MT: Generally, there are two types of opponents: those who are still just ranting and raving about how evil marijuana is, and the more sophisticated opponents, who have begun to evolve in their misinformation. We still hear people talking about marijuana being so addictive that it needs to be illegal, despite the fact that it's been demonstrated to be far less addictive than alcohol, tobacco and, in some ways, even caffeine.
And, of course, we still hear the argument of needing to protect teens. Yet they seem to fail to recognize that 80 percent of high-school seniors already say they can get marijuana easily under a system of prohibition.
WW: And your position is that regulated marijuana will decrease that number?
MT: Yeah, exactly. If the goal of arresting hundreds of thousands of adults to help keep marijuana away from teens is resulting in 80 percent of teens saying they can get marijuana easily, it's clearly not a good policy. We've seen use of alcohol and tobacco among teens decrease over the years, while they've remained steady for marijuana -- and that suggests that regulation works.
WW: Historians often tie the marijuana prohibition of the 1930s to racism, claiming it was a way to criminalize Mexican immigrants and African-American jazz clubs. Do you think there's still an undercurrent of racism in today's criminalization of cannabis?
MT: Well, there's absolutely no doubt that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws. An ACLU report came out last year showing that despite having generally equal rates of use, blacks are arrested at more than three times the rate of whites for marijuana possession. In a lot of places, it's even greater than that -- though that's probably more symptomatic of problems with our law enforcement in general than just marijuana laws.
WW: Critics of Amendment 64 make the argument that its stringent regulations -- along with exceptionally high tax rates -- are forcing the legal marijuana market to charge disproportionately high prices compared to the black market.
MT: That's an absurd notion. It's absurd for anyone to try and draw conclusions about the underground market within three weeks of the legal market establishing itself. I shouldn't even say "establishing itself"; it's only just commencing. A fraction of the businesses that are going to exist currently exist. There's been no opportunity for buyers to go to multiple businesses to determine which one will have the lower price. So competition hasn't even begun, and yet I'm already hearing from business owners who are starting to lower their prices.
Continue for more of our interview with Mason Tvert.