Against all odds: How marijuana was legalized in Denver

January 23, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More

If your quest were to convince the people of your city to legalize a highly demonized drug which was entirely safe, how would you run your campaign? At the recently concluded True Spin Conference in Denver, I had the opportunity to listen to an animated yet highly focused Mason Tvert describing for the audience how he and his small and not-well-funded organization (“SAFER”) convinced the people of Denver to legalize marijuana in 2005, with 51% of the people voting in favor. He also spearheaded a 2006 campaign to legalize marijuana throughout Colorado. Although that latter measure failed, an astounding 41% of the people of Colorado voted in favor.

In case you’re thinking that I’m promoting the use of marijuana, I am not, but neither would I attempt to prohibit any other adult from using it. I’ve never used marijuana (even though I once worked as a musician and the opportunities were ubiquitous. Millions of gainfully employed and otherwise law abiding people do like to use marijuana, but they are paying dearly for their attempts to feel good and seek stress relief. I am for the legalization of marijuana because that our country arrests more than 750,000 people each year for possessing or using an extremely safe drug that successfully makes people feel good. This destructive and expensive waste of government law enforcement is absolutely shameful. The number of people arrested each year is more than the entire population of South Dakota.  and these users include many people you know and respect.

There is rank hypocrisy in the air, given that marijuana inexpensively offers the harmless escape that most of us seek much of the time (in one way or another), without any serious side effects and without the expense of many other methods of escape. If there were no such thing as marijuana, when it was finally invented by a pharmaceutical company, we would hail it as a miracle drug (Big Pharma wouldn’t need to lie about its efficacy or safety, as it does for many other drugs). Governments would allow it to be sold at drugs stores and they would happily tax it.


Image by warrantedarrest at Flickr (Creative Commons)

Consider, too, that the U.S. “War on Drugs” (of which fear of marijuana is a huge component) costs almost enough U.S. tax money every year to hire almost one million teachers. These are some of the many reasons that marijuana should be legalized for all adults, not just those of us who are sick (and those who deny of marijuana to people in chronic pain are downright sadistic). Even conservatives see the incredible waste of money and the damage done to marijuana users and their families.

The rampant ignorance and hypocrisy regarding causes informed people to lose respect for their government generally. With these facts, you might think that only an idiot would be against legalizing marijuana. Indeed, too many of us act like idiots. But it’s not easy to change people minds, when a belief is emotional rather than merely factual. Far too many people are terrified of legalizing marijuana. They insist that it is harmful when it isn’t. They falsely insist that marijuana is likely to act as a gateway drug and that pot users are likely to use dangerous drugs like meth and heroin. They falsely argue that it’s immoral to ingest a substance in order to feel relaxed, entirely denying that most people constantly use mind-relaxing substances (cigarettes, alcohol, and hundreds of concoctions peddled by Big Pharma). Opponents pretend that there is no downside to the war on marijuana, and they’ll fight you tooth and nail to throw people in prison for having the audacity to feel good with the assistance of plant you can easily grow locally—even in your own house. Opponents make their arguments with the passion and close-mindedness of a fundamentalist preacher who screams at the flock that they will go to hell for merely dancing.

Given the rampant fears and the ignorant close-mindedness of many voters, how that could you possibly convince the majority of people in a major U.S. city that marijuana should be legal? Mason Tvert accomplished his goal by comparing the safety of using marijuana to the dangers of using alcohol. He focused like a hot laser beam on the undeniable fact that that marijuana is “safer” than alcohol, hence the name of SAFER for the organization founded by Tvert.  Through a creative campaign that repeatedly caught the attention of the mainstream media, Tvert made an in-your-face convincing case that alcohol is much more dangerous than marijuana. His campaign was brilliant because his arguments presumed, but didn’t shout, that using a drug to relax is a matter of personal freedom, and that government has no business invading the private space of citizens with its phalanx of street cops, drug courts and prisons, much less its stigmatization of users and the destruction of their families. He artfully fashioned his campaign to function as a mirror that reflected the rampant hypocrisy of the criminal justice system. It was a high-energy non-relenting campaign that played the local media as a conductor directs an orchestra.

Before getting to the campaign itself, what is the damage caused by alcohol? Consider first that alcohol causes 30,000 deaths every year (many of those from drunk driving), but there’s a lot more damage to discuss. Alcohol is a contributing factor for millions of acts of violence in the United States every year. Alcohol often destroys livers. These are undeniable facts. Tvert also presented convincing data demonstrating that marijuana doesn’t destroy people’s bodies and it doesn’t facilitate violence. Pot is not nearly as bad as alcohol, and there is no dispute by any honest scientist. Tvert essentially re-made the case for Prohibition, knowing full well that politicians weren’t going to ban alcohol. But maybe they could do the next best thing: Give people a safer way to get high. Thus, he argued that prohibiting people from safely using marijuana causes millions of people to opt out instead for dangerous alcohol. The honest comparison highlights one distinguishing factor: safety. And who isn’t for safety? Who isn’t for fewer deaths and fewer acts of violence? And, really (the campaign subliminally argued), who is against the right of people to seek stress relief?

Tvert worked hard to break through the media with his pro-marijuana messages. The traditional media are suckers for traditional anti-marijuana drug stories, e.g., stories showing people being busted for possessing marijuana. And when the media wants to disparage someone, they let is slip out that he/she smoked dope, at least until . . . uh oh, Michael Phelps, who had been crowned a national hero, was discovered enjoying the use of marijuana. For the most part, though, Americans are convinced that there is something wrong with sitting in the privacy of your own home smoking marijuana, even though it is entirely appropriate to sit around getting blasted with a more dangerous drug, alcohol. Tvert points out that the anti-marijuana messages often paint marijuana users as losers (much more than alcohol users, who are doing real damage to themselves), and he retorts, “It shouldn’t be a crime to be a loser” (if that is, indeed, what it is to sit in one’s own home and get high).

The focus of Tvert’s campaign was the river of misinformation claiming that marijuana is unsafe. Only about a third of the people in America recognize that marijuana is safer than alcohol. There is thus a huge middle ground of people who would not support marijuana-related arrests and incarceration if only they knew the facts. He decided to focus his campaign on this middle ground of people who might be willing to listen. Tvert wasn’t out to convert the zealots.

Honing the message was only one aspect of the campaign. Simply having the facts on your side and having a well-honed packaging does not automatically cause the message to penetrate. To legalize marijuana, one needs to be media savvy. Tvert described many of his techniques during his presentation at yesterday’s conference. They ran the gamut from straight-forward approaches to some that bordering on wacky. His mottos are “Show no Shame” and “Keep trying, because you never know what will work.”

To make that message stick, one must understand what makes a message “newsworthy.” As I’ve often argued at this site, we have a largely dysfunctional “news” media that actively filters out rational discussion allegedly because rational discussion is allegedly too time consuming for the viewers, who are allegedly lacking in attention and focus. Leaving that for another day, the bottom line is that one’s message will never get anywhere unless it fits modern media-dictated prerequisites for newsworthiness. What are those prerequisites?  Something is newsworthy for traditional media if it involves:

  • Controversy
  • Familiarity
  • Oddity
  • Humor, or
  • Entertainment

I think that this is an accurate summary of what the media tends to seek as “news” (on both a local and national level).  The tactics that Tvert used for his campaign included ballot measures (which can  inject a sense of importance to an otherwise ignored issue). He also used current events, creating reportable public occurrences. He often hijacked his opponents’ attempts to use the media (e.g., showing up with counter demonstrations) and running advocacy campaigns (e.g., online petitions).

Tvert tried dozens of approaches to getting the word out, and eventually some of them worked well. He cautioned that merely holding a straightforward sign in front of City Hall is not likely to get you much traction. Hence, many of Tvert’s media messages were dramatic, bordering on outrageous from the perspective of the opponents. The aim of his messages, however, was always to get the message out that marijuana was much safer than alcohol. For instance, the campaign repeatedly provided the media with lists of the “harms” of marijuana and compared them with a list of harms of the using alcohol.

The Mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, opposed the legalization of marijuana before 2006 (but has since mellowed his opposition). During the campaign, though, Hickenlooper had a problem that was not noticed by most people, though it was glaring to Tvert. Hickenlooper owned a well-known local micro-brewery that sponsored an annual “Beerdrinker of the Year” competition. It was Tvert’s genius to unrelentingly point out to the public and to the media that Hickenlooper was a “drug delear,” and that the drug he peddled (alcohol) was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year in America, in addition to contributing to millions of acts of violence. The campaign argued that the Mayor was making a fortune selling a drug that was “more harmful than marijuana.” The campaign distributed “Wanted” signs” aimed at the Mayor: “WANTED: For Dealing a Deadly Drug.” The Mayor initially waved off this message as a stunt, but then the controversy itself became newsworthy. Tvert had many ways pointing out Hickenlooper’s hypocrisy to the people of Denver. He arranged for a man dressed up like a chicken to carry a sign with the slogan “What’s so scary about marijuana?” The mayor repeatedly found himself face-to-face with signs renaming him “Chickenlooper,”and other signs asked what he was afraid of

The campaign made strategic use of billboards that included dramatic images.  The text of one of those billboard messages was “Reduce Family and Community Violence.”  The URL listed on that billboard was The justification was that by switching from alcohol to marijuana, domestic violence would decrease. Although Tvert is the first to admit that alcohol is not the sole cause of domestic violence, there is no doubt that the use of alcohol significantly contributes to domestic violence. In fact, use of alcohol makes domestic violence eight times more likely. Eventually, the campaign switched over to a more straightforward billboard message indicating that use of alcohol makes domestic violence eight times more likely. In the meantime, however, the billboard message itself had become a news story, which was exactly the plan–some community leaders had argued that the original billboard message was misleading. Tvert disagrees, arguing that it was no less accurate than many other billboard messages that aren’t questioned.

Another billboard message was that use of alcohol contribute to “incest, child molestation, spouse abuse, and family violence.” The take-away message was this: “Are We Really Focusing on the Family.” James Dobson did not take the bait (much to his credit), but this billboard message also made the rounds in the media, including a story by the Rocky Mountain News (RIP), at least until the online story was yanked. Tvert cautioned the audience to make sure you always take a screenshot of stories that might be seen as controversial, because these are often quietly removed from newspaper websites.

Tvert’s campaign was endlessly creative. Consider the effect protest signs listing the harms done by use of alcohol. Now, consider this same prominent list of the harms of alcohol pasted over a background of a marijuana leaf, unveiled at a university.  The result was more controversy and thus more media coverage.   Even some of the supporters of the campaign thought it went over the top when it warned that beer heiress Cindy McCain and high-ranking executives of Coors were “Wanted” as a “drug dealers.” The campaign also made some direct attacks on public officials and prosecutors for supporting the arrest and prosecution of people for using weed.  At True Spin, Tvert stated that many of the campaign approaches were part of the process of figuring out what actually worked to get coverage, and that sometimes the campaign would straddle the border of what was socially acceptable, or even piss off some supporters, in order to get the message out and get more people on board.

Sometimes, the campaign would directly confront parents groups who argued that use of marijuana was a slippery slope to more dangerous drugs. The campaign did some investigation and determined that some of these “parent campaigns” were funded by extremists or those with a financial interest in the status quo, people such as law enforcement and those who sell alcohol products. Against the “parent” campaigns, Tvert’s group argued “If you don’t legalize marijuana, you are telling your kid to use alcohol.”

SAFER has not been shy in the scope and variety of its arguments. It has even argued that pot should be allowed in airport lounges. Why? Because drunk airline passengers cause numerous problems, including violence, loud outbursts and the grabbing of flight attendants. Passengers often load up in airport lounges just before getting on their flights. There is no indication that people using marijuana engage in this disruptive and sometimes dangerous conduct. By the way, Tvert mentioned that when passengers act up on airlines, “They duct tape you to your seat.” I was wondering about that . . .

During the campaign to legalize marijuana in Denver, Tvert challenged beer companies to a “duel” at the “Great American beer Festival.” Tvert challenged the beer makers that they would, respectively, smoke and drink, to see who was the last one standing. He knew that no beer company would actually take up this challenge, but the stunt got media attention. At the Festival, he made the following argument to the media: “I’m standing here with $100 of beer, but if I pulled out a joint, I would be put into handcuffs and hauled away.”

Not all of the campaign’s billboard ad proposals were allowed. One of those featured a half-naked girl passed out on a picnic table. The image was accompanied by the following message “This is your daughter on drugs.” This rejection became a story line, though, and the campaign adapted. The new proposal featured a gorgeous woman in a miniscule bikini accompanying this message: “Marijuana: No Hangovers. No Violence. No Carbs.” In other words, it was a parody of beer advertisements. This image was placed on a billboard and it also found its way into the news media, as you might expect.

For more information on Tvert’s strategies for getting the message out, go to SAFER’s website, focusing on the “campaign” section.

For those of us needing to win media coverage, Tvert warns that reporters constantly need to be watched, lest little things distract them from your main message. For instance, during one interview at his office, Tvert put his bare feet up on his desk. The reporter somehow found it relevant to report this fact in the subsequent story, thereby detracting from the main message. He cautions that “you need to wear a suit” when promoting controversial causes. Failure to dress up “respectably” will lessen the chances that your message will be covered.

SAFER is not resting on its laurels. It is currently promoting a boycott of Starbucks. Why? Because Starbucks (joining with makers of weapons and producers of alcohol products) has decided to support an ongoing effort to re-criminalize marijuana.

Tvert’s talk was impressive on several levels. Due to the campaign’s success, the war on marijuana has somewhat cooled on the streets of Denver. Arresting people with joints has become a lower priority for at least some cops, who undoubtedly have better things to do with their time and energy. The Mayor has established a panel regarding the issue, and SAFER is represented on the panel. Even the unsuccessful statewide campaign has caused many people to rethink the merits of the current war on marijuana. Tvert’s talk also served as an inspiring reminder that getting any message out—actually changing the minds of millions of people–requires thinking outside of the box and doing this with unrelenting energy and passion for one’s cause. Tvert’s presentation also reminded me that the imaginative and brash approaches he used might be necessary to break us out destructive loops on many issues other than the use of marijuana.

Bonus: For an equally inspired straight-forward approach to the War on Drugs, consider also this October 2009 presentation by PBS travel guru Rick Steves (he discusses the use of marijuana starting at the 3:00 mark).  Given his livelihood, Steve’s strong statement was impressive and courageous.  Kudos!


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Category: American Culture, Censorship, Communication, Drug laws, hypocrisy, ignorance, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Guess who is opposing the decriminalization of marijuana in California? The alcohol industry. .

    …It's clear why the alcohol industry is in this fight — to protect its turf and keep Californians drinking. This is the same California Beer and Beverage Distributors gave $100,000 to oppose Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), which would have reduced marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction. With marijuana being the second most popular recreational substance (despite its prohibition), the booze industry must recognize the threat legal marijuana poses to its bottom line. Thus, it has a vast financial interest in keeping marijuana illegal and steering Californians away from using it.

    But why does the No on Prop. 19 campaign share Big Alcohol's goal of an alcohol-only society? It seems odd that a group that purports to be committed to enhancing public safety wants to ensure Californians can only drink and cannot use marijuana as a safer recreational alternative…

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    "A coalition of Colorado and national drug reform groups Friday filed eight initiatives designed to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana. It was the opening move in an effort to put the question to Colorado voters on the November 2012 ballot."

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