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Meet marijuana’s top evangelist

Mason Tvert is the director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project.

Cyrus McCrimmon for The Boston Globe

Mason Tvert is the director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project.

The alcohol almost killed him. After guzzling beer all day in the Arizona sun, Mason Tvert was plastered. So drunk, an ambulance eventually rushed the then-high school senior from an outdoor concert to the hospital. Staff there offered to call him a cab home, but, as he recalls, did not say a word about the danger of alcohol. He was just another drunk kid.

Smoking pot as a freshman at the University of Richmond, he never experienced that kind of drama, getting high and watching movies in his dorm room. Until, as he remembers, cops got wind of his weed. Several police officers grilled him early one morning during finals week, seeking the source of his stash.

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The disparity between the experiences would, in just a few years, catapult Tvert into the role of the nation’s top evangelist for legalizing pot with a message that he still repeats as if by rote: “Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and adults should be allowed to make the safer choice. Period.”

Opponents bristle at that idea and call marijuana a gateway to addiction. Still, the storyline has begun to turn the tide nationally. It was critical in some of the states where voters have already passed marijuana legalization. The pro-pot campaign in Massachusetts initially adopted a version of the message, and it’s playing a role in some of the other states where voters Tuesday will have their say on legalization.

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Tvert, a 34-year-old with a Young Republican wardrobe, did not come up with that narrative — a colleague at the national Marijuana Policy Project gets credit for that. But no one has done as much to hone it and spread it as the jovial, attention-grabbing preacher of the “safer” message for legalization.

Tvert “latched onto that narrative like a dog on an ankle. Like a soap salesman, he just maniacally repeated it again and again,” said Allen St. Pierre, who worked for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws for a quarter-century.

For generations, marijuana advocates had tried — and failed — to eliminate criminal penalties for the drug, arguing that it’s a harmless herb, that legalization is the moral path, that pot prohibition is worse than the drug itself. The new message helped to turn their luck around.

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John Suthers, the former attorney general of Colorado, and a strong opponent of marijuana legalization efforts, said he enjoys Tvert personally and his “in-your-face” unconventional style.

“My major problem with Mason is, he really pushed this safety thing which, in my opinion, was not a good message in terms of youth perception of the risks of marijuana,” Suthers said. “The facts are: Alcohol is dangerous. Marijuana is dangerous, particularly for young people.”

But Suthers begrudgingly acknowledged the skill of his longtime sparring partner.

“Do I think the message has been successful? Yeah,” he said. “Mason has kind of figured out the formula.”

When Tvert graduated from college in early May 2004, the marijuana movement had some success — eight states had OK’d marijuana for medical use — but full legalization efforts had failed to gain traction.

Yet at the pro-pot Marijuana Policy Project, Steve Fox, a Marblehead native, was settling upon a hypothesis.

Mason Tvert is a leader nationwide for the legalization efforts for marijuana.

Cyrus McCrimmon for The Boston Globe

Mason Tvert is a leader nationwide for the legalization efforts for marijuana.

After digging through polling data, he developed a hunch: If more people were sold on the idea that marijuana is safer than alcohol, that would translate into greater support for legalization, making future initiatives easier to pass.

The leadership at MPP was skeptical, but funded a modest effort to promote that message on college campuses in the hopes of getting media coverage. Fox, who had hired Tvert for two temporary gigs in 2004, dispatched him to Colorado at the beginning of 2005.

After high-profile alcohol deaths on campus, Tvert said, he pressed for nonbinding ballot measures for students to say that the penalties for marijuana should be no greater than those for alcohol. They passed at two major Colorado universities. The media covered the wins.

Next up was a referendum to remove penalties for private adult possession of marijuana in Denver. The point, Tvert and Fox said, was to garner as much media coverage as possible for the marijuana-is-safer-than-alcohol message. With a tiny budget, and lots of stunts, they drove a public conversation on the issue — and, to their surprise, won.

Aiming higher, they gathered enough signatures to put a legalization measure on the Colorado ballot in 2006 and hammered home a simple message: Marijuana is safer than alcohol, and there’s no justification for punishing adults who prefer the less harmful substance.

Tvert challenged John Hickenlooper, the popular Democratic mayor of Denver and cofounder of a craft brewpub; and Pete Coors, the beer magnate and onetime GOP US Senate candidate, to a drug duel. For every alcoholic beverage they would have, he’d smoke marijuana to prove, once and for all, that pot is safer than booze. It was scheduled for high noon outside the mayor’s office.

Hickenlooper and Coors didn’t show. But the media did.

“You’ve got to give this guy credit for his creativity,” a Hickenlooper spokeswoman said at the time. “He’ll do anything to get himself and his cause in the media.”

Later, in the final stretch of the 2006 campaign, the Drug Enforcement Agency in Denver announced a bust resulting in the seizure of 95 pounds of “high-grade marijuana.”

Tvert, seeing the timing as politically motivated, staged an impromptu press conference outside the DEA announcement. Fox, still gleeful more than a decade later, said Tvert “announced we did our own investigation” and found myriad alcohol sellers in Denver.

A Denver Post photograph from the event shows Tvert flanked by cases of beer and by “WANTED” posters for Hickenlooper and Coors. The charge? “Dealing a deadly drug.”

And then there was the billboard with a huge photo of a woman in a green bikini and the text “Marijuana: No Hangovers • No Violence • No Carbs!”

The 2006 measure lost, but it set the stage for legalization advocates to win at the ballot box in 2012.

Rob Kampia, Tvert’s boss and the longtime executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said a lot of folks in the pro-legalization movement have, traditionally, been willing to “fly the freak flag and flip the middle finger to the man and his machine.”

Any juvenile can do that, Kampia said. “Mason is actually willing to stand up to power, but do it responsibly and respectably, but not necessarily respectfully.”

That line, Kampia said, is the key to why Tvert is good at what he does.

Tvert’s methods have served as a template.

When a police chief in Maine dismissed the argument that pot is safer than alcohol, the Marijuana Policy Project’s state director, David Boyer, challenged him to a “drug duel” — for every shot the chief would take, Boyer would take the equivalent amount of marijuana.

The chief didn’t show up. The media did.

Polling released last weekend found the Maine measure leading 50 percent to 41 percent .

The Massachusetts legalization effort was originally called the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts. And its leaders, in April, accused Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh — the highest-profile opponents — of hypocrisy for supporting the expansion of alcohol sales while backing an effort to stop marijuana.

Pro-pot advocates held a news conference with a sign showing Baker and Walsh with a speech bubble over their heads that said: “Our health policy: Drink more alcohol!”

But Walsh is a recovering alcoholic and, after blowback, the Boston-based campaign changed its messaging. Polls have found the Massachusetts legalization measure leading, but political insiders expect a close vote.

In Denver, after speaking to the Globe, Tvert had to leave for an alumni event for the University of Richmond — the place where he recalls campus police grilling him about his pot.

“I always make it a point to try to let them know that they’re responsible for marijuana legalization efforts taking place here and in other places, because had they just let me use marijuana in my dorm room — I’m like a college student and I’m causing no problems to others or myself — maybe I’d be working for Planned Parenthood right now.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com
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