Long before he became an internationally renowned travel guru with shows on PBS and NPR, Rick Steves began speaking out in his own backyard about the many harms caused by marijuana prohibition and why legalization offered the most sensible alternative. Although he felt the need to hide his identity behind a pseudonym during the “Just Say No” anti-pot hysteria of the Reagan-era ‘80s, the mild-mannered Edmonds, WA native appeared on local radio in those dark days, hoping to provide a positive example of an accomplished businessperson who just happened to enjoy cannabis – and who considered pot prohibition an unmitigated disaster.
“What troubled me back then was, in the media, nobody ever talked about marijuana without the word abuse in the same sentence; it was always drug abuse,” he recalls. “And, you know, people who enjoy smoking pot for creative purposes think of that as use, not abuse. I mean, you can abuse marijuana, but you can use it creatively as well.”
In November, now fully out of the cannabis closet, Steves helped make history as one of the primary sponsors of I-502, the voter initiative that legalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and over in Washington State, while also paving the way for state-licensed commercial cultivation and sales. A similar voter initiative, Amendment 64, was also passed by a wide margin in Colorado.
To celebrate those unprecedented victories and the bright green future for marijuana-law reform they seemed to foretell, Steves invited HIGH TIMES up to his hometown, about 30 minutes north of Seattle, where he still lives and maintains the headquarters of his travel company. What started out as a small European tour outfit has, over the years, grown into an enterprise of some 80 employees organizing tours, writing guidebooks, and producing the public television series and radio programs that make Rick Steves a welcome guest in millions of American homes.
Having just returned from a productive day at the office, the author of Travel As a Political Act carefully considers the ounce of marijuana procured for this photo shoot as he plays selections from Les Miserables on the baby grand he’s owned since the days when he made his living as a piano teacher. The idea for our picture spread: to show a regular guy at home, with his personal amount of legal pot, and make the whole thing seem perfectly normal, nonthreatening – maybe even a little boring.
In the end, though, Steves can’t help but smile.
So here we are, in your home, with an ounce of legal marijuana. How does it feel to be able to say that after all this time?
It’s nice to stick a bong on my shelf and just hope somebody asks about it – because it’s legal here in Washington State. Ahhhhh ... that is a nice feeling.
When did you try marijuana for the first time?
The first time was in Afghanistan, in Kabul.
Wow. What year was that?
Must have been 1978. I never got high in college.
So you went through college in the ’70s without smoking pot, and then went to Afghanistan and tried it?
I didn’t smoke in college because I felt like there was a lot of peer pressure, and I didn’t want to succumb to it. But in Afghanistan, the whole world was high – you’d be riding a bus, and at the rest stop they’d all sit around and watch somebody slaughter a goat while passing some sort of a pipe or bong. Everybody would get as stoned as you can imagine, and then they’d say, “Okay, time to get back on the bus.” It was an amazing, strange world.
Of course, where I really learned to enjoy the experience was in Nepal, in Katmandu. I’d get high and eat apple pie hot out of a medieval oven while listening to the Stones or something like that, surrounded by travelers from all over the world. And I’d just think, “Life is good.”
You sometimes describe “high” as a place you like to visit. Can you explain what you mean by that?
What I mean is that, when you travel, you enter a different mind-set – and when you get high, you can find yourself in a different mind-set, too. And I think that if you’re an adult, you should be free to choose whether or not you want to go there. Also, if somebody tells me I can’t step across a little line on the sidewalk, all of a sudden I want to step across. That’s kind of human nature, isn’t it?
So you think outlawing marijuana has been counterproductive?
You go to the Netherlands, and the Dutch people think it’s just kind of odd that Americans are so excited about marijuana coffeeshops. For them, it’s like, “Yeah, if you want it, it’s down the street. What’s the big deal?” Well, you can do hard time for marijuana in America. That’s what’s the big deal.
And if you look at marijuana usage in the Netherlands, for both youth and adults, it’s lower than here.
I wish Americans understood that. By every measure, the Dutch smoke less pot per capita than we Americans do. There’s no correlation between consumption and the strictness or looseness of a society’s laws. The Dutch approach drugs in terms of pragmatic harm reduction: They want to take crime out of the equation, and they treat those with addictions as people with a health problem who need help – not criminals who need to be locked up.
So, if “high” is a place and it’s now legal to go there in Washington State, do you have any travel advice for a first-time visitor?
That’s a good question. The thing is, I’m not really a proponent of pot – I just believe that if somebody wants to smoke it, that’s their right. Still, I’d say try it in a safe environment with experienced people you trust and feel comfortable with. You also might need to try it a few times, because it doesn’t always work the first time.
Do you think marijuana tourism will become a big ancillary business?
Right now, there’s a lot of speculation about marijuana tourism here in Washington State – the same way people visit the little vineyards in Walla Walla and go wine-tasting. But I don’t think that’s going to be much of an industry. I think Washington’s just going to be an example of a progressive state that understands the futility of criminalizing marijuana. Other states will see the positive results of that approach, and pretty soon tourists won’t need to think about traveling to Washington for legal pot, because pot will be legal all over the United States.
Why did you decide to speak out publicly about marijuana legalization?
All my adult life, most of the people I’ve worked with – including most of the people I’ve respected in my field – have smoked pot secretly, and they’re perfectly upstanding citizens in every way. But they’ve had to lie to their own children; they’re nervous about their employers; some are even nervous about their spouses. And I always thought, “This is not right.” As Americans, we embrace a lot of lies – and for me, the “evils of marijuana” was one lie too many.
Then, in 2003, the campaign to pass I-75 [the initiative that made marijuana the lowest law-enforcement priority in Seattle] asked me to give a talk on Capitol Hill to help raise money. I had to ask myself, “Wow, do I actually want to stand in a public place and explain the wisdom of taking crime out of the equation?” Ultimately, I realized this was the right thing to do. This is good citizenship. I was speaking up for the truth.
Really, I want to make marijuana less scary for the people who wish it would just go away, because marijuana is never going to go away.
Have there been any negative consequences to speaking out?
I figured there would be, but there haven’t been. I suppose I have turned certain people against me – but those are people that I don’t necessarily want for me, so what’s the loss? I don’t need to compromise on the truth or what’s good for society in order to have everybody like me. I have some celebrity and a bit of clout because of what I do, and I’d rather use it in a way that’s a little more courageous than simply trying to make everybody happy.
I guess over the years a few people have told me, “We know what you think about marijuana, and we’re never going to use your guidebooks or take your tours.” And all I can think is, “Europe will be a lot more fun without you.”
Where were you on election night?
I went to the official results-watching party at the Westin Hotel in Seattle. I was on pins and needles all night because we didn’t have any [advance] numbers for the initiative, and then all at once it was clear legalization had passed by a wide margin. I-502 won! At that point, I was euphoric. But I also realized I never want to go through another political campaign again – I just don’t handle that kind of stress very well. Because, you know, when it comes time to count the votes, you either win or lose – it’s 100 percent or zero. And we worked so hard and put so much energy and money into the campaign; all the conditions came together in what felt like a perfect storm. I didn’t know if we could ever get it all together again in the future.
How do you assess the reaction of the federal government since the election?
That’s the big question mark. Our governor here in Washington State wants the federal government to say what they’re going to do so we can build a regulatory system and start collecting tax revenue. I’m a friend of Governor [Jay] Inslee, and he understands this is a real issue. He flew to Washington, DC, to meet with US Attorney General Eric Holder and try to find out if we can do this or not – because he’s hoping to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from the black market and then tax and regulate a new and legal industry. That is quite exciting.
Keep in mind, marijuana legalization got more votes in Colorado and Washington than President Obama. So if the federal government comes in here to overrule us, it will be a really blatant disregard of the will of the people. Fortunately, I think what the Justice Department wants to see is a smart law that’s enforced consistently and prevents legal Washington State marijuana from “leaking” into other states. The federal government doesn’t have endless resources, so they have to pick their battles.
And once we won, the tenor of the discussion changed very quickly. Now people can much more easily support the idea that we shouldn’t be locking up pot smokers. So overall, I’m feeling very confident that we’re going to have our chance to pull this off. I think that in a year or so, people will realize that the sky’s not falling – and in the meantime, the government will become addicted to the tax revenue.
So you’re saying tax revenue is the addictive property of marijuana?
That’s what I’m saying.
As someone who employs 80 people, how do you feel if any of them chooses to use marijuana?
I could care less if my staff smokes pot. I don’t want them getting stoned at work or coming to work high, but I would assume a good many of them use pot recreationally on the weekend, and that’s their choice. I certainly think a smart entrepreneur wants to employ creative people. If I gave everybody a test to see if they smoked marijuana in the last month, it would be catastrophic for my business.
You’ve frequently been a speaker at Seattle Hempfest, the nation’s largest marijuana event. What makes you return year after year?
To me, Hempfest shows that there’s a huge stratum of our population that’s incredibly marijuana-oriented. That’s not really me, but they’re just as legitimate as me. A very good exercise for anybody who is afraid of cannabis culture would be to walk the whole length of Seattle Hempfest – through that sprawling, festive crowd of more than 100,000 – and realize, “Wow, these people live in our community 365 days out of the year. And for one weekend, they can all get together and have a big party that’s a celebration of freedom and alternative lifestyles and tolerance.” When you look at it that way, it’s a beautiful thing.
You’re someone who’s guided by your faith as a Lutheran. Do you see religious leaders beginning to change their attitude about marijuana legalization?
I see no incongruity between my Christian faith and exercising my civil liberty to smoke pot recreationally. While it’s hard for me to imagine a lot of pastors just lighting up for kicks, many religious leaders have already come out against marijuana prohibition because of the damage it does to their communities. Black Baptist preachers come up and hug me now for helping their community be less damaged by the laws against marijuana. That’s an amazing feeling.
What do you think should be the goals for reformers moving forward in the next couple of years?
Thankfully, there’s a lot of good people following through on I-502 and making sure the new law will be implemented in an optimal way. So as a member of the advisory board of NORML, I’d now like to help other states do what we did in Washington. And I really hope that everyone who reads HIGH TIMES will join me in working for legalization nationwide.
Unfortunately, too many pot smokers don’t live up to their responsibility as citizens to actively push for drug-policy reform. I’ve got friends who are great people, and they love smoking marijuana, but they’ve never even thought to raise their voice to change the law. Every one of us has a world where we’re respected and people will listen to what we say. All of us can speak reasonably with people who are afraid of cannabis, to help demystify it for them. And you don’t have to go it alone – you can join NORML or whatever other drug-law reform organization suits you.
Retail sales of marijuana in Washington State may begin in early 2014. What do you hope to find at the pot store?
My fantasy is to choose marijuana according to what kind of high I want. The frustrating thing with the black market is, you don’t really know for sure what type of pot you’re smoking. And that’s really a lost opportunity – because for me, some pot is really good and some pot is really not. And I think when it’s legalized and sold in a store, I’ll have the ability to buy strains that really work well for me.
What types of herb do you usually gravitate toward?
I want stuff that’s good for listening to music, playing my piano, having the munchies and giggling. I don’t want a heavy stone – I want an uplifting high.
Do you have a favorite strain?
You know, I’m not very sophisticated about different varieties. People just give me pot. Everywhere I go, people give me pot.
Perhaps if you say that again, it might convince a few more prominent people to come out of the cannabis closet ...
Oh yeah, that’s an important point: If you speak out about legalization, growers and heads will give you free marijuana. I don’t smoke very much, of course, so lately the stressful thing has been not being able to keep up with the abundance of wonderful pot that people have kindly been gifting me.
It’s really fun, actually, because I know they’re doing it to thank me. I didn’t legalize marijuana – I was just one guy helping – but in some ways, I got to be the public face of our success here in Washington State.