A man passes a joint during the High Times Cannabis Cup in Denver, on April 19, 2015. (Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

NORML and others slam Denver group pushing for social cannabis use

In the wake of the withdrawal of a marijuana ballot initiative in Denver, a national advocacy group leader calls the effort "an impulsive act"; initiative backer Mason Tvert says the measure propelled city leaders into discussing a compromise, adding "this isn't over"

After activists last week pulled a Denver marijuana initiative from the November ballot, other pro-legalization activists have lashed out at what they see as backpedaling by their like-minded colleagues.

If the initiative had passed (and it looked like it might), it would have allowed limited social marijuana use in businesses such as art galleries and bars.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ lead counsel Keith Stroup called the move “embarrassing” in a scathing essay. Drug reform activists in Denver — some who had campaigned on behalf of the now-dead social use initiative — called the move “disappointing” and said they felt “lied to” and “used as a pawn in someone else’s backroom dealings with the government.”

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A woman rolls a joint while attending the Colorado 420 Rally at Civic Center Park in Denver on April 20, 2014. (Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

Activists Mason Tvert and Brian Vicente — both co-authors of Colorado’s marijuana-legalizing Amendment 64 in 2012 and the primary voices behind the social use proposition — said they never misled their supporters, and that they were always planning on moving ahead with the consumption initiative until productive conversations with city government and the marijuana industry started to blossom.

“I actually had asked my boss for the ability to take two months of unpaid leave from (the Marijuana Policy Project) to run this campaign and had already spoken to some of our staff members about how we were going to account for my absence,” said Tvert, communications lead at MPP. “We were very serious and still are very serious. This isn’t over.”

Tvert and Vicente initially announced their push for a social cannabis use initiative in mid-June, when they proposed something that “would simply allow adults 21 and older to consume marijuana in designated areas and venues where only adults are allowed,” Tvert told The Cannabist at the time. In July, they released a poll showing that 56 percent of likely Denver voters either strongly supported (20 percent) or somewhat supported (36 percent) the measure.

And then the news surrounding the proposed initiative began to snowball. A veteran political analyst stepped in with a different reading of the activists’ poll. The hospitality industry in Denver balked when they were given a microphone, showing a potential disconnect among some of the venues that would decide on hosting said vaping, edibles consumption and outdoor cannabis smoking. Some spoke out in favor of the measure — like Cannabist pot critic Jake Browne. Some spoke against it — like The Denver Post Editorial Board. And finally in August, the campaign submitted 10,700 petition signatures — more than twice as many as needed — to the Denver Elections office.

So it was an understandable surprise in early September when the social use activists told The Cannabist they were pulling the measure one day before it was to be certified for this November’s ballot. Instead of doing it themselves, they wanted to craft a compromise with city and business leaders.

“We’re not approaching the withdrawal of this initiative lightly,” Tvert said at the time. “We believe that cannabis users deserve the freedom to congregate and socialize to the same extent as alcohol users.”

One day after the campaign announced its pullback, Stroup published his essay on norml.org under the headline: “The Fiasco in Denver: Putting the Cart Before the Horse.”

Stroup’s essay started out directly:

The embarrassing episode this week in Denver, when the sponsors of a city-wide initiative to legalize marijuana smoking in some bars and lounges withdrew their initiative, even after qualifying for the ballot, reminds us of the need to thoroughly vet these types of projects – especially those with the potential to set-back the legalization movement if they fail – before moving forward. This was an impulsive act that should never have seen the light of day – at least not in 2015.

Later on, Stroup wrote: “I doubt those who contributed either money or time to qualify the proposed initiative for the ballot will consider this a victory.”

A man smokes at a recent 420 rally in Denver's Civic Center Park. (Joe Amon, Denver Post file)
A man smokes at a recent 420 rally in Denver’s Civic Center Park. (Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

Sure enough, a couple of the activists who had been speaking out in favor of the proposed initiative questioned their colleagues’ intentions.

“It is incredibly disappointing to see the backers decided to withdraw the proposed initiative without giving the public a chance to vote on allowing responsible adults to socially consume cannabis,” said Matt Brown, founder of SproutHouse and a longtime legalization supporter. “Personally, I feel lied to. Used as a pawn in someone else’s backroom dealings with the government of the city where I live.”

The biggest loss in this situation is time, said Mitch Shenassa, who co-hosts “The Adam Dunn Show” and works at Growhouse Cultural.

“The greatest disappointment is the lost opportunity cost for all the stakeholders — the businesses, the state, the citizens and the potential tourists,” said Shenassa. “The loss is in time — as states around the country move ahead with legalization and Colorado has fewer unique offerings for the cannabis industry and its adherents, the opportunity to enrich the state from the massive industry is slipping away.”

Activist Angie Valdez agrees, comparing the current plight of cannabis users to that of “social lepers.”

The government has “left both medical and recreational users to be prisoners in their own home and treated as a social lepers,” said Valdez, who handles community events for Smoke Studios. “What they are failing to realize is that there are more of us than they expected. We deserve an environment where we can participate in social activities with like-minded individuals. We spoke and voted for that right. Give us the chance to show that we can consume responsibly and not only be regulated like alcohol, but better than alcohol.”

Legalization supporters aren’t the only ones questioning the group behind the pulled social use initiative. The Denver Elections Division’s spokesman, Alton Dillard, briefly interrupted the committee’s news conference last week — the same presser where they would announce the measure’s yanked fate and the campaign’s new direction — to provide some taxpayer statistics to the media.

As we wrote in early September, Dillard said at the time that the social use initiative’s signature-verification process had cost taxpayers between $18,000 and $20,000, including pay for 14 temporary employees who were brought in to help and the time spent by two regular employees on the social marijuana use initiative’s petitions.

Tvert questioned Dillard’s accounting on Thursday. He also pointed out that he and his team still feel this collaborative process is the best way to move forward.

“It’s really pretty absurd for anyone who cares about cannabis consumers’ rights to view this as anything but a wise decision. We’ll be able to collaborate with the city on a law they’ll be comfortable implementing,” said Tvert. “This isn’t negative for adult cannabis consumers in Denver. This is a step in the direction we need to be going in.”

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Visiting Denver: Shannon Carmack, left, and Krissy Lund from Kansas City, Mo., check out the Euflora retail marijuana store on the 16th Street Mall in Denver in April 2014. (Hyoung Chang, Denver Post file)

Tvert said his colleague Steve Fox replied to NORML’s Stroup on his personal Facebook page when he posted his “Fiasco in Denver” essay. The comment is no longer online; Tvert said it was deleted, but he provided the following text to The Cannabist:

“Keith – You have been around long enough to have seen the full evolution of legalization in Colorado,” wrote Fox, an attorney at Vicente Sederberg with the social use initiative’s Brian Vicente. “You know that Mason and I, in particular, have used ballot initiatives in the past to force an issue into the public’s consciousness. The question is not always, ‘Will we win?,’ but rather, ‘Will this create progress?’ But we always have an endgame in mind and, frankly, I will stack Colorado’s current marijuana endgame against anyone else’s in the world.”

Fox’s comment closed with, “Don’t fall into the trap of telling us we don’t know how to play checkers when we are actually playing chess.”

While the proposed ballot initiative certainly forced the “issue into the public’s consciousness,” taking it to the ballot box was always the campaign’s intention, Tvert said.

“We didn’t hear anything productive from the city until after we submitted our petition and signatures,” said Tvert. “It turns out that this is what it takes to get the council to work on this. It’s their job. It’s not an added cost. It’s a cost of operating a city government.”

Tvert said he’s “cautiously optimistic” his conversations with city and industry leaders will lead toward a solution.

“And if we don’t end up with a law that we believe is acceptable,” Tvert said, “then we can run this initiative next year, when it’s more likely to pass.”

Colorado state Sen. Pat Steadman talks social pot use on The Cannabist Show: