Will Colorado Legalize Pot?

The state could be among the first to legalize marijuana with a November ballot initiative. What would that mean for America's pro-pot movement?

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A vendor at a downtown Denver marijuana festival on April 20, 2010. (Getty Images)

DENVER -- There was the billboard featuring a woman in a green bikini and the words, "Marijuana: No hangovers, no violence, no carbs!"

There was the time he called the mayor of Denver -- John Hickenlooper, who is now the governor of Colorado and was once a brew-pub owner -- a drug dealer.

There was the time he challenged Hickenlooper and Pete Coors, the Republican politician and beer-company heir, to a "drug duel": He would smoke pot, they would drink beer, and they'd see who died first.

Mischief-making is a specialty for Mason Tvert, the 30-year-old activist who got marijuana decriminalized in Denver seven years ago and lists "assorted mayhem" in the job description of his official bio. This year, Tvert and his merry pranksters are behind an initiative on the November ballot that would make Colorado the first state where drug's cultivation, sale, possession, and consumption are legal, taxed, and regulated. (Two other states, Oregon and Washington, also have statewide legalization measures on the November ballot. More than a dozen others also have some form of decriminalization in place, but none has ever achieved full legalization.)

If it passes, Colorado's Amendment 64 would mark a true watershed for the fractious and often hapless legalization movement, a motley crew of potheads, civil libertarians, and billionaires that's been set back many times before but has the wind of public opinion at its back. The Colorado measure is polling ahead, but not comfortably so: A poll commissioned by the University of Denver and released over the weekend found 50 percent of Coloradans in favor of the initiative and 40 percent opposed. With undecided voters tending to default to a "no" vote on ballot questions, the outcome is anyone's guess. (The Washington initiative is also leading in polls, while Oregon's narrowly trails, with nearly a quarter of voters undecided.)

GETTING SERIOUS

With so much at stake this time around, Tvert, a husky, talkative Arizonan with close-cropped brown hair, has had to tone it down, to his great chagrin. For this year's ballot measure, there are no sensational billboards and no shocking hijinks. The T-shirts for the Yes on 64 campaign are so nondescript they could be for a school levy; the yard signs simply say, "Regulation Works." And last week, Tvert watched from behind a row of TV cameras as a bunch of guys in suits, a woman in a ruffled blouse, and former Rep. Tom Tancredo -- Republicans all -- gave their endorsement to the measure, the latest strange-bedfellows moment for this most outsider of political insurgencies.

"Think to yourself, conservatives, who you are siding with -- not just the nanny staters but with the cartels!" said former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo.

"Think to yourself, conservatives, who you are siding with -- not just the nanny staters but with the cartels!" said Tancredo, his zippered-down black polo shirt revealing a tuft of white-gray chest hair.

Though best known for his hardline opposition to illegal immigration, Tancredo, who ran on a third-party ticket and finished second in the 2010 race for Colorado governor, has always seen marijuana regulation as a states'-rights issue. In each of his 10 years in Congress, he voted for an unsuccessful amendment that would have denied funding to the Justice Department for the interdiction of states' medical-marijuana laws.

In an interview, Tancredo acknowledged he's on the opposite side of the issue from many of his fellow Republicans, but noted that going his own way is nothing new for him. "I feel very, very comfortable where I am, along with William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman," he said, before dashing off to record a radio ad for the marijuana initiative that will play on conservative talk stations.

Since California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, 16 states and Washington, D.C., have followed suit in a mix of ballot-box and legislative actions. Colorado became one of them in 2000. In 2005, Tvert, having just graduated from the University of Richmond, moved to Colorado and started an organization called SAFER, for Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Regulation, aimed at highlighting the relative safety of pot compared to alcohol.

Two students had just died in binge-drinking incidents at Colorado universities, prompting a national and statewide conversation about alcohol on campuses; SAFER's message was that alcohol is just as illegal for under-21 college students as marijuana, and a lot more deadly. For Tvert, it was also personal. In college, he'd been subpoenaed by a grand jury on suspicion of pot use, resulting in an arduous legal ordeal; in high school, he'd been hospitalized after nearly drinking himself to death, but there were no legal repercussions. The contrast between the way the system treated the two drug experiences struck him as nonsensical.

Tvert's larger insight was that when it came to marijuana, the public needed an education -- and the pro-pot movement needed a more convincing message. Most legalization activists affected a buttoned-up profile that sought to reassure nervous grannies that they represented a Serious Cause, not a hippie lark. They framed their arguments around wasted law-enforcement resources, overcrowded prisons, and the need for local-government revenue, seeking to play down the distasteful image of bong-toting stoners. But Tvert, whose office in downtown Denver is papered with framed covers from High Times magazine, psychedelic concert posters, and a stained-glass ornament shaped like a pot leaf, believes advocates aren't going to get anywhere by ignoring marijuana's virtues as a recreational drug.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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