Exclusive: MPP’s Mason Tvert Addresses AZ Initiative Controversey

The Marijuana Policy Project’s Mason Tvert responds.

Last week, we published an interview with Jason Medar of Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, the grassroots organization currently campaigning for an alternative ballot initiative to that of the MPP-sponsored Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Within the conversation, Medar pulled no punches in expressing his distaste for his rival’s initiative, nor was he reticent to give his opinions on the campaign’s primary sponsor, the Marijuana Policy Project. In an effort to maintain a sense of fairness in our reporting, we reached out to the MPP in hopes of getting the other half of the argument and were fortunate enough to speak directly with the organization’s communications director, Mason Tvert. Though Tvert described himself in our preliminary conversation as “just a lowly national advocate,” you most likely have seen him in his multiple appearances on network news broadcasts, the most memorable of them being with Nancy Grace at the outset of Colorado’s legalization roll-out. If you’ve yet to see that exchange, we’ve remedied that for you by embedding it at the bottom of this post. You’re welcome. Meanwhile, read on for Tvert’s response to the allegations leveled in last week’s interview with Medar.

(Editor’s Note: Tvert was very clear that though it is his job to speak on behalf of the MPP, he is not officially sanctioned to speak for the campaign his organization is sponsoring in Arizona. However, the majority of Medar’s complaints were leveled directly at the MPP and we therefore believed that they were best suited for a rebuttal. It should also be noted that this conversation was edited for length, as was our conversation with Medar.  Enjoy.)


Lewis Hollow: The big issue coming from the AZFMR is decriminalization, the fact that you guys did not have that in your bill. This basically means that if you’re caught with an amount of cannabis that is over the limit set in within the bill, you’re still going to face all of the penalties, which in Arizona, are pretty harsh. Felony charges. Why are we still willing to let people go to jail over a plant?


Mason Tvert: Well, what would be better? The laws as they currently are or a system in which marijuana is legal for adults to possess, grow and purchase in stores . . . where it can be grown and sold commercially, where it’s a legal product? Yes, there will still be laws on the books with penalties for people who violate them . . . but answer that for me. What would be preferable? What the laws are currently or what I just described?


LH: Well, obviously, where it is at least legal to grow and sell.


MT: So if right now, marijuana was a legal product to grow and sell, but there were still same penalties for possession over the limits the initiative covers—nothing would increase; it would just be the same penalties as before—would that not be better?


LH: It would be better. Absolutely.


MT: So the next question would be, if you’re going to see those broader changes the other group wants, would it be easier for the legislature or the public to support them currently or in a situation where marijuana is already a legal product. . .? Under which circumstance would the public be more likely to support that?


LH: When you phrase it that way, I would say the latter.


MT: So that’s the whole point. They’re talking about putting stuff that’s not necessarily popularly supported into an initiative that is popularly supported. And keep in mind, Arizona only passed a medical marijuana law by a few thousand votes. So the notion that you’re going to say we want to not only have marijuana be legal for adults and have it for sale in stores and legal to grow at home, but we want to also remove the criminal penalties for all of these higher level offenses that people are going to be concerned about occurring, it’s just not realistic.

What are opponents’ concerns if this passes? You’ve got law enforcement and other people who are scared that adults will just possess tons of marijuana at their house, that they will be growing tons of plants or they will traffic marijuana out of the state or they’ll sell it illegally . . . those are the concerns. Those are the reasons people will vote ‘no’; fear of those types of activities. So, if you are going to remove the penalties for those types of activities in addition to changing the laws surrounding adult use and making marijuana legal . . . You’re very likely going to lose. Can I guarantee you’re going to lose? Of course not.

It would be one thing if we were going to add or create new penalties, but that’s not the case. We’re talking about moving from an illegal prohibition system to a legal system. Anyone who wants to see those penalties for other offenses removed or changed is going to be much closer to that if this law passes than if it doesn’t. So, it’s really irresponsible, quite frankly, to make it an initiative that will lose when it could otherwise win . . . and I think that’s obvious to most people.


LH: I’m going to pound on this point a little more but then I want to move on because there’s a lot to cover. If you’ve read the interview, you know they had a lot of things to say about you guys that I’d like you to address . . .


MT: Well, let me add that our organization has done more to decriminalize marijuana at all levels than these folks have. Our executive director spent months in jail. A lot of the people who are part of this organization are here because they faced legal issues surrounding marijuana. This notion that we don’t care . . . it’s not that. There is a reason why we’ve managed to move the law further in the last several years than others have in the last several decades and it’s because we’re doing it in a smart fashion.


In Colorado, we had this same type of criticism . . . It was basically the exact same situation where you had a smaller group of activists who felt like there should be fewer regulations and that it should just remove all penalties for all other things. Now, one thing I’ll tell you is that those people campaigned against us, but the day after the initiative was passed, they opened an online store selling t-shirts touting its passage.


LH: Well, let me ask you one more thing about the decrim issue. I understand why you don’t want to remove penalties for everything, but why still leave it as a felony and not create new statutes that make it a misdemeanor or even just a finable offense? Something where it’s like, “Oh, I had over the limit and now I just got a ticket for $500 bucks. Man, that really just fucked up my weekend.” That would be a pretty decent deterrent that wouldn’t land people in prison over a plant that should never have been illegal in the first place.


MT: Part of it is a matter of showing the voters that all we’re doing is making it legal for adults to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana and take it out the underground market and establish a legal system, but otherwise nothing is changing. Keep in mind, what we’re doing here is making sure voters are comfortable. And by definition, change makes voters uncomfortable . . .


LH: Yeah, especially in a state that’s willing to keep John McCain as their senator.


MT: Yeah . . . So, I’ll have to ask the attorneys, but there might be some specific legal issues in regard to what can and can’t be done in terms of a specific initiative. I would need to double check on those. But. . . in terms of changing limits or removing penalties, you have to have things in place that will deter marijuana going into the illegal market. We heard this in Colorado. “Why is the penalty not changing for possessing more than one ounce?” What we’ve seen, number one, is that all of those arrests dropped for those bigger offenses that were not made legal. So, that’s one thing. But we also pretty quickly saw the legislature start making changes. One of the issues in Colorado was people said the initiative didn’t change things for minors. It kept it the same crime, which is a petty offense in Colorado. But obviously, having something in the initiative that lowers the penalties for minors would be incredibly politically difficult. But, do you know what the legislature did immediately after the initiative passed? They changed it. They did it. Because now, we were talking about a legal product that was being sold in stores and is legal for adults and so forth, so now we need to start addressing those things. It’s the same when it comes to things like possession limits. Should an adult only be allowed to possess one ounce of marijuana? I mean, look at the fact that they can generally possess a copious amount of alcohol . . . five kegs of beer or a whole box of vodka . . . that’s because that product has been legal for 80 years and it is legal in every state surrounding Arizona. But we are talking about a product that has been illegal for the past 80 years and is illegal in most of the surrounding states. You can’t look at it in a vacuum. Look at it like this: we are trying to bring about the largest change in marijuana laws in the history of the State of Arizona on one ‘yes or no’ question. And they are upset that it doesn’t go further. They’re ignoring the fact that it brings them closer than ever before to what they want.


LH: Let’s discuss the suggestion that you guys are beholden to the highest bidder. That touches on a deeper issue within the marijuana movement. A lot of people see the corporate world coming in and usurping what otherwise is a very egalitarian plant, something that unravels monopolies. People see a lot of these bills, the Ohio one especially, we all know that one failed because there was a backlash within the movement saying that they were trying to preemptively create a monopoly or oligopoly to maintain their status at the top.


MT: We did not support that initiative and we’ve never proposed an initiative like that.


You’ve got to take into account what exists already. These guys are saying that this is the dispensaries taking over. Well, ok, these are existing marijuana businesses that are going to need to convert over so there’s an inherent need to have these people interested in making this work. If you were to do something that was completely shutting down previously existing businesses, you’d get criticized for screwing people over who were just hardworking people creating their own businesses. So, the other part of this is that we want to have these people on board because these people have already invested their time, their money, potentially their freedom . . . they’ve put themselves at great risk to start these businesses to provide medical marijuana to patients. So the notion that they should be involved in creating their future, to me, makes perfect sense. Now, then there is the question of what it is they want to do. So, this is where things were with us. There was a point in time when there were two separate groups here. There were the dispensary folks and then there was MPP. There were separate entities and potentially separate initiatives, which is very problematic because number one, it’s very difficult, if not possible to win if there are a few things on the ballot. Then, it’s going to also be very difficult or impossible to win if you don’t have enough resources or you’ve got these people with these resources in this position within that community against it. So, we needed to find a way to compromise. That is where you find that putting together an initiative that everyone is mostly happy with, but most would prefer to have one two things be different is the most effective way to make progress . . . Ultimately, we felt it was done in a way that would create a good law. People will have just as much of an ability to get into this industry as they would with any other industry. There are a limited number of liquor licenses. You are not by definition given the inalienable right to produce and sell liquor out of your basement. You know, granted, it’s made out of natural things and it’s something that people have done for centuries. We live in a society where products that are being sold for human consumption need to be regulated and controlled. Arizona has an existing system for alcohol which is the closest product that you could compare to marijuana in terms of how it’s viewed by the public and how it’s used, how it’s an intoxicating substance for adults. It needs to be produced in a controlled way. That’s how Arizona’s system was. They have a limited number of liquor licenses. So you try to create a system that is similar to what people are comfortable with and how that state has moved forward. There is a reason why the State of Arizona didn’t say, “You know what? let’s just let every person in the State start making vodka and selling it with no control.” There’s a reason for that. For that same reason is why we need to have these types of limitations and regulations in place to ensure that the voters want it. It’s very easy to say, “Well, this is what we think is the best,” but what you think is the best doesn’t matter. It’s what voters think is the best. If it’s not something that the voters want, you are not the man of the people, you are a man for yourself.


LH: Ok, but why only 10% of liquor stores?


MT: Personally, that is totally a point that could be argued in different ways. Again, you’ve got a situation where it’s a product that’s been illegal for a very long time and one of the concerns is that there will be a marijuana store on every corner. Now, I would say yeah, if we can have that many liquor stores, we should be able to have that many marijuana stores. Marijuana is a less harmful substance. I’ve co-authored a book based on making that point. But what it comes down to is that not everyone looks at marijuana as being as acceptable as alcohol yet. We live in a time where people are very concerned about the idea of having a marijuana store on every corner. There are also some people who say that it wasn’t done right with alcohol. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a good point or bad point, but it’s going to be a point that gets made. We’re going to see the opponents constantly saying, “This is going to result in stores all over the place.” Well, no. It’s going to be a set number. You can’t say it’s going to be everywhere. It’s going to be . . . one-tenth the number of liquor stores and if you’re ok with this many liquor stores, this many marijuana stores should be no problem.


LH: Obviously the people in this business who have the most money are going to donate to campaigns and organizations, whether it’s you, NORML, whoever. How as an organization do you maintain your integrity and continue to be for everyone and avoid becoming the face of ‘Big Marijuana’ when ‘Big Marijuana’ is the one that’s basically signing your paycheck? Convince the people.


MT: Well, that’s a fundamental error right there. Do you know what percentage of our organization’s budget came from people in the marijuana industry last year?


LH: Tell me.


MT: Ten. Ten percent. Out of 4.2 million dollars, $420,000 came from the marijuana industry . . . this organization, again, was started in 1995 by people who were truly committed to ending marijuana prohibition, none of whom are making any money off of this. I mean, I make my salary as a nonprofit employee, but I don’t have a business that stands to make any money. These are all people who are involved in this because it’s the right thing to do. So it’s incredibly insulting when people accuse us of this type of shit. It’s ridiculous . . . Someone has to support this stuff and right now, up until this point, we generally have not seen nearly as much support from the industry as we wanted. Now in Arizona, a lot of these businesses are really starting to step up.  But it’s crazy how often I have to remind people that only ten percent of our budget comes from the marijuana industry.


LH: That definitely changes the perception. I didn’t just hear this from Mr. Medar; I’ve heard from a lot of people in the industry that have started to think that the MPP has gone a little corporate.


MT: Well, any type of business or organization that becomes successful and grows has become ‘corporate.’ It’s a fundamental error that people make. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a very progressive person. But obviously, I think that there is a point at which you can acknowledge that things can be successful and grow without it being bad. Let’s look at it the way people characterize the industry. They’re saying that they don’t like the fact that existing dispensaries will be able to continue? Well, why? These people are doing the same thing you’re saying people should be allowed to do, to start a business and try to make it. And if they’re successful, like any other business, they might grow. There was a time when Coors was a tiny little brewery in Colorado. And then people all over started hearing about it and they started shipping their products all over the place and it became bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, you had this whole contingency of people that started saying, “Well, that’s a big brewery and we don’t like that. We want something smaller.” Ok, then you had New Belgium. They showed up and they were a tiny little brewery. They started to become successful, started to grow, and now they’ve got a brewery that’s based in Ashville, North Carolina in addition to the one here in Fort Collins and they’re becoming a much larger company. Now we’ve got much smaller craft brew companies here in Colorado that if they were to start becoming more successful, they’d become the next New Belgium. It’s not a marijuana or alcohol thing. This is a society in which we live thing. If our organization is driven by what is considered ‘corporate,’ what is corporate about raising money and investing and passing a decriminalization law in Vermont? Or passing a decriminalization law in Rhode Island? To remove the threat of jail and the criminal penalties for possession and make it just a $100 fine or a $150 fine, depending on the state, what is corporate about that? And then they’ll just be like, “Well, it should just be legal.” Ok, great. If you can convince the same legislature that is unwilling to remove jail time for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana to instead make it legal, good luck. That’s an utterly immature and naive way of expecting results. It’s not how it works. But what we have seen is that MPP did spearhead the effort to decriminalize in Vermont. Now, look at what’s happening in the Vermont legislature. And MPP did spearhead the effort to pass a medical marijuana law in Illinois and now it’s moving toward decriminalization. . . In Maryland, medical and then decrim. In Arizona, medical . . . You just have certain segments of the population who are never going to be happy or are only going to be happy if it’s done their way, even if their way is not viable and it’s not going to supported. If that’s your way, you’ve got to find another way. That’s just what it comes down to.



LH: One of the things Jason said in the published interview was that the MPP wouldn’t even be willing to debate him on this subject. Would you guys be willing to debate him on it?


MT: We had something similar in Colorado where we had some folks who, from what is sounds like, basically had the same types of complaints—and remember these are the people who then tried to profit off of a law we passed after accusing us of being these corporate people, they tried to then make money off of the new law once it passed. They invited us to participate in a debate. They got the editor of Westword . . . to be the moderator and we agreed. In fact, there were plenty of people within our group who were against participating. I was the one who said we should do it, so I did it and gave them their chance. It was so ridiculous to the point where the moderator apologized to me for having anything to do with it. All they did was yell and scream and make wild claims that were unsubstantiated. One of them lit a joint and blew smoke in my face. We said, “You know what? This accomplishes nothing. You said you wanted to have a discussion. What we ended up having was you accusing us of things.” If they want to have a discussion, that’s one thing, but that’s not what they want because those discussions occurred. There were all sorts of various local meetings where different advocates talked about these proposals and so on. You know, they want a punching bag and we don’t have time to be a punching bag because we’re trying to end marijuana prohibition . . .


We are confident that the initiative that we propose is a good law, it will have the support of most voters and it will have the support of enough activists, donors and members of the public that we can actually run a successful campaign. They’re proposing something that doesn’t fit any of those things, other than the question of whether it would be a good law. I don’t know all the details of what they’re proposing, so I can’t say for sure, but assuming they didn’t include any really wild ridiculous stuff, in an ideal world, I’m sure it would be great. But we live in the real world.


LH: There are two initiatives vying to be on the ballot and most likely, both will make it, at least from what I’ve read. So, let’s go ahead and say there are two initiatives come November. It’s not an either/or, right?


MT: Oh, no. People could vote for both.


LH: Do you see any reason why any true believer in marijuana legalization shouldn’t vote for both?


MT: Honestly, I don’t know what their proposal entails entirely, but if both measures are on the ballot and they have a sound proposal, then sure. I would need to look at all the details. But regardless, the problem is that when there are two proposals on the ballot, it raises doubt and that is the number one thing that results in initiatives losing . . .  it becomes less of a “is this the right decision?” and “should we keep it the same or change it?” and becomes, “Should we keep it the same, change it to one thing or change it to another thing?” And now, generally by default, people will vote ‘no’ just to maintain the status quo because that’s comfortable. It’s just general voter behavior. So, does that mean we would say that everyone needs to vote no on their initiative? No. We would be focused on encouraging people to vote for the initiative that we put on the ballot.


LH: Anything you’d like to add?


MT: Ultimately, we’re confident that this is going to be a law that most voters and most of the public supports. And while it may not go as far as some people would like, it goes further than ever before and brings people that much closer to the ultimate goal.


LH: Thanks for your time, Mason.


Mason Tvert is an American marijuana advocate and founder of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation and current communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project in Colorado. [Wikipedia]


Check out Tvert’s epic clash with Nancy Grace here:

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