How Colorado disrupted the Drug War

By David Sirota , written on January 7, 2014

From The News Desk

Since my home state of Colorado legalized marijuana last week, the primary question I’ve been asked by friends, family and colleagues in emails, text messages and phone calls is some version of: “Are you high yet?”

I laugh along with the tongue-in-cheek queries. Look, I’d probably be ribbing my pals too if the shoe was on the other foot (er, weed was in the other bong?). What's not such a laughing matter, though, is when the juvenile focus on getting high become the prism through which the national media caricatures our fight to finally disrupt, and ultimately end, the destructive drug war. When that happens, my state’s forward-looking attempt to answer some deadly serious criminal justice questions is flippantly marginalized as nothing more than a punchline for new riffs off “Half Baked” one-liners.

This, of course, is what has happened over the past week. Amid sensationalist hoaxes and a carefully timed series of counter-volleys by the most committed drug warriors, the East Coast punditburo’s professional ignoramuses and its never-forget-we’re-the-real-story egomaniacs added the drug war to all the other misguided wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Terror) they’ve so loyally flogged.

In the former camp were the Tina Browns. Though allegedly not high as a kite, she nonetheless floated a free-association non-sequitur against legalization that was somehow even more psychedelically incoherent than anything you might hear in a hot-boxed college dorm room (“Ya man, legalizing weed might, like, hurt our race with China...puff puff pass, bro...”). In the latter were David Brookses and Ruth Marcuses - modern day narcissuses who ignored all the data about the wildly ineffective, institutionally racist war on cannabis and instead shrouded their anti-weed edicts in self-centered stories about their own personal experience inhaling.

Lost in the sound and fury were the questions America should be asking as our state moves forward. Questions like: Why shouldn’t adults be permitted to use pot? Is there really anything wrong with adults using mind altering substances? Is the unregulated black market for marijuana that's been created by prohibition really safer than the highly regulated market that would be established via legalization? And how did politically moderate Colorado of all places end up defying all of the drug war’s vested interests and legalizing weed?

That last question may seem like only a political story - and it certainly is that. But exploring that little-reported tale with one of the key architects of the legalization campaign ends up answering many of those other, bigger questions. It also perfectly illustrates larger lessons about systemic disruption and about the power of shrewdly adjusting the terms of a conversation.

The Alcohol-Marijuana Connection

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I meet the Marijuana Policy Project's Mason Tvert outside the 3D Cannabis Center in North Denver late in the afternoon on the first Friday after Colorado's Amendment 64 went into effect. It is already a $1 million-plus week for the state's nascent marijuana industry, and as an exercise in firsthand experiential journalism, I told the MPP organizer I wanted to go through the purchasing process, so he suggested meeting here at one of the few facilities with both a growing operation and a retail store.

It is three days into the era of legal retail marijuana sales, and with the store soon closing for the night, the parking lot is packed - and not just with cars from around town. On my walk to the front steps of the 18,000 square foot facility, I pass license plates from Connecticut, Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Nevada, Florida, Oregon, Utah and Minnesota - a clear sign that what’s happened here is more than just of local interest.

Security guards have a visible presence here - not because the crowd at the door is too boisterous, but because with state-licensed marijuana stores facing federal obstacles to legitimate banking services, much of the business is conducted in cash, thus making pot shops a robbery target. Thankfully, I've brought enough cash for my purchase, but in case I didn't there are ATMs inside.

We walk through the door, sign our names on the ledger, and head into the pot shop at the serendipitous hour of 4:20pm. Upon seeing him enter, the quiet of the store turns more festive, as Tvert is greeted by smiling customers with high fives, thank yous and even a few photo and autograph requests.

MPP communications director Mason Tvert and 3D Cannabis Center's David Martinez

MPP communications director Mason Tvert and 3D Cannabis Center’s David Martinez

Though he has traded in the college-casual attire from his campus organizing days for the suit-and-tie of a professional political operative, this burly 31-year-old activist has become a genuine folk hero since the days when I first got to know him -- the days when he was challenging politicians to drug duels, using billboards to flip law enforcement arguments on their head, and, most famously of all, slapping the “drug dealer” label on the smiley beer-brewer-turned-Denver-mayor (and now governor), John Hickenlooper.

In those years before he helped run 2012’s full-on legalization initiative and received national billing as “The Don Draper of Pot,” Tvert was a media mainstay (including on my old local radio show) running campaigns for municipal ordinances merely instructing local police to deprioritize marijuana prohibition enforcement. When Hickenlooper opposed the effort in Denver (and later defied the will of voters), Tvert deployed a novel headline-grabbing counterattack: he used Hizzoner’s career as a beer magnate -- and Colorado’s fame as the home of the Coors empire -- to spotlight the hypocrisy of at once supporting marijuana prohibition promoting the far-more-dangerous drug called alcohol.

That was not just the start of Tvert’s rise from college-campus organizer to scrappy rabble rouser to local celebrity. It was also the beginning of the critical comparative message that made legalization a realistic political possibility.

“Marijuana has been illegal because of the perception of harm surrounding it -- that’s how they made it illegal, that’s how it is illegal currently,” Tvert tells me in the shop's bustling lobby. “Our opponents' goal has been to maintain a perception of harm. So our idea has been to get people to understand that marijuana is not as harmful as they’ve been led to believe, and not as harmful as a product like alcohol that is already legal."

Despite increasingly absurd attempts by the government's drug-war apparatus to obscure the obvious truth, decades of medical and social science research on everything from physiological toxicity, to domestic violence to addiction has proven Tvert's point that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol. But it was only a few years ago that Tvert's colleague and future mentor at MPP, Steve Fox, happened upon a key political revelation in the reams of survey data about drug policy.

"He was looking at the polling and discovered that of those who think marijuana is safer than alcohol, 75 percent think it should be legal," Tvert recounts as we wait behind a customer who is interrogating one of the shop's staff members about THC and CBD content. "In other words, the number one indicator of whether or not you support marijuana being legal is whether you recognize it is safer than alcohol."

From that revelation came the creation of the group headed by Tvert that was entirely focused on drawing the alcohol-marijuana comparison. Aptly named Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (aka SAFER), it was predicated on a two-step strategy.

"Rather than trying to increase the percentage of people who think marijuana should be legal, we simply tried to increase the percentage of people who understand marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, which would naturally produce an increase in the percentage of people who support legalization," he says.

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(left to right) My friend, a Cannabis Center staffer and Mason Tvert

As we move up to the counter, the alcohol-marijuana comparison feels particularly relevant, even in the consumer experience. The staff's explanation of the chemical content, sourcing, and organic profile of each strain of weed is much like the typically detailed lesson you receive when you get your growler refilled at one of this state's many craft beer breweries. That analogous experience, in fact, may explain why Colorado was able to leapfrog seemingly more pot-friendly states to become the first in the nation to legalize cannabis.

Colorado's Familiarity with the Drug Economy

In marijuana activist circles, Colorado was never considered the place that would provide the path of least political resistance to legalization. That's because while this square state has its share of liberal pockets (Denver, Boulder, etc.), it has in the past been a fairly conservative bastion -- and unlike some other Western locales whose conservatism runs libertarian, Colorado's conservatism has been, in part, shaped by the drug warriors at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.

However, more than almost any other state, Colorado has also embraced the idea of drug tourism through its proud promotion of beer. Whether its civic and business leaders are kicking off the Great American Beer Festival, staging photo-ops at new local breweries, celebrating the proliferation of microbreweries or naming a taxpayer-subsidized professional sports stadium after a famous macrobrewery, this is a place whose alcohol culture has (perhaps inadvertently) destigmatized and commodified adults' core desire to recreationally consume mind-altering substances.

Because of this longtime familiarity with the alcohol version of a burgeoning and well-regulated drug economy, the alcohol-marijuana comparison became "the most important element" of the legalization campaign, says Tvert. So central was the comparison, in fact, that organizers officially named their  ballot measure "The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act."

"We had opposition from virtually the entire political establishment," he tells me. "We faced opposition from law enforcement organizations, and our governor. The previous two governors recorded radio ads against us. Yet, we ended up getting 55 percent of the vote and outperforming Obama's successful campaign in Colorado. The difference was that, in our campaign, we made it a point to highlight that marijuana is a less harmful product than one most people are already comfortable with — alcohol."

When Tvert says the word "difference" he is referring to some of those states on the license plates out in the parking lot -- places like Nevada and California that seemed better politically positioned than Colorado to legalize marijuana, yet played host to unsuccessful pot-legalization ballot measures.

"In those campaigns, you saw majority support for awhile, and then the last month it dropped when the opposition started scaring the hell out of people and renewing that perception of harm," he explains. "It's because those campaigns focused almost entirely on the benefits of regulation and taxes, and not enough on the product itself. When it came down to the end and people had to decide -- even people who recognized those policy arguments and thought prohibition isn't working, they erred on the side of maintaining the status quo because it still seemed a little too scary."

In Colorado, says, Tvert, "It was the opposite -- our polling was always between 48 percent and 52 percent, and it never dropped because people got to the polls and saw their ballots and they heard the opposition saying all these horrible things, but by that time, they had gotten the message that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. That was the key."

Tvert's underlying point that people will prioritize safety and security over all other legitimate arguments seems self-evident. After all, we've learned that truism before on many other hot-button political conflicts.

We know, for instance, that despite polls showing that Americans appreciated all the legitimate financial, logistical and human rights reasons to oppose the Iraq War, the country kept voting for politicians who supported that war, in part, because the war was sold as a security necessity. Similarly, while polls show Americans are uncomfortable with the National Security Administration's mass surveillance, they also show that many are willing to tolerate it in the (factually unsubstantiated) belief that they have stopped terrorism.

It's the same dynamic for drug policy -- in Tvert's words, no matter how compelling the financial, moral and civil rights case is for drug policy reform, in today’s fear-based political environment, "If people think something is going to kill them and their child, regardless of whether it is actually true, they will never support it."

Thus, Tvert and his colleagues have copied the "attack the strength" page of Karl Rove's playbook and aimed the alcohol-marijuana message straight at drug warriors' safety trump card. In billboards, press conferences and media appearances they’ve tirelessly asserted that with marijuana a safer drug than alcohol, and with the  government admitting marijuana is already “almost universally available” on the crime-riddled black market, legalizing and regulating cannabis is far more “pro-safety” than prohibition.

In their view, this script-flipping tactic has worked better than any other strategy before it. Not only has it resulted in Colorado legalized weed, but national polls seem to support the larger theory. Indeed, as surveys show more Americans are now viewing marijuana as less harmful than alcohol, they are simultaneously showing a majority now support legalization across the country.

Yet, despite the positive trends, the alcohol-marijuana message remains somewhat controversial among the disparate groups pushing for drug policy reform.

"There are still drug policy reform groups who choose to avoid this message," he says with a sigh, as we discuss MPP’s new plans to mount legalization bids in Alaska, Arizona and Maine. "There are some advocates who think that it will make people think marijuana is bad because alcohol is bad. Some think we shouldn't be disparaging alcohol. Others are worried about the stories that suggest it may be upsetting the alcohol industry. But here's the thing that can't be ignored: this message has been incredibly successful."

Still Fighting the Culture War

After I've paid the $11.50 (plus $2.44 in state and local tax) for my gram of Bruce Banner, the first thing I ask the cannabis center's David Martinez is whether I can take photos. We are walking back to one of the grow rooms where the 3D Cannabis Club cultivates its product, and I'm childishly giddy at the mere idea of taking a pictures of a jungle of pot. In the next moment, though, I instinctually assume I'm an idiot for even asking to take pictures. It feels taboo, even possibly criminal, which is no doubt one of the desired effects of anti-weed city councilors' ordinance limiting the public display of marijuana imagery here in Denver.

Before I can apologize out of shame and embarrassment for asking to take a photo, though, Martinez smiles and says "Of course!" -- as if I never even needed to ask. Reaching for my camera as the door opens, we are instantly hit with a burst of humid air and a fragrance that I could swear smells not like weed but like beer, more specifically, a skunky IPA.

The grow room

The grow room

"It's because hops and cannabis are kind of related," Tvert says, forever reinforcing the alcohol-marijuana connection.

The room is like much larger versions of the plant stores my dad used to take me to as a kid. We're talking rows and rows and rows of low-hanging industrial lights over loamy pots of lush green leaves. At first glance, the sheer quantity seems almost absurd, as if the store is gearing up to sell marijuana only in gigantic "Club Paradise"-sized trash bags. But, then, Tvert reminds me that in aiming to create a vertically integrated supply chains that simplifies regulators' jobs and guarantees traceability, Colorado's new law requires retail stores to produce 70 percent of the product they sell. Over the course of weeks and months, that means having to rely less on individual small growers and more on massive grow operations like this one to maintain a constant supply for even minimal sales volume.

Like a Disney World staffer happily photographing a giddy tourist in front of Cinderella Castle, Tvert gladly snaps pictures of me and my buddy grinning next to a towering cannabis plant. I’m sure he’s done this countless times before with other visitors, but he doesn’t seem annoyed in the slightest. In fact, as I realize during our discussion of what the future holds, iconography is part of the larger plan to fully mainstream -- and even celebrate -- marijuana culture.

Me (right) and my buddy

This revelation hits me when I ask Tvert what is going to happen if, as a result of legalization, the drug warriors are right and overall use of psychoactive drugs increases.

“If marijuana use rates increase among adults, that’s not going to be a significant problem because marijuana is not associated with major health and safety problems,” he says. “This is the key point: people should not necessarily think of adults using marijuana as a bad thing. People who are scared of marijuana think all use is abuse, and we are trying to get them to understand that there is a very big difference. Some people use marijuana much like they have a glass of wine. It’s not abuse and it’s not a problem.”

I look down at my iPhone and scroll to the photo of me and the cannabis and realize that it is a microcosmic example of exactly what Tvert is talking about. Making marijuana acceptable in the American psyche ultimately doesn't just mean legislative changes and retail businesses. It also means people seeing it as no more shameful than -- and just as acceptable as -- beer and wine. In America, the semiotics of festivity and celebration is built around alcohol imagery, as many (including allegedly anti-drug politicians) often commemorate enjoyment by pictures of themselves with beer and wine. The goal of the legalization campaign is ultimately to make the kind of picture I took with the marijuana the same thing.

In the gloaming out in the parking lot, Tvert says this psychological shift will eventually happen, but there remains an unstated obstacle still in the way.

“What it oftentimes comes down to is what we often hear called a culture war," he says, pointing to the dwindling crowd trying to get into the cannabis center before it closes for the night. “There are politicians and other critics of legalization who look at this line of people and say, ‘Oh look, it is a bunch of young men.’ But it’s really just a bunch of young men who are 21 and older, and these critics simply don’t like the way they look. They wouldn’t point at a group of young men in a bar or wine store with such disdain."

A National Model?

The good news for Tvert is that since Colorado’s historic vote in November 2012, there is evidence his side is winning the simmering culture war. Just this week a CNN poll documented “soaring” support for legalization while only 35 percent of Americans believe marijuana is “morally wrong” -- a stunning 35-point drop from the late 1980s. Meanwhile, from the controversy-averse New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to the conservative New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) the rightwing Texas Rep. Steve Stockman (R), there are signs that even the once uniformly prohibitionist political class is warming up to reform.

As other cities and states look to follow Colorado’s lead, one obvious takeaway is that despite all the misuse of it over the years, the old domino theory can be valid in certain circumstances, especially when the first domino is viewed as typical rather than aberrant. In this case, Colorado fits that profile.

This isn’t an anomalously liberal deep-blue state like, say, Washington. Colorado is instead known as an ideologically moderate, electorally purple locale whose conservative political establishment opposed Amendment 64 and particularly powerful alcohol industry could, in theory, lose market share to legal pot. If marijuana policy reform can nonetheless make it here, it has a shot of making it anywhere, and initiating a domino effect everywhere.

But even beyond lessons about cannabis is an even larger lesson about how assumptions and frames of reference so often determine the difference between status quo and disruption.

In drug policy, the assumption had long been that prohibition is pro-safety and that legalization is a dangerous experiment. So instead of only amplifying old messages about legalization (it will raise tax revenue, it will end criminal justice iniquities, etc.) Tvert, SAFER and MPP creatively changed the fulcrum of the entire conversation. Rather than portray their fight as one for a brand new, wholly unknown and therefore frightening reality, they used alcohol - a product that most are already comfortable with - to recast their push as one designed to create a new version of current reality. And not just a new version, but a safer reality that doesn't statutorily encourage people who want to use a mind-altering substance to only use one that is more harmful than cannabis.

This is the same radical disruption strategy that is now emerging in other political fights. Take economics as just one example.

On the political right, some conservatives are starting to support the idea of a higher minimum wage or a guaranteed minimum income. In both instances, the proponents aren't echoing the traditional argot of social justice. They are instead employing the right's language of fiscal responsibility.

“There are so many very low-wage workers, and we pay for huge social welfare programs for them,” conservative businessman Ronald Unz told The New York Times in discussing his support for a higher minimum wage in California. “This would save something on the order of tens of billions of dollars. Doesn’t it make more sense for employers to pay their workers than the government?”

At the same time, in the mushy center of American politics, none other than Bill Clinton -- the corporatist president who oversaw Wall Street deregulation and an explosion in economic inequality -- is now speaking out against inequality, but couching his critique in the technocratic vernacular of macroeconomics.

"This inequality problem bedevils the entire country," he said during a speech at the inauguration of New York's new mayor. "But it is not just a moral outrage, it is a horrible constraint on economic growth."

These examples and others like them remind us that vernacular is fluid and getting ever more fluid. With the rise of social media and the slow-motion fall of a monopoly media that once had complete control over the public policy conversation, there is clearly more opportunity than ever to change the terms of the debate, even on issues that seem utterly intractable.

If drug reformers in this middle-of-the-road bellwether state have taught anything, it is that universal truism.

[featured image via thinkstock, all others via David Sirota]