At only 23 years old, Mason Tvert and his SAFER CHOICE organization have just accomplished what seasoned anti-drug- war veterans failed to accomplish anywhere but Alaska in the last several decades: he?s had a successful initiative passed in a major city which makes it legal for adults to possess personal amounts of marijuana.
And not just for illness, as California and other states have done in the last 10 years ? and it doesn?t just lower possession by adults on the criminal ordinance file as has been done in Oakland, Seattle and elsewhere. No, SAFER?s initiative I-100 ? passed by a 53.5%/46.5% margin in Denver, Colorado on November 1, 2005 ? actually makes it legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of cannabis. It doesn?t mean the police won?t make arrests based on state law, but it is still an amazing success.
How Tvert (pronounced tuh?vert) and SAFER did it ? with the help of Change the Climate, a small team and a smaller budget ? is a rousing story of political cutthroatery, misdirection, and media manipulation worthy of any big-league political consultant. It wasn?t pretty, and it wasn?t nice. It wasn?t magic, either. It was a singularly well-planned, well-organized campaign that drew on Tvert?s strengths and experience coupled with the strengths of his associates, including a large helping of ego and a disregard for offending political opponents. He added a healthy measure of genuine belief in his cause. In short, the campaign was an adventure and is now a blueprint for effective marijuana political work.
Mason Tvert grew up in sunny Phoenix, Arizona with a childhood he describes as ?unremarkable.? For college he chose the University of Richmond, in Virginia, where he majored in political science and minored in journalism. Tvert claims he had no real intentions of becoming active in the anti-drug-war movement growing up.
But that changed when someone on campus was busted and asked to provide the names of other pot smokers. Tvert?s name was among those. ?Here I was, a regular student, and then suddenly I was being targeted as a marijuana user,? he told Cannabis Culture. ?More than targeted, I was harassed. There was even a multi-jurisdictional grand jury investigation, which meant that every level of government, from the local to the Federal, was looking into me and others who were suspected marijuana smokers.?
Though the investigation never led to charges, it caused Tvert to realize that the government was spending time and money pursuing marijuana smokers at his university, while ignoring ? or worse, encouraging ? thousands of those same university students to go out and drink alcohol. ?Look at it from my view,? he says earnestly. ?There are DUI?s, alcohol overdoses, fights and all the rest that comes from drinking, and here?s the government going after me because I?m suspected of smoking marijuana, which is much less harmful.?
He?s quick to add that he?s not an alcohol prohibitionist and not a tee-totaler. ?I?m not saying I won?t have a drink. And I?m not saying anyone else shouldn?t either. What I?m saying is that when we make marijuana illegal, as the prohibition of the last 70 years has done, while at the same time encouraging people to drink… well, that?s an intellectually dishonest policy and it?s led to an imbalance in our society. The fact is that alcohol prohibition was a dismal failure. But our current selective prohibition of marijuana has obviously led to enormous societal harms.?
Energized by his brush with the drugwar machine, Tvert began working on the ground as an independent political consultant for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) following graduation. He describes his initial work harassing members of Congress who were voting to continue funding for the Drug Enforcement Administration, because of their ongoing harassment of people using medical marijuana, even in states where that was legal.
During his time with the MPP, Tvert was mentored by Aaron Houston, current director of government relations and former national field director of that organization, as well as former director of government relations at the MPP and soon-to-be national director of SAFER Steve Fox, both of whom were part of the recent Denver victory team. ?I learned the ins and outs of preparing a campaign plan when working on the 2004 primary under Aaron,? he says, ?and then subsequently running a campaign during the 2004 election.?
It was also during this period that Tvert conceived and founded a nonprofit organization, Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), in response to several alcohol-related and two alcohol overdose deaths at Colorado universities. In early 2005, SAFER launched two simultaneous, student initiated referendums at that state?s two largest schools, Colorado State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder, demanding university sanctions for marijuana possession and use no longer exceed sanctions for student alcohol possession and use.
The initiative at Colorado State University passed in the first week of April, 2005 by a margin of 56%?44%; the one at University of Colorado passed a week later by a margin of 68%?32%. Neither is binding, but Tvert thinks both sent a message. ?I think a lot of good information got out that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. We were trying to get the kids to understand that the laws are just wrong and that the universities should be intellectually honest and not make penalties for marijuana use greater than for alcohol use. That sends a wrong message that alcohol is less damaging than marijuana.?
Both initiatives also demanded that the schools start a study to see whether their alcohol problems would diminish if the initiatives passed and were implemented; unfortunately, the administrations at both universities have ?completely ignored? the initiatives, says Tvert.
The issue is, he says, ?the University of Colorado, in particular, receives a lot of money from the Coors brewing company. Which means that the kids at that school are told right from the get-go that drinking is okay. And the school, of course, is more willing to listen to the voice of Coors than it is its own students. And we at SAFER don?t believe that students ? or anyone ? should be subject to that kind of misinformation. Marijuana is simply a safer alternative to alcohol use and abuse.?
The real problem, he says, is that schools are frequently afraid that their images would be shattered if they looked sympathetically at the marijuana issue. ?They imagine that student applications would drop. What they don?t realize is that those administrators would actually be looked on as innovative if they began to turn their students off alcohol.?
I-100: Conception to Ballot
Rather than rest on the success of the twin victories, Tvert and his small team ? which included Aaron Houston, Steve Fox and Evan Ackerman ? decided to keep punching, and try to get an initiative
passed in Denver that would, for adults, legalize up to an ounce of marijuana possession and use within the city limits. But working on a university proposition to get kids to ask for lower penalties for pot smoking is very different from working on an initiative that will effectively change municipal law in one of the larger cities west of the Mississippi.
Fortunately, says Tvert, SAFER had a lot going for it in choosing Denver. Tvert explains, ?First off, we?d just spent months there working on the student initiatives, so we had a feel for the state. Two, we had gotten some publicity with those initiatives, so we were a known quantity in some quarters. Third, Denver is a Democratic rather than Republican city, so we thought that might help us. Additionally, it was an off-year election so we weren?t in competition with a presidential campaign. At the same time there were two major tax initiatives on the ballot, and we knew a lot of money would be spent on getting the vote out in Denver and we thought we could capitalize on that.?
That?s more political savvy than most professionals have. On top of all those potentially positive forces, another activist group, Sensible Colorado, was pushing a proposition in nearby Telluride, to make cannabis the lowest police priority in that city. Tvert is quick to say that SAFER worked closely with them from the start.
Tvert and his team began working on the Denver initiative in May, 2005. Whereas some people might think that May-November is an impossibly short amount of time in which to educate voters to your cause, much less get them to vote for it, Tvert and his group decided to try to make the November 2005 ballot. It gave them very little time to write their proposition and petition, gather signatures and then get it all approved, and it was not easy.
?I worked with Aaron Houston on the initial campaign plan. He drafted it and I added or subtracted as I ? we ? deemed necessary.? First step, he says, was reading the State Constitution and City Charter to learn what was necessary to introduce an initiative, as requirements differ in different locales. ?That?s key: Knowing what you are allowed to do and what might best get that done,? he says.
The first thing SAFER had to do was write the initiative and take it to the city attorney for approval. In essence, it said that because hundreds of Americans die annually as a result of alcohol overdoses, because there has never been a marijuana overdose-death, and because alcohol is related to crime while marijuana is not, the intent of the initiative was to have ?private adult use and possession? treated by the city in the same manner as the use of alcohol. The actual text of the Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative was:
?It shall be unlawful for any person UNDER THE AGE OF TWENTY?ONE (21) to possess one (1) ounce or less of marihuana. If such person is under the age of eighteen (18) years of age at the time of the offence, no jail sentence shall be imposed and any fine imposed may be supplanted by treatment as required by the court.?
The city attorney accepted the language of the initiative, but he told Tvert that realistically, it would lead to a city/ state conflict, as statewide adult possession of an ounce of marijuana was a ticketable offence subject to a $100 fine and an additional $100 processing fee.
That didn?t deter SAFER.
Step two was finding out how many signatures would be needed on petitions to get the initiative on the ballot. In Denver, that number is 5% of the voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In this case, that meant 5,383 signatures, though Tvert said SAFER decided to collect more than twice that amount to account for people who signed twice, non-registered voters, people who lived outside of Denver, illegible writing and other signatures that the Electoral Committee might exclude. That number, he notes, varies wildly from city to city and state to state.
Step three was writing a petition that would be acceptable. ?Once the language of the initiative was accepted by the city attorney,? says Tvert, ?we shifted over and began to deal with the Election Commission to get our petition approved. The form for that will be in the City Charter. In our case, the petition question which people were signing was: ?Shall the voters for the City and County of Denver adopt an amendment to the Denver Revised Municipal Code that would make legal the private use and possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for any person 21 years of age or older??
Once the petition was approved by the Election Commission, it was time to hit the streets and collect the signatures SAFER needed to get the initiative on the ballot. The primary signature gatherers were Tvert and Ackerfi eld, both of whom were drawing salaries from the SAFER nonprofit group (funded by the MPP and private sources), which allowed them to work 8-10 hour days. There were also a handful of volunteers, and Rob Kampia from the MPP came out to Denver to do a fundraiser for SAFER, which gave them a little money to have a few people paid for campaigning. They collected voter signatures and information from in front of grocery stores and bars, street events and any place where people who vote locally are apt to be. Two of the things he learned quickly were that going to places where out of towers were likely to show up didn?t make sense, and that arguing with someone who didn?t want to sign the petition was a waste of valuable time.
To check the validity of their signatures, Tvert bought a copy of the voter registration from the city and checked about 20% of their signatures and current addresses against that. ?Collecting signatures is a miserable job,? Tvert concedes. ?People want to argue with you, they call you names, say you?re going to hell for pushing drugs, all sorts of things. But it has to be done.?
SAFER?s team got it done at breakneck speed. They began collecting on May 15 and turned in over 12,000 signatures on July 9 to the city Election Commission. That was considerably earlier than the deadline, but done to ensure that the city would have enough time to verify them. ?If you turn them in at the last minute,? he says, ?there?s always a chance that the Election Commission can sit on them and then tell you they didn?t have enough time for verifi cation, which means you?ll have to wait for the next election to get your initiative on the ballot.?
The commission had 25 days to accept them or reject them. SAFER?s got accepted then sent to a sub-committee of the City Council on August 4. The subcommittee had two choices: either enact the initiative immediately or turn it over to the full City Council, which would put it on the November ballot. A public hearing on the initiative was called for August 20.
?This was a good chance for media attention,? says Tvert. ?It was a full council meeting so the press would be there covering it. We were already using the press as much as we could. When we announced that we were going to try to get the initiative on the ballot, we held a press conference. When we turned in the signatures we called for a press conference. We were getting some press, but nothing like this public hearing would offer. So, when we were given the opportunity to have people testify as to why this initiative should be put to the voters, we got the best people we could. Robert Quary, the head of the Libertarian Party of Denver, spoke; a prominent civil rights attorney made comments; Dr. Bob Malamede, the former chairman of the Biology Department at the University of Colorado, spoke. You?re trying to get attention for the initiative, so you don?t want to put Joe Blow up there who says he thinks it?s a good idea because he wants to get high ? that?s not the coverage you want. You want to impress the City Council as well as the press.?
The Council members listened earnestly, and then one by one told the audience they thought the initiative was a bad idea. However, they said they had no choice but to pass it on to the voters to decide. SAFER?s initiative had made the ballot.
Campaigns cost money. But once the initiative was on the ballot it was easier to raise funds. Tvert figures that the entire campaign cost under $40,000 ? very low. Half of that came from non-profit groups, several thousand was raised through private donors, and Change the Climate, a pro-marijuana activist campaign group, kicked in nearly $10,000 for billboards they designed with Tvert and the SAFER crew.
Aside from raising money there were several things that had to be done almost immediately. The first was a campaign strategy and a day-to-day plan of what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, and who would do it. It involved talking at local political meetings, attending rallies, planning boycotts of Colorado Rockies? games ? because of the conspicuous consumption of Coors beer they generated ? though those were never actually done. There was also a need to design a volunteer manual, which would stress in detail what volunteers should say to prospective voters, how to answer commonly asked questions, and how to best represent the initiative. Both of those items were done meticulously.
There was also the matter of deciding how SAFER?s limited funds should be spent. Some campaigns go for radio or television ads ? SAFER had money for neither. Professional phone banks are an option, but they too are expensive. SAFER decided to go with yard signs. ?We had less than three months to actually try to get this passed. We began raising money in August; made $4,000 worth of yard signs that said ?MAKE DENVER SAFER ? Vote Yes on I-100?. We printed one-sheets and planned the Change the Climate billboard campaign. And every time we could get on the news, we did.?
The yard signs sound like they ought to be an after-thought, but they might have been the key to the election. ?People said we were hiding behind the issue. But the truth is that if we put up signs that said ?Legalize Marijuana? you?d have those already agreeing with you shouting hooray while everyone else would be turned off. What we were doing was telling people that marijuana was a safer choice than alcohol for a recreational drug.?
One of the people who was particularly irate with what he thought was the misleading message on the signs was City Councilman Charlie Brown. He was so disgusted that he began to pull them out of front lawns and throw them in the garbage. Moreover, he announced at a City Council meeting that he?d been doing it, and it was picked up by a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News. It became big press and drew a lot of attention to the initiative.
At the same time the signs were generating press in September, SAFER organized a volunteer phone bank with people from around the state making calls to those who?d voted in the previous offyear election to tell them about the initiative ? names culled from the voter registration lists. ?Our volunteer manual had scripts they were to follow when making the calls,? says Tvert. ?We also focused on people who?d sent in absentee ballots. That second group is generally pretty conservative ? with them we were just trying to let them know that the issue was.
?So while we were doing the phone bank and handing out literature and speaking at local political meetings ? things that didn?t get press ? we were also trying to work the media at every opportunity. And Charlie Brown tossing our signs, well, that made us controversial. Now we had attention. And that led to a shitstorm of news.?
Shortly after the Brown incident, SAFER called a news conference to announce that Change the Climate was going to put up a billboard in favor of the initiative at a major intersection, which would have a picture of a battered woman on it and read ?Reduce Family and Community Violence. Make Denver SAFER. Yes on I-100.
?People reacted violently against it,? says Tvert. ?We had domestic violence groups wild.? The sign hadn?t even gone up but the story was on the television news and in the newspapers several times daily. SAFER was asked not to put it up ? ?which was another story? ? and then they put it up backwards so that the image and words couldn?t bee seen ? ?which got us more press.?
Tvert was a natural at press manipulation. Shortly after the backwards billboard went up he announced that SAFER would now put up an entirely different billboard. No images, just text this time: ?Alcohol makes domestic violence 8 times more likely. Marijuana does not. Make Denver SAFER. Vote YES on I-100.? He?d gotten the statistics from a study published in the respected Journal of Addictive Behavior, and he?d gotten even more news.
?Notice,? he says, ?that with the yard signs the argument is not about making marijuana legal. It?s about how making marijuana legal could make Denver safer. The same with the billboards. We never let people argue about legalizing marijuana. We forced the focus to be the argument comparing marijuana and alcohol in domestic violence. We even had a former victim of alcohol-related violence come out and talk on the initiative?s behalf.?
The billboard episodes had gotten SAFER eight days of continuous news coverage, but Tvert and the SAFER crew were not done yet. In fact, they?d only begun playing hardball. ?We knew we couldn?t stay with domestic violence, so we shifted gears and began going after Denver?s mayor, John Hickenlooper. This is a mayor that TIME magazine called one of the top five mayors in the country.? Hickenlooper hadn?t even been an outspoken opponent of the SAFER initiative, but he was too perfect a target to ignore: he?s the owner of the Wynkoop Brewing Company, the oldest brewpub in Colorado. And on October 20, just 11 days before the election, Tvert called the mayor a drug dealer at a neighborhood forum held at the brewpub.
?That was news,? says Tvert. ?We focused on the fact that he?d made his millions from drug dealing. Beer is a drug. Legal, but still a drug.? The mayor responded by saying that he was against the initiative and that perhaps he ought to give Tvert and SAFER some Oreos and Doritos for the munchies they undoubtedly had.
?We kept pushing,? says Tvert. ?We held a massive press conference in front of his office and unveiled a billboard we wanted to put up that said ?What?s the difference between Mayor John Hickenlooper and a marijuana dealer? The mayor has made his fortune dealing a more harmful drug: Alcohol.??
The billboard never got put up, as Viacom, the telecommunications giant that owns the billboards in Denver, refused to permit it. But the proposal alone got the job done: once again Tvert had made the point that alcohol was dangerous, marijuana was not, and he?d gotten it out via the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, the Associated Press, several other papers, and television and radio broadcasts.
Tvert and SAFER were still not finished. ?A couple of days later we were again in front of the mayor?s office, this time with a banner showing the harms of alcohol compared to the harms of marijuana. On one side of the banner was a body bag with a leg sticking out and jugs of the mayor?s beer all around it. On the other side of the banner the dangers of marijuana were depicted as bags Oreos and Doritos: the munchies.?
At that same event, SAFER gave a preview of their next and final billboard: it was a scoreboard with the number of alcohol deaths per annum compared to the annual deaths caused by marijuana: 19,929 to 0. The alcohol number was conservative as Tvert thought it better to leave drunk-driving death statistics out of the picture.
By this time there were just a couple of days to go before the election. SAFER had people carrying the yard signs at major intersections all over the city, waving them for motorists to see. ?It lets people see there?s a lot of interest in the issue,? he says. ?It lets voters know they?re not alone if they back your cause.?
Then, Election Day. Asked how he felt when he woke up that morning, Tvert says he?s not sure. ?I didn?t know what to expect. I didn?t want to get my hopes up, but I didn?t want to expect to lose either, because that frame of mind would keep me from doing everything possible to win. Obviously you?re thinking of results but you can?t settle on winning or losing. You have to keep fighting. So on election day we had people all over town waving signs at motorists, encouraging them to vote.?
Tvert says that at SAFER?s election day party, most of the press came early, then left expecting the initiative to lose. But when the tally came in and it had won, they all came back.
Asked what his feeling was when he felt the victory was secured, Tvert laughs. ?I didn?t have time for feelings. There were a million press calls. The call I liked best though was the congratulations call that came from Marc Emery as soon as it passed. That was thrilling. I will say that winning was a big surprise to a lot of people. I mean all through the campaign people were writing that we were lying about the issue, that we were misleading voters. But you know what I feel about that? These people are putting kids in jail for years for smoking marijuana while the same kids are being encouraged to drink alcohol. The hell with them. Everybody knew what the issue was here. You couldn?t have been in Denver and not known that.?
The first few days after the election were a hectic mess of press calls and posturing. Local officials announced that though the initiative had passed, it would have no effect on law enforcement, as marijuana busts were most often based on state law rather than municipal law. Both the mayor and the City Council members said the police would continue to arrest adults with marijuana. Tvert worked the press as if it were his own machine, reminding the public that the politicians were trying to ignore the will and vote of the people. Their job, he said over and over, was to uphold the laws, and the public had voted to make marijuana legal within the city limits of Denver.
Seventeen days after the initiative passed, a man named Eric Footer was cited for marijuana when police arrived during an altercation between Footer and another driver. The police asked to search his car, he gave them permission, and they found a tiny amount of marijuana. SAFER contacted him and suggested that he could either pay his ticket and walk away or that he could challenge it ? based on the new law ? and SAFER would provide him with a legal team. Footer, rather than being another statistic paying duty to the state for the infraction, was willing to become the new law?s test case. He would have argued that Colorado is a home-rule state, which means the cities have a great deal of power ? often more than the state in which they?re located. And as a home-rule state, police shouldn?t be violating city law to enforce state law. However, Denver prosecutors dropped the charges on January 18th in a surprise move. It seems pot really may be legal in Denver after all!
Now that Tvert has had a month since the election to calm down and assess what he did right and wrong during the campaign, he?s not bashful. ?This was a fast and furious campaign. It was very different from what most people are used to. We didn?t seek endorsements from high-powered people, and we didn?t lay low and hope enough people would simply press the right button in the voting booth. We ran an aggressive campaign. Too often in marijuana policy, people are on the defensive. And if you?re on the defensive it means you?re defending something. We didn?t feel that way at all. We saw this as a case where the city is actively hurting people by pushing alcohol on them and arresting marijuana users. To us, the only way to deal with that was to go on the offensive, to be aggressive. If people didn?t like it, well, I guess that?s too bad.?
Blueprint for Victory
1) Read State Constitution and City or Campus Charter, which are like instruction manuals, giving you the step-by-step process for getting initiatives on the ballot. KEY: Knowing what you are allowed to do and what might best get that done.
2) Collecting Signatures: Plan your strategy. Get a city map of grocery stores and bars. Find out what large local public events are going on during your signature collection period. Local events draw local people and they?re the ones who vote in local elections?the signatures you need.
KEY: Collect at least double what?s necessary and turn your signatures in early so that the city council or Election Commission cannot say they didn?t have time to get to them, putting your initiative off until the next election ? a year or two away.
3) On the Ballot: Once you?re on the ballot, plan your strategy. Make a plan with specific goals for every day from the day you?re on the ballot, through Election Day. This will include the dates and time of possible appearances, locations of signs, identification of local voters based on registration records that can be use to make phone calls. Plan to get media attention.
KEY: Something has to happen daily to garner more votes.
1) Don?t let your look interfere with your message. If what you say is overshadowed by your appearance, your message will not be heard.
2) Be very exact with doing what the State Constitution or City Charter demand. You can?t be creative here. It?s a political process, and you?ve got to follow the rules perfectly, especially given your subject matter. People will try to stop you at every step ? either public officials, or members of the public who simply don?t like what you stand for.
3) When collecting signatures; don?t waste time arguing with someone who simply disagrees with you. That?s counterproductive. Do a little education, but focus on getting the signatures.
4) Always make sure you?re getting something in writing from the city saying you?re doing things correctly. For instance, when the city attorney approves your initiative, have that put in writing. When you turn in signatures, have the Election Commission give you a stamp of approval that your signatures have been received. That prevents any official from later saying you did things incorrectly. Gather evidence every step of the way.
5) Do not turn potential voters off. Be presentable, courteous, and back your arguments with legitimate studies. Every volunteer is a representative of your cause. Every person who meets them is a potential voter.
6) Make your goals clear to yourself. SAFER had two goals: To make people aware of the initiative, and to make them care about it. Maintain your focus.
7) Always be conservative with your numbers. Be able to back every number with a legitimate study, rather than presenting numbers you cannot easily reinforce.
8) Earn media attention. Write press releases, hold press conferences. Make your initiative the talk of the town. Create a buzz. If people are not aware of your initiative, they are not going to vote for it.