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 coming to Denver

Rick Steves will be in Denver for the Amazing Adventures Expo on June 14 at Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, where he will give three presentations on his world travels.

(Interview continued)

I’ve heard arguments comparing cannabis use to abortions, hard drug use, teen sex, etc. But it seems that making it illegal or harder to do won’t stop it from happening. It’ll just create a negative ripple effect among the people doing it.

I think people with regressive conservative approaches to this are striving for this ideal where they can live in a society where there’s no abortions or everybody has fair access to something or people don’t smoke pot. That’s just not the reality, and what you need to do is look at it from reality and approach it from a harm-reduction point of view instead of moralizing. We’ve tried (moralizing) and it doesn’t work. Now it’s time to be pragmatic.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean opening the flood gates. Some people are afraid of big tobacco companies coming into Colorado and making inferior, unhealthy products that are marketed to kids, for example.

I’m also concerned that it’s going to be big business. It’s expensive to get a growing operation up and running here in Washington because there’s a lot of hoops you have to go through. That’s going to drive a lot of little people out of business and consequently you’ll have big corporate structures and the bar will be raised in terms of that. I’d rather it be more homegrown. I think Washington played it a little more conservative than we needed to with no home-grows. The bottom line is we needed to win. But when people realize this isn’t just a nasty plant, we’re also dismantling the pot prohibition profiteers.

And who are those?

The people who are, to me, setting up the hurdles between the people of the U.S. and drug policy reform. I’m really disappointed in people who say, “Legalize it!” but when it’s almost legal they say, “We did a little assessment and we realized we’re going to lose money, so don’t do it.” I’m motivated not because I want people to smoke pot, although that’s nice to do, but because it’s expensive and racist and not good for our societal approach to drugs. As a whole we have this drug policy that’s hellbent on demonizing marijuana, which ends up making you have all this unbelievable propaganda against it.

Something that’s getting increasingly more attention is legal hemp and the research people can now do on it. Do you think it’s easy to overlook that given the potentially circus-like atmosphere of the recreational side of things?

I guess there are three different handles you can take. Some people are really into hemp as an industrial product, some are into it as a medicinal product, and some are into it because of civil liberties and the notion of using recreational drugs as a responsible adult. I’m completely in the last camp. I’m just involved because I think it’s a civil liberty. I think the medical thing is important and legitimate, but it’s not my passion. And with the industrial thing: it’s mind-boggling to think we’re shutting the door on an existing agricultural crop that could be so beneficial. But that’s also not my thing either. I’m just tired of rich white people smoking pot with impunity and poor kids and black kids getting locked up because of it. It’s racism. You can’t take their vote away, but you can disenfranchise them by taking their lives away.

As someone who’s made his living traveling the world, do you think Colorado will see a tourism bump from legal weed? It’s a frequent point of speculation here and something most legislators and city leaders have yet to officially endorse.

I’m not really tuned into that aspect of marijuana legalization. If I’m going to do it, I like to sit on my back porch and take a trip there. It’s not my idea of a good time to take a trip somewhere and smoke pot. But if people want to make a little cottage industry, that’s fine. I just don’t like to go to a B&B just to smoke pot. To make your laws based on your tourism industry — it misses the point. It’s an accidental byproduct of stopping a prohibition that’s costly to our society, a side effect. There are wine trips in eastern Washington and I suppose you could be doing that (with cannabis).

Related: More coverage of pot tourism

Talk of reforming drug laws has also been in the air since the overdose death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and some people are speculating his death could have been avoided if our drug laws were different or more oriented toward treatment than punishment.

Every time there’s a death or a big breakthrough it’s something people talk about. We had a TV show here called “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation,” and it’s how we sort of started our campaign for legalization about five years ago. When I talk about hard drugs in Europe, I note how they have about half as many people, per capita, who are addicted (as in the U.S.), and — despite their much larger population — far fewer deaths than we do.

Will you sample any of the weed next time you’re in Colorado?

Probably not. I like to smoke in Amsterdam where there’s a cool atmosphere or at a coffee shop. Does Colorado have that?

A cool atmosphere? I like think so, with the mountain scenery and an active, mid-sized downtown here in Denver…

I meant can you smoke at coffee shops?

At the moment you can only legally consume it at home, although it’s something that needs to be worked out because of the growing weed-tourism issue.

That’s the way it is in Washington state. It would be a huge leap forward to do be able to do it (indoors in public). It’s like, you can’t drink alcohol in the streets in our city. That’s laughable in Europe where you can sit in the park and have a beer. You can go down a river in Washington and drink, but not sit in a park. It’s illegal, but also nobody’s going to arrest you. In Europe the whole idea is discretion. You’re not going to walk down the street and blow smoke in the face of a lady and her granddaughter.

7 differences in the marijuana laws of Colorado and Washington state

As you mentioned, current U.S. laws would seem to disproportionately affect transients, poor people, people of color.

The main thing now in our two states is we’re not locking up poor and black and brown people because of (cannabis use), and I think that’s a great thing. Maybe technically we still do but it’s not as rampant.

And certainly there are officials across the country directing police to make it the lowest enforcement priority, as we did here in Denver before Amendment 64.

That’s what we did in Seattle to soften up for this. With I-75 you couldn’t legalize it but you could say it’s the (lowest) priority for law enforcement. If they accomplish everything they accomplish and need something to do, they can start locking up pot smokers. And after ten years they decided they didn’t need to build an extra prison. It’s even less of a priority now. What’s also exciting is that New York City was notorious for these shakedowns where police could see somebody that looked suspicious but not doing anything wrong and arrest them for looking suspicious. So it’s loosening there too. It’s incremental.

I can’t end this interview and not mention the Super Bowl. You guys totally spanked us and we’re still smarting from the loss. What did you think of the game?

(Laughs) Well, everybody here is a Seahawks fan but I think we were considered the underdogs by at least a couple of points. But right from the start it wasn’t a nail-biter and you guys never got it together. I was still disbelieving it because I thought after halftime you’d come back storming, but that first run back in the second half was incredible.

There’s always next year, right?

Yes, there’s always another year.