Rick Steves is the internationally renowned travel writer and TV personality known for his PBS travel shows, his “Europe Through the Back Door” book series, and his passionate cannabis activism. This afternoon, Steves joins the Congressional Cannabis Caucus to brief Congress on US marijuana policy. In advance of the briefing, Steves fielded a few questions.
DAVID SCHMADER: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been inspired by Europe’s pragmatic approach to drug abuse. Can you tell me a little about what’s impressed you?
“America locks up 10 times as many people as they do in Europe, and we are either inherently a more criminal people or there’s something screwed about our laws.”
RICK STEVES: The line I love that my European friends use is that society has to make a choice—tolerate alternative lifestyles, or build more prisons. And Europeans are really into toleration, they’re into civil liberties, and they’re into not incarcerating people. They always remind me that America locks up 10 times as many people as they do in Europe, and we are either inherently a more criminal people or there’s something screwed about our laws.
You don’t need to lock up so many people for smoking pot and Europeans have showed us that. You can take the crime out of the equation, save a lot of money, and have more credibility when it comes to teachers, parents, and law enforcement teaching young people about the dangers of hard drugs.
Part of your congressional briefing will involve highlighting the benefits that come with moving towards legalization—can you tell me about some of those?
Well, I live in Washington State, and we’re enjoying the benefits that come with legalizing and regulation since we did just that in 2012.
Back then, we passed this bill on a hunch that youth use would not go up, that crime would not go up, that DUIs would not go up. Now we have a track record and it’s really clear—the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board has studied it, and use is the same among adults, use has clearly not gone up among youth, DUIs have not been a concern, and crime has not gone up.
What’s gone up is the civil liberty to enjoy marijuana responsibly in your home as an adult. What’s also gone up is tax revenue. Our state has $310 million in tax revenue a year because of legal marijuana.
It’s not because more people are smoking pot, but because we’ve taken a thriving black-market industry that rivaled apples—in Washington, that’s a big deal—and we have turned it into a highly taxed and regulated legal market, which employs tens of thousands of people in our state legally.
In so many cases, politicians find themselves in states that have legalized marijuana because of the will of the people. These politicians who were ambivalent about it or against it, have come to realize, “Hey, this is smart policy.”
And I always stress that this is not pro-marijuana—this is anti-prohibition and pro-smart law, along with tackling the racism that is part of our prohibition against marijuana.
Another item on your congressional to-do list: highlighting the pending legislative remedies available to correct the wrong if cannabis prohibition. Can you tell me about those?
Right now there are all sorts of issues. I’m visiting Capitol Hill for the federal government and I’m visiting a number of state houses.
We’ve pretty much exhausted the states that are likely to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana through the initiative process, and we’re moving into the state houses of the more progressive states, along the eastern seaboard.
“The pot prohibition profiteers—interests that make a lot of money by keeping marijuana illegal—are confusing legislators, and I just think it’s fun to come and share the actual results of what’s happened in (legalized) states.”
A couple years ago, we legalized, taxed, and regulated marijuana in Maine and Massachusetts, and now all the states nearby are realizing “Hey, these other states are getting all the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana,” and people are realizing they better get on board they’re going to be left in the dust.
The question is: How do they do it? I’m not a policy wonk, I don’t know all the banking issues, and DUI issues, but I just can share my general feeling that prohibition is wrong-minded, it’s expensive, it’s counterproductive, and it’s not working.
I really like the sentiment New York Mayor LaGuardia shared back when his state was trying to fight alcohol prohibition: “When a society has a law on the books that it does not intend to enforce consistently across the board, the very existence of that law erodes respect for law enforcement in general.” That’s what we’ve got in the US right now.
Colorado’s tourism is thriving, they’ve got a hot job market, a housing market that’s doing great, and it’s not because of marijuana, but it proves that marijuana doesn’t get in the way of that. People are learning.
Our opponents are really good at cherry-picking statistics generated by organizations whose mission is to discredit the legalization moment with misinformation. Opponents funded by what I call the PPP—the Pot Prohibition Profiteers, interests that make a lot of money by keeping marijuana illegal—are confusing legislators and decision-makers, and I just think it’s fun to come and share the actual results of what happened in the states when they decided to take the crime out of the equation and recognize the civil liberty to enjoy marijuana responsibly in a recreational way.
Final question: Is today’s briefing the most high-profile cannabis activism you’ve yet undertaken?
“(Cannabis) is an issue that I can speak comfortably and openly about because I can’t be fired and nobody needs to vote for me.”
Not really, I go all around the country giving these talks, and I’ve been coming to congress before on this issue. I work it into all my talks, by sharing the perspective I’ve gained from traveling.
Every two years I go on the road to raise awareness—sometimes I talk to the public, other times to legislators. It’s just something I feel is a good contribution from me as a citizen. This is an issue I care about, it’s an issue where I can share a European sensibility, and it’s an issue that I can speak comfortably and openly about because I can’t be fired and nobody needs to vote for me.