You probably know travel expert Rick Steves from the 22 European guidebooks he’s penned or his popular PBS television series, “Rick Steves’ Europe.” But did you know that Steves is also one of the globe’s foremost proponents of marijuana reform?
From his hometown headquarters of Edmonds, Washington, Rick Steves produces his PBS show, a weekly hour-long national public radio show, a weekly syndicated column, guidebooks on European travel, and free travel information via his travel center and website. He also manages a tour program, which runs 200 annual bus tours that escort more than 5,000 Americans through Europe.
Steves makes the domestic rounds as well, including Chicago when we first wrote this piece, advocating for “an anti-prohibitionist movement.” Unsurprisingly, Steves’ views on marijuana legislation have been shaped by his frequent travels abroad.
While Steves doesn’t personally use — or even promote the use of — marijuana, he takes issue with the unfair and excessive penalties associated with marijuana use in the United States. He believes that mature adults should be able to consume marijuana recreationally in the privacy of their own homes. Instead of locking up pot smokers, he says, America should employ a European-style, “pragmatic harm reduction” approach that tackles drug abuse as a health and educational challenge.
“Like most of Europe, I believe marijuana is a soft drug (like alcohol and tobacco), not a hard drug,” he says. “Like alcohol and tobacco, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be taxed and regulated. Crime should only enter the equation if it is abused to the point where innocent people are harmed.”
Steves rightly points out that there “has never been a drug-free society in the history of humankind” and that marijuana is “here to stay.”
“That's the reality,” he says.
He also points out another (unfortunate) reality: America’s courts and prisons are “clogged with non-violent people whose only offense is smoking, buying, or selling marijuana.” And, to make matters worse, he notes that poor people and/or people of color make up an unfair percentage of those unfairly behind bars.
In a 2012 speech advocating for the passage of Initiative 502, an ultimately successful marijuana reform measure in his home state of Washington, Steves noted that, “well-off white guys in the suburbs can smoke pot. But the majority of the 800,000 people arrested in the USA on marijuana charges this year were poor and/or people of color. Some have dubbed the war on drugs ‘the New Jim Crow.’”
Steves says it’s time for a “new approach” to marijuana.
“Untold billions of untaxed dollars are enriching gangs and empowering organized crime. And tens of thousands have died in Mexico because of the illegal drug trade in the USA. Facing this challenge, we believe the safest approach is to bring cannabis out of the black market and regulate it.”
Steves has turned his words into action as both a member of the Advisory Board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), as well as by co-sponsoring Washington Initiative 502, which legalized, taxed, and regulated adult-use marijuana in Washington State.
According to Steves, I-502 wasn’t a “pro-pot” initiative — after all, he says, he and most of its sponsors don’t even smoke weed. He says I-502 would be more accurately described as “anti-prohibition.”
The initiative allowed adults to buy up to an ounce of cannabis from state-licensed stores, and kept the drug illegal for anyone under 21. It also came with strict DUI provisions, and called for aggressive taxing of drug to the tune of $500 million a year. (Roughly $200 million was line-itemed to the state’s general fund, the rest to be used for health care and drug abuse prevention work.)
“We believe that, like the laws that criminalized alcohol back in the 1930s, our current laws against marijuana use are causing more harm to our society than the drug itself,” he says. “Rather than being hard on drugs or soft on drugs...we can finally be smart on drugs.”
Smart words from a smart man.