University of Richmond alumnus Mason Tvert is one of the leading advocates for legalizing marijuana in Colorado through Amendment 64, which if passed in November, would create the first state system where marijuana would be regulated and taxed like alcohol.
Tvert, a 2004 graduate, is the co-founder of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), the SAFER Voter Education Fund and has frequently appeared in the news to promote the message that marijuana is safer than alcohol.
Amendment 64 will appear on the November 2012 ballot, he said.
If passed, the amendment would remove all legal penalties for the personal use, possession and limited home-growth of marijuana for adults 21 years of age and older in Colorado.
One of the most recent polls, conducted about two weeks ago by the Denver Post, shows support for the passing of Amendment 64 at 51 percent to 40 percent not in favor of passing.
Most of Tvert's time and energy is spent arguing that marijuana is a safer substance than alcohol, a belief that was formulated during his time at Richmond, he said.
Tvert said in high school he would frequently drink on the weekends without any fear of punishment.
The summer after his high school graduation, Tvert attended a concert from which he had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital, unconscious, to have his stomach pumped for alcohol poisoning, he said.
"I was released from the hospital without any sort of punishment," Tvert said. "They did not notify the police, nor did they investigate where I had received all of this alcohol that had almost killed me."
Upon entering Richmond as a freshman, Tvert joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, where he partook in school-sanctioned parties at his fraternity during the weekends with five to six kegs of beer, he said.
"Despite the fact that we did frequently have these large parties that the school would sanction with rules on how to conduct them, we had exclusive deals with Miller Light to use their products," he said.
For liability reasons, Richmond has since prohibited allowing fraternities from having beer kegs at their parties. Beer cans can be regulated easier, said campus policeman John Jacobs.
Although Tvert was never punished for underage drinking while at Richmond, he become involved in a multijurisdictional grand jury investigation related to marijuana use near the end of his freshman year, he said.
"I was scrutinized and investigated because they simply suspected that I might be using marijuana as a college student," Tvert said.
"There was never any suspicion that I was using, selling or cultivating it, but I was still essentially harassed by every level of government along with other students involved."
It was Tvert's personal experiences with both alcohol and marijuana that brought the hypocrisy to light as to how the two substances were being treated, he said.
"When I almost drank myself to death, there was no concern from law enforcement about where I might have procured that potentially deadly substance," Tvert said. "Yet, when I was simply using marijuana in college, the law enforcements wanted to know where it was coming from, despite the fact that it was causing no problems in my life."
It is Tvert's belief that most college students are far more fearful of being punished for using marijuana than for consuming alcohol. It is that fear that continually draws students to drink alcohol instead, he said.
Under current legislation, marijuana is an illegal substance. Using, possessing and distributing the substance are therefore criminal offenses with penalties much more severe than underage drinking.
The United States imposes some of the world's harshest anti-marijuana penalties, including: loss of driving privileges; loss of federal college aid; loss of personal private property; revocation of professional driver's license; loss of certain welfare benefits; removal from public housing; and loss of child custody, as stated in Tvert's book.
"I think it is very clear, to college students especially, that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol," Tvert said. "It's really bad policy to steer students toward drinking rather than using marijuana for fear of harsher penalties."
But that is exactly what the law does, Tvert said.
On an average weekend at Richmond, campus police receive several calls for alcohol-related incidents, Jacobs said.
Since Aug. 1, 2012, Richmond's campus police have responded to 33 alcohol-related incidents compared to only four drug-related incidents, Jacobs said.
Upon graduating with honors and a degree in political science and journalism, Tvert became involved in campaign work duringthe primaries and general election in 2004. He later helped to organize the campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Arizona.
In 2005, he started SAFER in Colorado. It was Tvert's goal to generate creative, humorous and sometime controversial media coverage through SAFER to educate the public that marijuana was indeed safer than alcohol, he said.
"The goal of all of our media coverage was to make our subject matter interesting enough for people to want to talk about it," Tvert said. "It is when people hear things from their family, friends and colleagues that they have to start thinking about why they have
One of SAFER's billboards in 2006 was made to look like a beer advertisement with a picture of a woman in a bikini. Written on the billboard was, "Marijuana: No violence. No hangover. No carbs."
One of the biggest obstacles that Tvert has had to face has been the misconception that marijuana is far more harmful than it is, Tvert said.
"Everyone in this country lives in an environment where marijuana has been demonized and has been subjected to misinformation and propaganda," he said. "Our government has been working for years to convince people that marijuana is just too dangerous to allow adults to use, when in fact, it is far less harmful to use than alcohol."
One of the many misconceptions is that many people believe marijuana to be a "gateway drug," but every time researchers have taken an objective look at the "Gateway Theory," they find that there is no evidence to support it, Tvert said.
There is no relationship between the use of marijuana and the use of other drugs, Tvert said.
According to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization, it is actually marijuana's illegal status that makes it a "gateway drug" because it forces marijuana sales into an underground market where other illegal products are available.
"By taking marijuana off the street and putting it behind the counter in a legal market, we can actually reduce consumers' exposure to harder drugs," Tvert said.
One of the many ways in which Tvert has tried to educate the public is through the publication of a book in 2009 that he co-wrote with Steve Fox and Paul Armentano titled, "Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink?"
The book poses the question: Why do we punish adults who make the rational, safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol?
The book outlines evidence to show that marijuana is significantly less harmful to the body than alcohol. People cannot overdose on marijuana, cannot become addicted to it, nor have there been any long-term health problems found relating to marijuana use, according to the book.
The book also states that the use of marijuana is much less likely to lead to violent behavior, serious injury to the user or other people and traffic injuries than the use of alcohol.
Jacobs could not recount one instance during all his years as a campus police officer in which the campus police had been called to deal with a violent situation that had stemmed purely from marijuana use, he said.
The book reached No. 11 on Amazon's top selling books in 2009, was one of the No. 1 books on health policy on Amazon and was named one of Publisher Weekly's top titles of independent publishers during the fall the book was published, Tvert said.
Despite the book's success, the Richmond bookstore does not sell or advertise Tvert's book, nor has Richmond's alumni magazine published anything about Tvert's accomplishments.
Neither the manager of the bookstore nor the editor for the alumni magazine knew enough about Tvert's accomplishments, the success of his book or the lack of publicity to comment.
The argument detailed in the book became the groundwork for Amendment 64, and the campaign has gathered thousands of supporters, thousands of volunteers, hundreds of businesses, many powerful organizations and elected officials. It has gathered a list of more than 130 college professors who signed a letter endorsing the initiative, Tvert said.
"The election is going to be very close," Tvert said. "But we think that Colorado is ready to do it, and we will do everything we can to push it along."
Contact staff writer Ryann Dannelly at firstname.lastname@example.org