PBS travel host and author Rick Steves, a longtime activist for cannabis legalization, is amazed by developments in Colorado and Washington. (Provided by Rick Steves)

Travel guru Rick Steves on civil liberties and surprises

Rick Steves has never been shy about his support for legal weed.

The European travel expert, public TV host and author has been a board member on the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) for a decade, a featured speaker at Seattle’s Hempfest, a “Lifetime Achievement” honoree at High Times’ Cannabis Cup, and a longtime activist for drug-law reform.

But since Colorado and Washington now have recreational cannabis, the soft-spoken, bespectacled Steves — who runs his 90-employee business out of Edmonds, Wash., about 11 miles north of Seattle — is being lauded as something of a visionary in the fight to take it national.

We talked to Steves over the phone recently to pick his brain about American and European drug policy, the social ills of the drug war, getting high in his backyard, and what amazes him about fully-legal pot.

Your views on drug-policy reform are well known among a certain set, but I’m wondering if they’ve changed over the past couple years as we’ve moved closer to the idea of federal legalization of cannabis?

No, this is what I hoped would happen, and I just knew we needed some state that could break the ice and have a law that was not too scary to make people skeptical of it. I’ve been noting the tenor in the conversation since the elections a year and a half ago, and it’s all incremental. How you talk about it in Colorado or Washington is in a whole different environment than how you talk about it in Texas or Florida. We’re kind of in two different worlds in terms of how frightened we are for recreational marijuana use for adults.

How so?

For you and me to talk about it now, it’s almost boring. But to hear politicians change their tenor in places like Texas and Florida is really indicative of the loosening of the whole ice pack. And I think it’s going to break apart. (Note: Voters and state legislatures in Texas, Florida and other southern states are currently considering various types of marijuana reform). Even in Washington, we didn’t know for sure what would happen. Nobody did, but we were just convinced that if we don’t try something different we were going to get more of the same, which is this racist, expensive, failing drug war on marijuana. Right? So it’s all incremental: medical then recreational.

Map: State-by-state marijuana laws

No doubt medical regulation has gone a long way toward warming people up to the idea of recreational marijuana.

We’ve proven that it can be regulated, that it can generate a lot of tax revenue, that it can be done and not have more DUIs. We’re proving that it can not mess up peoples’ ability to work on Monday. These are all things that opponents are going to be skeptical about until proven otherwise.

And despite polls showing the majority of Americans supporting legalization, it still seems like a steep hill to climb.

Right, because our government has spent billions of dollars misleading the public in the last generation with deceitful ad campaigns and propaganda. People are wired to think marijuana is bad until it’s proven not-bad. And now we’re going through that slow process of illustrating that it’s not necessarily GOOD, but that it’s not as harmful as they’ve been led to believe.

How would you compare Washington’s legalization efforts with Colorado’s?

We had the dream team in Washington pushing for I-502 and nobody on our team was in the marijuana community. In fact, the marijuana community was generally against us because they wanted to home-grow and other stuff. But regardless of my personal take on it, as a speaker for I-502 and as a drug policy reform activist it’s that it doesn’t matter if it’s healthy for you or not. This is a civil liberty. I don’t have a civil liberty to get high and hurt somebody or something, but you can frame this in a way that conservative people can get behind. That’s why I was doing lectures all over eastern Washington, talking about tax revenue, civil liberties, states’ rights. And I didn’t even need to get into the inherent racism of our drug laws, although that’s a big part of what gets me speaking out about it. So overall our society is misinformed and up until now it’s been scary people advocating for it, and now it’s less-scary people.

And you’re such a trusted name for some people that to see you talking about it, it takes some of the stigma away. Not that you’ve ever hidden your stance on it.

I’ve been on the board at NORML for ten years and at NORML we wear our coats and ties. We dress in an un-scary way for frightened suburban parents as we talk about why we should stop locking up people for smoking pot. That’s much more effective than some scary-looking tattooed guy who’s going to come out and say, “Hey, let’s go to Hempfest!” Now, those people have every bit as much right as I do to say and do that, but they’re not going to pass laws.

People compare Colorado to Amsterdam a lot these days, but there are obviously major differences. Does it surprise you that in many ways that Colorado is more liberal now with cannabis than Amsterdam?

It surprises me hugely because for 20 years I’ve been saying, “Look at the Dutch. They’re a live-and-let-live culture and a joint is about as exciting as a can of beer to them.” But the Dutch were kind of easygoing about the existence of that gray area: the relationships between wholesalers and retailers. They decided not to go there because that’s the complicated nut to crack, and in Colorado and Washington we were the the first to say, “We’re not just going to — wink wink — say you can buy and smoke it in coffee shops and not ask where they get their inventory. We’re going to establish a system where we can tax and regulate it.” That puts us WAY ahead of Europeans. Consequently, they’re flying our city attorney and some other people over to their conventions to figure out how to do this. Which I think is frankly amazing, that they’re looking to us now for leadership instead of the other way around.

Related: More coverage of pot tourism

This cannabis-law consultancy industry is booming right now because of it. There are lots of folks from Colorado on the road doing the same thing.

We’re all in this together, it’s just that we’ve still got people trying to keep it illegal. In the past few years the Dutch government has been extorted by various groups to not make it so permissive. And (the Dutch government) is saying that if you shut down these legal ways to get it, you open up all kinds of street crime. That’s just a pragmatic crime-reduction thing that mayors in the Netherlands are going to bat for.

So is it getting more permissive again over there?

My understanding is that they’ve stopped rolling back these laws so much. In Europe they’re just pragmatic. They don’t want criminals selling drugs on the streets. They haven’t had violence in the streets of Copenhagen in a long, long time. Then they bulldoze these (pot) shops and all of sudden you’ve got scary people selling it on the street and turf wars and I believe actual deaths. So people shudder and say, “Oh, NOW I get it.” Whether you’re for or against it, it’s not the point. Marijuana is a reality, so how do you want it sold and consumed? We’re just taking the mature, adult approach to that reality. A lot of people against the laws in Colorado and Washington think, “Oh, with this new law people are going to be smoking pot all the time.” People already do. I believe just because it’s legal you’re not going to have a sustained huge spike in use. Maybe at the start.

Click here for more of Rick Steves’ interview, as he talks about marijuana tourism, hemp and whether he’ll sample any Colorado pot when he visits.