Matthew Ryan Williams / The New York Times
Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The legalization of marijuana is a more mainstream issue now than it has ever been. That trend is both reflected and powered by the advocacy of people like Rick Steves, the mild-mannered travel writer and host of “Rick Steves’ Europe,” who campaigned for legalization in his home state of Washington in 2012 and now travels the country doing the same thing.
A 2017 Gallup poll found a majority of Americans — 64 percent — now support legalization of the drug in some form, including 51 percent of Republicans. While it remains illegal at the federal level, nine states plus the District of Columbia allow recreational use of the drug, and 30 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam have comprehensive medical marijuana laws.
Medical marijuana is on the ballot this month in Missouri, and a political compromise reached in October in deep-red Utah may pave the way for it there, too. Voters in North Dakota and Michigan will decide on recreational use of the drug.
Steves discussed his advocacy, his travels and the ballot initiatives. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What did the path from European travel expert to cannabis activist look like?
I’ve spent a third of my adult life in Europe, four months a year ever since I was a college kid. It is fascinating to see how different societies grapple with the same problems.
In so many cases, the United States is into moralizing and mass incarceration. In Europe, a joint is about as exciting as a can of beer. When I am home, I see people I respect smoke marijuana, responsibly, and it’s a criminal act.
What really strikes me is people are not comfortable talking about it, to this day. When I started talking about this, I could understand that. I had to go on the radio with a pseudonym 15 or 20 years ago.
What was your pseudonym?
Greg. I was on this big radio show in Seattle as Greg, this responsible business leader who smokes marijuana responsibly. I said, “OK, I am Greg.” I thought I was being incognito, but the next day in my town someone rolled down their window and said, “Hey Greg! We heard you last night!”
It all seems so silly. And it is silly if you’re a rich white guy because you can smoke with impunity. But I am tuned in to the reality of people who have a tough life and are disadvantaged, poor people and people of color.
You describe yourself as “pro-civil liberties, not pro-marijuana.” What civil liberties do you think are violated when marijuana is illegal?
I am not pro-marijuana. I don’t believe it is good for you. It can be abused. It’s a drug, like alcohol or tobacco. What I promote is civil liberties, and taking a thriving black market and being honest about it.
I am a taxpaying, churchgoing, kid-raising American citizen. If I work hard all day and want to smoke a joint and stare at the fireplace for three hours, that’s my civil liberty.
You have described marijuana legalization as a social justice issue. What social justice principles do you think are at stake?
This is a law that is enforced inconsistently. It’s a racist law and it is not rich white guys like me who are getting arrested. It is poor people and people of color. It’s the new Jim Crow.
A 2017 Gallup poll showed 64 percent of Americans support legalization. What explains the change in attitudes?
What has happened in the last decade is marijuana has become less scary. Grandma is rubbing it on her elbows. We know now that the most effective advocates are not pot smokers. I never brag about smoking pot. It’s a very small part of my life.
I was going to ask about your personal relationship with marijuana.
I smoke a little bit because it’s fun, but it is not a big part of my life. It is sort of a declaration of independence: I can keep my bong on my shelf now instead of in my closet.
What do you think of the recreational marijuana campaigns in North Dakota and Michigan?
What I found in North Dakota and Michigan were really good teams working on this campaign, but they didn’t have the establishment credibility that we had in Washington state with law enforcement and legislators.
Those are kind of the dream team of endorsements, and they’re really important for people who are afraid. In the Midwest, it’s just a little bit of a tougher challenge to get that. There are states that will be a little bit ahead of the curve, and states that are a little bit behind the curve.
When you’re out campaigning or meeting with lawmakers, does anyone ever do a double take where it’s like, “Whoa, the travel guy from PBS is here to talk about pot?”
I hope there is! Because that’s what we need to do. It is boring for me to talk at a Hempfest rally because you’re preaching to the choir. What I want to do is go to churches and rotary clubs and different organizations and share my beliefs.
It is sort of confusing to people when they see a guy like me talking about this issue: your typical, likable, un-scary, Christian kind of guy. It is fun to catch people a little bit by surprise that way.
If you were organizing a vacation to highlight the benefits of legalization, where would you go?
I’d recommend going to a state in the United States where this is already up and running. If we have a guest from out of state, we take them to a marijuana shop to see how strict it is. It is just shipshape. I’m 63 years old and I cannot get in without being carded.