Rick Steves, a well-known traveler and one of the country's most visible advocates of marijuana legalization, speaks during an interview in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 7, 2014. (Don Ryan, The Associated Press)

Pot advocate and traveler Rick Steves says prohibition hurts the poor most

PORTLAND, Ore. — Rick Steves smokes the occasional joint, but he’s not arguing for marijuana legalization in Oregon just because he likes to get high.

Steves, a nationally known guidebook author and host on public radio and television, said Tuesday he’s convinced that marijuana prohibition in the U.S. operates solely to harm the poor and people of color, and to profit off their punishment.

“It’s not guys like me, rich white guys, who need it,” Steves said Tuesday at a downtown Portland hotel. “It’s the people who are arrested and cited, who are poor.”

Stumping in Oregon: Get the dates for Steves’ 10-city tour to talk cannabis legalization

Steves is crisscrossing the western half of Oregon in support of a ballot measure to legalize marijuana, a movement that picked up steam in 2012 when Colorado and Washington state each approved legal marijuana and commercial outlets to sell it.

None of it would have happened without a plummeting stock market in 2008, Steves said.

“When you look at the end of Prohibition, it came during the Depression because they couldn’t afford to jail all those guys,” Steves said. “There’s no coincidence that (marijuana legalization) was taken seriously only after the Recession.”

Steves didn’t back a 2012 Oregon legalization measure because, he said, it was “pro-marijuana,” without any input from groups with a stake in the measure, like law enforcement. This year’s ballot initiative, called Measure 91, is “anti-prohibition,” Steves said.

The difference is the planning, he said — money in Measure 91 is set aside for law enforcement, schools and drug-treatment programs. The measure seeks to legalize the sale and taxation of marijuana in Oregon. The drug is now legal for medicinal use.

Interview: Steves talks to The Cannabist about civil liberties and Colorado legalization

The No on 91 campaign did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday afternoon. The campaign, which draws most of its funding from law enforcement groups, has said that marijuana legalization will make it easier for children to access the drug.

Steves wrote in a book “Travel as a Political Act” that his globe-trotting reveals marijuana decriminalization is good for society.

“There is this idea that there’s this reservoir of people who will immediately begin to smoke pot if it’s legal and ruin their lives,” Steves said. “In Europe, they’ve shown that that’s not true.”

Steves supported Washington state’s successful 2012 measure to legalize marijuana.

The campaign to legalize marijuana in Oregon raised about $2.4 million by the latest reporting deadline in late September. The opposition, No on 91, last reported about $170,000 in its coffers.

“If we jailed everyone who smokes the occasional joint in Oregon tomorrow,” Steves said, “it would be a lot less interesting place to live.”


Nigel Duara can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/nigelduara