What do tea partiers and pot groups have in common? An IRS bullseye

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Tea Party groups and self-styled patriot organizations aren’t the only ones with reason to complain about excessive scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service — the groups that were behind Colorado’s successful effort to legalize marijuana say that they were also targeted by the agency.

Mason Tvert, one of the key activists working on marijuana reform in Colorado since 2005 as the director of SAFER (which stands for Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), said it took more than a year for the IRS to approve its 501(c)4 tax status while pestering him with “absurd” questions about its activities.

For example, the agency sent Tvert copies of news stories from the Internet — including readers’ comments on those stories — purporting to show that SAFER organized “festivals and protests that are not always peaceful.”

But Tvert said SAFER wasn’t involved in any of the examples.

“They sent web pages from various local NORML organizations and news articles about [Seattle’s annual pot festival] Hempfest and various events that we never organized,” he said. “So it was just ridiculous.”

“If they had just read the application, they would have seen the organization’s mission statement and learned about its activities,” he continued, adding that all of the literature he provided to the IRS was specifically about the relative harms of marijuana versus alcohol.

SAFER was funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project — for which Tvert is now the director of communications — which took the lead in funding and campaigning for passage of Amendment 64, which made adult possession of small amounts of marijuana legal in Colorado.

MPP was also singled out for “grueling audits,” according to an article written by director Rob Kampia for The Huffington Post.

The organization was audited in 2000 and in 2006, but found to be in compliance with IRS rules.

“The first [audit] stemmed from a letter sent to the IRS in 1998 by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who has spent a good part of her career advocating for the criminalization of marijuana users, including me,” Kampia wrote.

“Her reason for questioning MPP’s tax-exempt status? She received a letter from a single constituent who wrote this to her: ‘The idea that a bunch of pot purveyors can raise money like this on a tax exempt basis is offensive.’”

While the pot groups might feel some kinship to conservative organizations targeted by the IRS, Tvert said he believes there’s a slight difference in motivation. Whereas the conservative groups may have been singled out for their opposition to the administration’s political agenda, he believes the marijuana organizations were more carefully scrutinized because they threatened the federal status quo.

“The mere fact that the organization was dedicated to working on marijuana policy reform probably attracted attention that would not have been paid if it had been an anti-marijuana organization,” he said.

SAFER is currently planning to relaunch in other states to soften the ground for more legalization efforts in the future.

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