America’s cannabis movement has a not so secret weapon: world-famous travel expert Rick Steves. The mild-mannered guidebook author and host of PBS’ “Rick Steves’ Europe” has campaigned for initiatives in his home state of Washington, Oregon and Colorado, taking pains to point out he is not pro-pot, but anti-prohibition. His belief is that legalization for those over 21 will reduce organized crime, diminish the number of minorities arrested for marijuana-related offenses and provide millions of dollars in tax revenues for states. Fresh off a tour speaking before legislators in the new battleground states of Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Vermont (and Illinois last fall), Steves talked about his experiences, and whether his advocacy has affected his career as a vanilla-flavored — or shall we say, khaki-flavored — public television personality. This interview has been edited for length.
You’re a longtime advocate for legalization — when did you start, and why?
I’ve been a board member of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) for 15 years. I’ve been involved in the discussion for probably 20 years. I’ve been able to talk about it because I can’t be fired and I don’t need to be elected and I’ve got a little bit of celebrity. And I can blame my European friends for my sensible European approach to it. I just believe the whole thing — prohibition — is based on lies and it’s racist and it’s not American and it’s denying civil liberties and it’s nonproductive and fuels a big black market that empowers gangs and organized crime.
What do you mean when you say “High is a place people should be allowed to visit”?
I’m a travel writer, so I’m particularly interested in defending the right that we have to go places. There are cases where the government has grounds to say we’re not supposed to go there. But there’s got to be a good reason. People who enjoy marijuana have to do it like little kids who are hiding something. People who are respected in our communities, people you sit next to at church, at work, at the athletic club are using it. You enjoy it and yet you can’t talk to them about it. It’s not white guys like me that get arrested. It’s tragic for the fabric of our communities. It’s another form of racism that’s easy to disguise and a convenient way, when Jim Crow laws (don’t) work anymore … to disenfranchise young black men. Every year 700,000 people are arrested for marijuana (offenses). They may not go to jail but they can’t get a job, get a loan. It’s a tragedy in our society. I’m proud to lend whatever celebrity, money and effort I can to the cause to take down the prohibition, state by state.
How do you feel about the rate of progress in America?
I think it’s going faster than what I thought it would. It’s exhilarating how fast it’s going, considering how regressive our government is on it and digging in.
On the eastern seaboard, what was the feedback?
In some cases, they’re just waiting to get rid of their Republican governor. They can’t get it done with a regressive governor. The people (voting public) are ahead of the lawmakers on this. Now it’s actually a plus with the electorate to be in favor of this. In these states, in this last season, the political establishment is talking like it’s 2010 when they didn’t’ know what would happen if they taxed and regulated it. We’ve been doing it for five years — we sold this to the Washington (state) electorate on hunches, and those were reasonable and were based on other societies’ experience. Teen uses does not go up. DUI’s do not go up. Crime does not go up. What does is tax revenue. Every day, I drive to my little home in the town in Edmunds. There’s a little shop. Instead of buying from a criminal, I’m buying it from a businessman. Nobody’s talking about it (cannabis) anymore. Hempfest is boring. Grandma’s rubbing it on her elbow. I’m happy for what we did. And I’m happy California did what it did.
Did you have fears as an advocate and were they realized?
When I first came out as somebody who believes we should legalize marijuana as a local well-known businessman, it was scary. Everybody couldn’t believe I was doing this. In Europe the drug’s about as exciting as a can of beer. I’m not pro marijuana — it’s a drug; it can be abused. It’s not good for you. Neither is alcohol or sugar. But we should have the civil liberty to indulge if we want to.
Tell us about those pictures of you at a piano with a wine glass full of cannabis buds. What are you saying with that?
Any time there’s news about marijuana, you’d have pictures of freaks or tattooed people sucking on four-foot bongs. There is that dimension to it, but most people drink wine and cocktail in polite company, and it’s very civilized. The same can be true of marijuana. There are respectable hardworking, decent people who don’t need to apologize for enjoying it, who are saying, “I’m not interested in drinking a cocktail tonight, let’s share a joint.” I relax by playing Chopin and smoking a joint. It’s just for fun. I like to giggle.
Which country has the most fun with cannabis?
Every country in Europe has different approaches. Some are more regressive, some are more progressive. Portugal is very pragmatic — it legalized all drugs soft and hard. Spain has cannabis clubs that are innovative. The Netherlands has its coffee houses, but they’ve never dealt with the back side. Colorado and Washington have figured out the backside — wholesale and distribution and regulation. In the Netherlands — they just ignore that.
How has advocacy affected your career, if at all?
I haven’t had any serious pushback. Every once in a while, someone says they won’t’ take my tour or read my book. All I can think is, “Europe’s going to be more fun without you.”