Will Colorado Legalize Pot?

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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.

"I looked at some survey data that said only one-third of Americans thought marijuana was safer than alcohol," Tvert recalled. "One-third thought it was equally safe and one-third thought alcohol was safer. Essentially, two-thirds thought it was as or more dangerous." With those attitudes, no one was ever going to be convinced to make pot legal, he realized. "If they think their kid's going to OD, they don't care about tax revenue," he said. "There's a reason nobody talks about legalizing meth for the tax revenue."

Over the last seven years, Tvert has tirelessly banged this drum, and he sees evidence it's had an effect in Coloradans' attitudes. "We've seen teen alcohol use drop more than any other state, far more than the national average," he said. "We've forced a conversation about the relative dangers of alcohol here." That progress goes hand in hand with Colorado's natural libertarian strain, the presence of hippie mecca Boulder, and a national evolution in attitudes toward pot as the '60s generation edges toward retirement. In the hit 2009 romantic comedy It's Complicated, Meryl Streep's character smokes a joint. "That's not Harold and Kumar," Tvert says. "It's Meryl Streep, and it's no big deal."

For 40 years, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they think marijuana should be legal. In 1969, 84 percent said no and just 12 percent said yes. Last year, 50 percent favored legalization, with 46 percent opposed -- a record high, and the first time in history that proponents had outnumbered opponents.

"We used to hear these arguments about how marijuana causes men to develop breasts, that it leads to criminality, that it makes people violent," said Allen St. Pierre, who, as executive director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, serves as one of Washington's top pot lobbyists. "All those myths have dissipated now, because the baby boomers and the next generation -- I'm 47 -- we have so much primary experience with cannabis that we can't be bullshitted."

A FRACTIOUS MOVEMENT

St. Pierre believes the legalization movement is close to hitting a tipping point, but it's hampered by its reliance on three eccentric billionaires who provide the lion's share of the funding: George Soros, the liberal financier; Peter Lewis, the septuagenarian chairman of Progressive Insurance; and John Sperling, the 91-year-old founder of the University of Phoenix for-profit higher-education chain. The movement's scattershot efforts have resulted in plenty of setbacks, including an unsuccessful statewide ballot initiative spearheaded by Tvert in Colorado in 2006. A 2010 California measure fell short despite activists' high hopes, 54 percent to 46 percent.

"Anybody who's been to a concert can tell you nobody's actually being arrested for simple pot possession in Colorado. What does this get us that we don't already have?"

In California, Colorado, and other states, medical marijuana's widespread availability has further increased acceptance of pot and eroded resistance to legalization. It's an open secret that the bar for medical treatment is absurdly low; dispensaries often have doctors on the premises who will write a prescription, effective immediately, for whatever phantom aches and pains. Advocates note that the spread of medical weed hasn't led to increases in urban blight, juvenile delinquency, or impaired-driving accidents.

But ironically, the medical-marijuana industry, which could see its profits and business model hurt by full legalization, now has an incentive to protect its monopoly by opposing further liberalization of marijuana laws. In Denver, where strip-mall medical-marijuana dispensaries are a common sight, I stopped in at the Bud Med Health Center, where a suspicious-looking middle-aged woman behind a Plexiglas panel told me the business was not taking a position one way or another on Amendment 64. Behind her, a man tweezed buds from a Tupperware container into plastic sleeves, while a strong smell of pot smoke filled the air from behind the closed door to the waiting room. (Despite Denver's vote to legalize, city police can still enforce the state law banning pot, making medical marijuana the safer bet for would-be legal users.)

Opponents of Amendment 64 include the state's teachers union, its Republican attorney general, and its Democratic governor -- although when Hickenlooper came out against the measure this time, the press didn't need Tvert's prompting to highlight the oddity (Tvert would call it hypocrisy) of a beer magnate supporting drug prohibition.

It's a sign of how times have changed that the opposition relies not on a front group of concerned parents, as so often in the past, but on largely technical arguments on how the initiative is likely to get tied up in court if it passes. They don't really bother to argue that pot is dangerous; they contend that it's basically legal already, so why tinker with the sanctity of the state's founding document?

After years of referenda, "Coloradans are at this point not inclined to add anything else to the constitution," says Laura Chapin, communications director for No on 64. "Our constitution is cluttered enough already, we've got conflicting directives in it, and Amendment 64, as legislators have pointed out, most likely conflicts with another constitutional amendment, TABOR" -- the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, on the books since 1992, which requires voter approval of tax increases. Chapin says that's at odds with Amendment 64's directive that legislators levy an excise tax on marijuana.

Given that pot is already basically legal, Chapin says, voters won't see the need for a ballot initiative that will cause legislative confusion, put the state at odds with federal law and potentially damage the tourism industry by making Colorado the Amsterdam of America. "Anybody who's been to a concert can tell you nobody's actually being arrested for simple pot possession in Colorado," she said. "What does this get us that we don't already have?"

Ultimately, what opponents of legalization fear is exactly what proponents are hoping for: that victory in one state will set an example for others to follow, opening the floodgates and eventually forcing the federal government to follow suit.

"This is definitely the best chance we've seen in history to end marijuana prohibition at the state level," said Tvert. "If we do this, it will truly make history. Like when states started repealing alcohol prohibition -- New York did it first and then others followed. Colorado repealed it before the feds did. We can do it again."

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

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