If you’re only familiar with his travel show, “Rick Steves’ Europe,” you might not guess that the mild-mannered PBS personality is one of America’s most prominent advocates for marijuana legalization.
Indeed, the affable TV host and guidebook author has made legal weed a personal crusade, personally donating hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to legalization efforts across the country, including in his home state of Washington.
But his push for legalization in the U.S. isn’t rooted in a particular personal affinity for kind bud. Rather, his stance on marijuana stems from his extensive travels overseas and the “pragmatic harm reduction” approach that many European countries take towards the drug. For Steves, who sits on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), marijuana legalization is not a recreational issue, it’s a matter of civil liberties.
This week, Steves’ travels take him to Vermont. On Thursday, he’ll appear at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier for a news conference with legislators advocating for Vermont to “take the next step” in its legalization process by taxing and regulating a commercial cannabis market. Earlier this year, the state legislature legalized possession of certain amounts of marijuana, but it is still illegal to sell or purchase weed.
On Friday, Steves will give a free lunchtime presentation at the Skinny Pancake on the waterfront in Burlington. The event is cohosted by Heady Vermont, which will livestream the talk on its Facebook page. Later that afternoon, Steves will take part in an interactive livestream hosted on the Marijuana Policy Project’s Facebook page.
Seven Days caught up with Steves by phone ahead of his Vermont visit.
SEVEN DAYS: Why is marijuana legalization such an important issue to you personally?
RICK STEVES: I’m really looking at it from a national point of view. No. 1: It’s racist. Rich white guys like me don’t get arrested for marijuana; poor people and black people get arrested.
No. 2: From a civil liberties perspective, philosophically, we should be free to smoke what we want to smoke in the privacy of our own home. I feel strongly that if you do anything that hurts anybody after being intoxicated by alcohol or smoking a joint or whatever, you should have very strict penalties. But mature, adult use of marijuana is definitely a civil liberties issue.
The reality is that it’s a huge black market industry. In my state, Washington State, illegal marijuana sales rivaled apples. Apples! That’s a big industry. [Ed. note: Washington is the top apple-producing state in the country.] Now, there is no correlation between how strict [marijuana] laws are and how much is consumed as a society. There just isn’t a reservoir of decent people wishing they could smoke if only it were legal.
SD: I’ve never met anyone who didn’t smoke only because it was illegal.
RS: Right. People who want to smoke pot, do. When you legalize, it doesn’t change the equation. What you do is you change a huge illegal black market industry that’s enriching and empowering gangs and organized crime, and you change it into a highly regulated, highly taxed legal industry that employs people.
In my state, use has not gone up in the four years we’ve been selling marijuana like we sell alcohol. What we’ve done is taken a multi-billion dollar industry away from crime. We now have a legal industry that employs thousands of people.
In the last year, we didn’t arrest 10,000 people that we would have arrested otherwise [for smoking or selling pot]. And use has not gone up substantially. Maybe a little among adults because it’s legal now. But it has certainly not gone up among teenagers. And our state government, on $1.4 billion in retail sales, enjoyed $300 million in tax revenue that it needs for drug education programs and health programs.
SD: Prior to legalization in Washington, you had argued that use wouldn’t go up, correct?
RS: That was our hunch. And now we have a track record. I understand that people were nervous about [increased marijuana usage] before. But Colorado and Washington have done this, and their governors have recognized that the sky didn’t fall. A lot people still smoke pot, but they were smoking before. It’s the same amount of adults smoking pot. And we’ve ruined a black market industry, which allows our law enforcement officers to focus on serious issues.
One thing I want to make clear, though, is that marijuana is a drug. It’s not healthy for you. I’m not advocating smoking pot. I’m just saying it’s not wise for a society to legislate morality. And we can’t solve the problem by incarceration.
I’ve spent about a third of my adult life in Europe hanging out with people for whom a joint is about as exciting as a can of beer. And in Europe, they’ve learned that it just makes sense to have policies driven by what they call pragmatic harm reduction, rather than incarceration.
SD: $1.4 billion is a ton of money that presumably used to go to dealers on the black market. Has there been any research into what became of all weed dealers?
RS: That’s a good question. I don’t know what became of them. Presumably, they went into other illegal activities. Crime doesn’t necessarily go away. That’s the dark side of the whole thing. There are people who will make their money however they can, illegally.
But one thing I am concerned about is that the American appetite for marijuana and the insistence of our government on keeping it illegal is fueling a tragic war in Mexico. And Mexico has lost about as many people as we lost in the Vietnam War in their drug war.
SD: In your opinion, what’s the biggest obstacle to marijuana legislation nationally?
RS: The PPP. That’s what I call the Pot Prohibition Profiteers. There are a lot of people that make a lot of money keeping marijuana illegal. It’s the pharmaceutical industry; they fear the legalization of marijuana.
It’s the beer industry. That might seem surprising, but there is a lot of money coming out of Big Beer. There are sheriff’s unions and other organizations like that that like to confiscate people’s property if they’re busted. And there are people who make a lot of money selling marijuana illegally that don’t want it legalized. In my state, there were people to the left of us who didn’t want it legalized because they were making money selling it illegally.
When you look at who is opposed to legalization, they generally represent big organizations and industries that are making money keeping marijuana illegal.
SD: Follow the money.
RS: Follow the money. In the last election there were, I think, seven states that were up for legalizing marijuana. And six of them did. The one that didn’t was Arizona. where they came up against huge money from the pharmaceutical industry.
SD: You’ve said that you don’t want NORML to become a lobby for “Big Marijuana.” Are you leery of a “Big Weed” industry forming as more states legalize?
RS: Yes, to be honest. I wish it could just be a little mom-and-pop cottage industry. If people want to smoke pot, they just grow a little bit in the garden. But as other people have told me, in the United States, our religion is free enterprise. Once you legalize something, it’s very hard to keep it down. Look at the tobacco industry. But I think states can do that smartly. With each election cycle, states are introducing smarter laws with different sensibilities. And you tweak the laws as you go along. If you see a problem, you fix it.
But what is more important to me than those concerns is the tragic racism that goes with [marijuana prohibition]. We’ve got 70,000 people in jail today in our country today for nonviolent marijuana offenses; 600,000 to 700,000 people are having run-ins with law for marijuana possession every year. And that’s not rich white guys. That’s poor people, it’s black and brown people. And then you can’t go to school, you can’t get a loan. And that takes people down the wrong path.
It’s a racist law. It’s the new Jim Crow in our society. There are thousands and thousands of young, black men who can’t vote because they’ve been arrested for marijuana. It’s the most convenient way to disenfranchise young black men.
SD: But is the solution really as simple as just legalizing weed?
RS: It’s a complicated issue, of course. But society has to make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons. My European friends always remind me that, “you Americans lock up 10 times more people per capita than we do. So either you are an inherently more criminal people, or you’ve got some screwy laws.” We’ve got some screwy laws.
SD: Do you have any thoughts on Vermont’s recent legalization of marijuana?
RS: Vermont has a beautiful, special set of values and that’s just great. But I would remind Vermont voters that this is a national crisis, and each state that exercises the will of its educated people to take the crime out of the equation is helping to dismantle a very wrong-minded and tragic national prohibition.
If you go back to the 1930s when we were debating alcohol, mayor LaGuardia of New York City said that a society that has a law on its books that it doesn’t intend to enforce consistently across the board, the very existence of that law erodes the respect for law enforcement in general. And that’s what we’ve got on the books right now.