Rick Steves is better known to living rooms across the United States for his tranquil guides to Europe. However, in his free time from his professional job, Steves has another passionate pursuit: Legalizing marijuana.
The 60-year-old travel writer, TV personality—and occasional pot smoker—has been a longtime advocate of drug policy reform in the United States, to the chagrin of some of his show’s viewers.
Having just returned this week from traversing Italy, Paris, and the Alps, Steves is touring Massachusetts in support of the state’s referendum, Question 4, to legalize recreational marijuana.
Still jet-lagged (though not visibly so) from his flight back across the Atlantic, Steves took the time to explain his commitment to passing legal marijuana in Massachusetts (and Maine) this year, which includes a $100,000 matching donation to the Yes on 4 campaign.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why is this issue so important to you?
I am so passionate about this issue for a lot of reasons. I’ve been in it ever since the 1990s. Part of it is because I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and I know Europe is dealing with drug policy problems and challenges just like we are. We can learn from Europe.
Another issue is I see the racism in the law. I know that in America 800,000 people are arrested every year for marijuana charges and they’re not rich, white guys; they’re poor people and black people in general. I think that’s a travesty.
I’m in it because I can talk about it without getting fired and I don’t need to be elected. A lot of people hear what I think about marijuana and they say, “We’re not going to take your tours or use your guidebooks anymore,” and all I can think is Europe’s going to be more fun without you.
Could you clarify your specific position on marijuana policy?
I want to stress: It’s not “pro-marijuana,” it’s anti-prohibition and pragmatic harm reduction. This is civil liberties, this is respect for law enforcement, this is public safety, this is fiscal responsibility, this is take the money that empowers gangs and organized crime out of the black market and turn it into legitimate, regulated and taxed industries.
In Seattle, where I live, long before we legalized, we had a law that made marijuana the last law enforcement priority, which is kind of silly. We couldn’t break the federal law, so we just said this law is so wrong-minded and nonproductive that let’s just deal with it only when we’ve taken care of everything else. It was quite a radical step and for years it worked very well and our state learned that crime did not go up, DUIs did not go up, teen use did not go up; we just stopped arresting people for smoking pot.
Every year in the state we are arresting 10,000 fewer people because we decided to stop the war on pot.
Ten years ago this was a bold and dicey issue. And now we have a track record and there’s a lot of people in Massachusetts that are talking like scared people five years ago were talking. I can understand that five years ago, because no one had ever done this before.
Now we’ve done it. The numbers are in and it’s clear, use has not gone up, DUIs have not gone up, crime has not gone up, the only thing that’s gone up is tax revenue and civil liberties. It’s exciting; that’s why I’m here.
Would you be able to describe you personal experience, past and present, with marijuana?
I smoke very occasionally, socially. Maybe once a month or something. But it’s not important to me. I’m too busy to smoke pot.
The fact is people in our country who want to smoke pot, smoke pot—whether it’s legal or not. Every society has statistics that show there’s no correlation between people who smoke pot and how strict the laws are. Look at Europe; the most liberal laws in Europe are I think in the Netherlands. And the Dutch, by every country’s statistics—theirs, ours, and the European Union’s—smoke less than the European average and they smoke less than the Americans do, where you can do hard time for smoking pot.
A lot of people think there’s the whole reservoir of decent people who would just love to ruin their life smoking pot, if only it were legal. And the fact is, when you legalize it, there’s a little spike in use, because it’s curious, but then it settles back down and suddenly it becomes much less sexy. It becomes kind of boring. It’s just not a big deal.
I do want to stress, I’m not pro-marijuana. Marijuana is a drug, it can be abused. It needs to be carefully regulated. But people who care about kids know the worst thing you can do if you want to take care of a dangerous substance is make it illegal. Then the kids get it on the street from a criminal with a vested interest in selling you something more addictive and more profitable.
How has your experience traveling Europe shaped or changed your perception on marijuana policy?
My whole life is teaching people to be open to the rest of the world. I’m a travel writer. To me, the best souvenir you can take home is a broader perspective and empathy for the struggles of the other 96 percent of humanity. To put us in a mindset where we’re more inclined to build bridges and learn from each other, rather than build walls and stay away from each other. I just love that.
It’s hard to talk about Europe in broad sweeping strokes. There are some regressive states that are behind us. There are some very pragmatic states, but they’re doing it different ways. In the Netherlands, you’ve got coffee shops, where they essentially legalized the retail sale of marijuana within limits.
The Spaniards don’t do that. They say you can’t buy it and sell it at all, but you can grow it. In practice, people don’t grow it; what they do is they join a club and the club grows it for them. And then they all have their share of the produce. And it’s just a social group.
The Portuguese legalized the consumption of all drugs back in the 1990s. That was because they had a hedonistic free-for-all after getting rid of their dictator when they couldn’t do anything. Whenever you get rid of a dictator, you go crazy with all sorts of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. And they had a horrible drug-addicted population—a hundred thousand hard drug addicts.
They took the crime out of the equation and now all these sick people addicted to opiates, they don’t get lawyers and cops and judges, but they get doctors and counselors and nurses. The government is their friend. And in 10 years, the hard drug-addicted population in Portugal has dropped in half, the consumption per capita of marijuana stayed the same, they’ve had no noticeable drug tourism, and they’ve saved millions of dollars on law enforcement.
The counter-intuitive reality is when you treat marijuana more like a taxed, regulated soft drug, like alcohol and tobacco, then you have more credibility and you can focus on hard drug use and you can get something accomplished.
Europe has learned a lot by thinking outside of the box.
Is there any particular country in Europe whose approach you would point to for us to mirror?
The irony is they’re looking to us now. They’re flying over our government officials from Seattle and Olympia to their states and conventions in Europe so that they can learn from Washington state.
My whole career in drug policy reform up until a few years ago has been admiring Europe. And now Washington state and Colorado and Oregon and Alaska and Washington, D.C., and this year, California and Massachusetts and Maine, I hope, are going to be in that category of ahead of the curve.
What sort of backlash or feedback have you gotten specifically from fans of your show when they see you out advocating on this issue?
There are certain people who know what I think about marijuana and say they’re going to boycott me. I’m not in this for my business. If my stance on marijuana hurt my business, I would be here saying the exact same thing. I’m in this for truth. I’m in this for racial justice. I’m in this as an American citizen, not as some travel writer who wants to hype his show.
I’ve been at this a long time. Back in the ‘90s, I was so frustrated by the fact that nobody could talk about marijuana that I would kind of rattle my employees. I employed 100 people in Seattle and I would yell out the window “Marijuana!”—just randomly yell out the window because I wanted people to talk about it.
I’m not calculating my business interests in this. From a dollars and cents perspective, I know I’ve lost underwriting. When you create a TV show, you try to get companies to underwrite your show and people don’t want to underwrite my show because I’m outspoken on drug policy reform.
If I wanted to make more money, I would shut up on drug policy reform. But I’m thankful that I care about justice and what’s good for our country than what’s good for my bottom line.
One last thing: please explain that Facebook photo.
I took the picture to counter the usual images we see perpetuated of people smoking marijuana. I wanted to have some fun demonstrating that hard working, responsible, church-going people, can exercise the civil liberty to use marijuana legally and enjoy some Chopin on the piano.