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America’s Favorite Travel Guide is Moving Legalization Nationwide

PBS travel host Rick Steves helped legalize cannabis in Washington and Oregon. Now he’s taking his message to Maine, Massachusetts, and even Oklahoma. In an article that first appeared on Crosscut, Knute Berger talks with the footloose author about the challenge of opening minds to the idea of a post-prohibition world.  

Rick Steves has changed the way middle America sees the world through his European guidebooks, tours, columns, PBS television and public radio shows. He’s a successful entrepreneur with a teacher’s mien and an everyman persona that can steer curious Americans into foreign travel — not so easy in a country where the majority of residents don’t have passports. But like a good teacher, he makes taking the steps toward broadening one’s horizon easy.

New York Times columnist Timothy Egan captured Steves’ public image in a story a few years back. The travel guru, he wrote, is “benignly suburban to the core, with a bit of a paunch and the ever-quizzical look of someone who would try raw squid for breakfast and not complain about it.” But these days, Steves is about much more than raw squid. He’s become the pied piper of legalized cannabis, not just in the Pacific Northwest, but nationally.

Steves says 2016 is a big year with the potential to tip the balance on cannabis laws in this country. And he intends to be out there, committing his reputation, time, and money to make it happen.

In 2016, Steves has committed to nine or ten days of campaigning in October for legalization laws in Maine and Massachusetts. He says he’ll go wherever the experts think he can be most effective. To date he estimates he has spent approximately $500,000 of his own money on the legalization fight and thinks he’ll spend another $200,000 or so this year. “It’s more money than I’ve spent on anything than a house.” But if it contributes to national momentum toward legalizing marijuana for adults, he thinks it’s worth the investment.

Steves was a driving force behind Washington’s I-502 in 2012 and Oregon’s legalization initiative in 2014. This year, legalization laws are percolating in many states. A recent Leafly roundup lists four states where legalization is “almost a sure thing” this year (California, Nevada, Maine, and Arizona) and 10 more where there’s activity and reason for hope.

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His commitment to the issue is deeply personal, but he’s also a team player with a role to play. Steves has been on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) for years, and he has worked closely with Washington adult-use initiative author Alison Holcomb, who now heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice with its focus on ending the War on Drugs. He’s also closely associated with Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Nadelmann calls Steves “a godsend” for legalized marijuana. “I think Rick is incredible,” he says. “I think he’s an exceptional human being.” What makes Steves influential, he says, is not simply that he is well known and seen as an honorable human being by millions of Americans, but that his commitment is broad. Steves often writes about drug policy in his travel books — it is integrated with his work and the way he sees the world. He’s deeply informed on drug policy and its consequences in society. He’s not a celebrity going out with a few memorized talking points, but as a real student with principled beliefs.

Steves can reach an important constituency: the swing voter. “He raises the right eyebrows,” says Nadelmann. Think of this travel audience: largely white, middle class, middle American, neither stereotypical potheads nor people interested in making a buck in the marijuana business, not even current users — just folks who probably haven’t given the issue much thought. Steves, the knowledgeable travel guide, is there to get them to think about it.

First, Steves says, he is not “pro pot.”

I am anti-prohibition and pro-civil liberties. He believes adults should have the right to smoke marijuana. A proposal he didn’t like: a recent Ohio law, defeated last year, that would have established what was essentially a cannabis cartel of approved suppliers. The idea of “Big Weed” does not appeal to him.

He also doesn’t think legal cannabis means a free-for-all. Steves is for “legalize, tax and regulate.” He supports public safety, cracking down on DUIs, and keeping marijuana away from kids. “I don’t want to endorse something that doesn’t address fears and legitimate concerns,” he insists. That doesn’t mean every concern, such as overblown worries that legalization will lead to civilization’s downfall. Sitting in his office in downtown Edmonds, Wash., Steves gestures out his corner window. “Marijuana’s legal — you can’t tell!” he exclaims. The suburban village outside has hardly become a perpetual Hempfest. Washington state has taken things in stride.

On the other hand, cannabis laws have a terrible consequence for people of color, the poor, those who are already marginalized in society or incarcerated for something that shouldn’t be a crime, let alone a lifelong mark on one’s record.

The Europeans have the right attitude, says Steves. “Tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons,” he says. In Europe, countries have taken different approaches. The Netherlands has its famous coffeeshops. In Spain, you can obtain plants for personal use from a gardening co-op. In Europe, they’ve generally done a better job of mitigating the problems of substance use, such as addiction and HIV. Done right, legalization can reduce crime (gangs, the illegal drug trade) and the negative consequences of imprisoning so many people, Steves says.

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Europeans are now learning something from Americans, he adds. Adult-use laws in Washington and Colorado are ahead of the European curve, and policymakers from across the Atlantic are coming here to study how we’re changing the legalization and regulation landscape. That might help soften attitudes of those Americans who bristle at importing “foreign” ideas but love the idea of “exporting” American ones.

Steves says his years of taking people abroad on tours have prepared him for spreading a message to a curious but sometimes nervous audience. He’s used to talking to folks who are out of their comfort zones in foreign countries, often for the first time.

He also has little to lose if people hate his message. His business remains largely unaffected by his activism. He can’t be fired, nor is he running for anything. If he loses a travel customer over his stance on marijuana, he thinks to himself: Good. Europe’s going to be more fun without you.

Steves relishes speaking to skeptical audiences in places like Oklahoma. The key is to not abuse bully pulpit, he says. Steves tries to make the message palatable and pragmatic. He reassures audiences by telling them America is great, as is our freedom and the military that protects us. He tells them he’s thankful that he runs his business in America, not Europe. Being a Christian helps too, he says. Steves is active in his local Lutheran church.

With his pro-American bone fides established, conservative audiences are often open to considering his views on marijuana. A Rick Steves travel talk might segue from where to stay in Tuscany to the issue of legalizing cannabis. Steves is comfortable with introducing uncomfortable ideas to the comfortable. Travel has taught the value of that role, he says, quoting Thomas Jefferson: “Travel makes a person wiser, if less happy.” A little discomfort is what travel, and stretching one’s mind, is all about.

Knute Berger is a regular contributor to Crosscut.

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