Rick Steves Makes a Case for Pot

The esteemed Washingtonian travel writer heads out on the road to promote marijuana legalization in Oregon.

By Catalina Gaitán October 8, 2014

The state is now less than a month away from deciding the fate of Measure 91, Oregon’s Legalized Marijuana Initiative, and Washingtonian travel guru Rick Steves has joined the ranks of advocates fighting for its victory. Last week, Steves wrote an opinion piece in the Oregonian about ending “marijuana prohibition.” Yesterday, the deep-pocketed host of OPB’s “Travel Europe” launched a six-day, 10-city tour of Oregon to talk about the problems with weed, and what we can learn from Europe about how to handle it. We caught up with Steves for some questions just before the blitz.

Of all the causes to champion, why the legalization of marijuana?
I can speak out on this topic that other people want to speak out on but are afraid to because they think they won’t get elected, and I can’t get fired. I want to make it clear: I’m not pro-marijuana. I’m anti-prohibition and pro-smart-law. I think when our society reconsidered the laws against alcohol back in the ‘30s, they weren’t saying booze is good. They were saying the laws against the alcohol were causing more problems than the alcohol problems they were trying to address. And I see that perfectly parallel today in the prohibition of marijuana. The most dangerous thing about marijuana to me is that it’s illegal.

What can we learn from Europe about handling marijuana?
In Europe, a joint is about as exciting as a can of beer. It’s kind of amusing that Americans are so giddy about marijuana when in Europe it’s just kind of boring. Some people smoke pot, some people drink booze. They have found in Europe that there’s no correlation between the amount the country consumes and how strict its laws are against it. I think that’s very important for Oregonians to understand… I think it’s really important that we get away from the Cheech and Chong jokes and realize that [marijuana’s current legal status] is ruining thousands of American lives, it’s costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s demoralizing law enforcement and hurting the credibility of cops and parents and teachers that want to teach kids about the dangers of hard drug abuse.

What do you say to the naysayers?
My belief is that the people that are going to smoke pot already do, and right now they have to buy it from criminals, and when they buy it they are empowering and enriching gangs and organized crime by being part of the black market. Washington state legalized marijuana, taxed it, and regulated it two years ago because we knew that marijuana is the biggest cash crop in our state after apples, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to organized crime. Now we’re generating a hundred million dollars in tax revenue instead of for the gangs, which makes a lot of sense. We’re arresting 800,000 people a year in the United States, and these are not rich white guys who want to smoke pot. These are poor black people that are getting arrested. It’s really a racist law.

Is Oregon ready for legalized weed? 
A lot of people have a fantasy of a drug-free society, but I think Oregon is sophisticated enough to understand that people smoke pot already, and the law is driving it into the whole black market realm. What I want to do is what we did in Washington and take the crime out of the equation and treat marijuana as an education challenge and a health challenge. If Measure 91 passes in November, in the next year Oregon will arrest 13,000 fewer people. Multiply that by what it costs to book somebody, and that’s millions of dollars saved, and it lets precious law enforcement resources be redirected at much more important and pressing issues.

Do you think the federal government will follow suit anytime soon?
That’s the beautiful thing about our system. The federal government, by law, has to be against marijuana. That’s its legal responsibility. They’ve got a law on the books that criminalizes marijuana, just like there was a law on the books two generations ago that criminalized alcohol. It wasn’t the federal government that said, “this is a non-productive, expensive, vicious law.” States were breaking it one at a time… and eventually the federal government could see the writing on the walls and dropped the prohibition of alcohol. Washington and Colorado have done it [with marijuana], and by any measure it’s been a success, and the people of [those states] are thankful that we recognized recreational marijuana as a civil liberty for adult use and that it can be regulated and restricted from minor use. I’m so proud to be part of this movement, and I’m really excited that it looks like Oregon will join Washington and Colorado in getting beyond the war on marijuana.

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