Pubdate: Thu, 24 Nov 2005
Source: Westword (CO)
Copyright: 2005 New Times
Author: Patricia Calhoun
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Greetings from the Mile High City.

"Mind if I smoke?" asks Frank Rich, Denver's drunken ambassador.

Who could mind?

We're sitting in Club 404, a 53-year-old bar in the heart of Denver, 
a town that's suddenly turned into America's new-age sin city, a 
place where vice is very nice -- if, in fact, it qualifies as vice at 
all. Last fall, Denver was toasted as "The Drunkest Big City in 
America" by Men's Health magazine, and while the stated reasons for 
that honor did not cite Rich, who founded Modern Drunkard magazine 
here in 1996, they certainly should have. He's about to crisscross 
the country on a book tour, touting this town's liquid assets as he 
talks up The Modern Drunkard: A Handbook for Drinking in the 21st 
Century, a malted manifesto already bubbling up the Amazon charts.

And just three weeks ago, Denver voters stunned poll watchers and 
pundits by passing Initiative 100, which legalizes the possession of 
less than an ounce of marijuana in this city. The Make Denver SAFER 
campaign was led by Mason Tvert, a 23-year-old from Phoenix who 
graduated from the University of Richmond in May 2004, moved to 
Boulder in January and pulled off the upset of the election season, 
taking this town one toke over the line. He, too, is crisscrossing 
the country, talking about his victory and helping other groups 
strategize similar campaigns.

But right now, Denver's viceroys of vice, these two sultans of sin, 
are meeting for the first time.

Round One

"You didn't have to attack alcohol," Rich says, hoisting a glass of PBR.

"The logic behind the campaign," Tvert explains, "was simply a method 
for pointing out the hypocrisy of many people within our system and 
the irrationality of many laws. I wholeheartedly do not have a 
problem with alcohol."

"You obviously do," Rich fires back. "Have you ever read your website?"

"I wrote it."

Rich pulls out a file of pages he's printed off SAFER's site, pages 
full of screeds and stats pointing out the hazards of alcohol. For 
Rich, drinking isn't all fun and games -- although his book is full 
of both. He has his own sets of stats regarding the healthful aspects 
of alcohol.

"Less harmful and more harmful does not mean better or worse," Tvert responds.

"That's exactly what it does," Rich says.

"Alcohol is more harmful than marijuana," Tvert insists.

"How is alcohol more harmful?" Rich asks.

"You can overdose on it."

"You can overdose on aspirin."

(Were this discussion being fueled by marijuana rather than beer, at 
least the voices would be lower -- and slower. Already, my cramped 
fingers are aching to pop the top off an aspirin bottle.)

"Alcohol saves more lives than it takes away," Rich continues.

"Alcohol safer than marijuana? That's statistically impossible," 
Tvert counters, then tones it down. "I think we do agree that whether 
it's alcohol or marijuana, they are drugs that people want to use; 
they do have benefits. They also have potential harms. I never say 
that marijuana is harm-free. Never. I always say that the policies 
that keep marijuana illegal while keeping alcohol legal are more 
harmful than policies that would allow people to use marijuana as 
well as alcohol."

"I support the legalization of marijuana. I think most drinkers do," 
says Rich. "Drinkers are more laissez-faire about legalizing pot than 
your average person."

Round Two

Another PBR later, Rich is no more laissez-faire about SAFER's 
anti-alcohol campaign. "It reminds me of two beleaguered swimmers in 
the social current, and one of them is trying to stand on the other 
guy's head to save himself," he says.

"The idea wasn't that we were attacking alcohol so much..."

"Oh, come on."

Hey, Tvert insists, he would have liked to have run a pro-marijuana 
campaign. But the billboard company wouldn't let him use the message 
"Marijuana is SAFER than alcohol" because it wouldn't permit the word 
"marijuana." And it was the city that told SAFER the ballot measure 
couldn't be called the "Alcohol/Marijuana Equalization Initiative." 
So, yes, alcohol wound up the heavy, but all he was looking for was 
equal treatment under the law: If alcohol is legal, then marijuana 
should be, too.

Without the alcohol angle, Tvert points out, "there would have been 
no media coverage at all." And even negative coverage -- say, of the 
time Tvert called Denver mayor John Hickenlooper a "drug dealer" 
because he owns bars, or of a proposed SAFER billboard showing a 
battered woman that made it look like Initiative 100 was simply an 
attempt to put more cops on the street -- helped the cause.

"This is Denver," Rich disagrees. "Voters could read the word OEmarijuana.'"

In the drunkest big city in America, who's going to vote against a little pot?

But Tvert doesn't back down. "I never lied once," he says. And 
besides, the campaign worked: "Marijuana wasn't legal before, and now it is."

For Tvert, this is just the beginning. He's gotten calls from 
politicos around the country. "Everyone is polling to find out what 
the hell happened," he says. He's just back from the national Drug 
Policy Alliance Conference in California -- "There was no discussion 
of alcohol there, because alcohol is a legal drug," he notes -- and 
next he's off to Washington, D.C., where he'll see friends and maybe 
do a little politicking. Then it's back to Colorado, where he'll pick 
up the pro-marijuana campaigns he introduced on the University of 
Colorado and Colorado State University campuses this past spring. 
Although both schools changed alcohol policies after students died on 
campus, "they're still doing things wrong," Tvert insists. And soon 
he'll be talking with Sensible Colorado, an outfit that wants to push 
for legalizing marijuana statewide in 2008. "We'd like to help them 
see that through," he says.

"I think you'll have a difficult time if you're attacking alcohol," 
says Rich, a former Army Ranger. "I'll make sure of that. I'll start 
a campaign."

Where there's smoke, there's still ire.

Round Three

Back in their corners, the two agree to disagree...for now. They 
start comparing notes on other sin cities. Alcohol consumption is 
much higher in Amsterdam than it is here, for example, even though 
drugs are legal. "But I'm pretty sure that's tourists," Tvert says. 
They debate whether alcohol or marijuana is the more social drug. 
They talk about alcohol and assorted city officials, alcohol and the 
arts. "Look at Ernest Hemingway," Tvert says. "We wouldn't have The 
Old Man and the Sea without it."

Rich, who will be signing copies of his own book in New York City the 
next day, casts a conversational net for similar dope-inspired 
masterpieces, but it comes back empty. "I totally feel for you guys," 
he says, his hand around a fresh PBR. "We just wouldn't attack you. 
What's the honorable thing to do, rather than attack a beleaguered swimmer?"

"I have nothing against alcohol," Tvert says. "I'm pro-choice all the 
way around."

"But there will be a backlash," Rich warns. "People are moving to 
prohibition. There's less consumption of alcohol every year."

The campaign was just politics, Tvert repeats. He's not called "Karl 
Rove for the pleasantly stoned" for nothing.

Not that he'll officially say whether he's ever inhaled: "Would you 
ask a pro-choice person if they've ever had an abortion?"

If you're Frank Rich, you would. "Do you smoke?" he asks Tvert. "I'm 
pretty sure you do."

Next round.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman