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The Accidental Activist: Rick Steves

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After exploring the world, travel writer and TV host Rick Steves' next trip is to legalize marijuana in Washington state.

We caught up with travel writer Rick Steves as he was on a multi-city awareness campaign for I-502, the Washington State ballot measure to legalize marijuana.

Rick is best known for his travel books, Europe Through the Back Door, and his PBS television show, Rick Steves' Europe.

If most people had to pick someone to be the face for legal marijuana -- Rick's name might not be the one they would expect. With his civil liberties point of view, Rick is certainly changing some minds in Washington where the ballot measure is poised to pass and make the state the first in the country for legal weed.

The 420 Times: What got you involved with being an activist and advocate for the issues you are doing? Was there something that made you want to get involved in the first place?

Rick Steves: Well, I've spent a lot of time covering in Europe and Europe has a very pragmatic approach to solving problems and things like drug policy. And, the more I have read about our war against marijuana, the more I see that as parallel to the prohibition that we had against alcohol back in the 1920s and 1930s.

And while there may be problems with alcohol abuse, there may be problems with marijuana abuse. I think with the law by any reasonable estimate is causing more problems than the drugs they are trying to deal with. So, I think, I'm not in favor of marijuana or anything like that, I think just the prohibition is wrong.

I think the mature adult consumption of it is a civil liberty. I think it's not for kids. I think we should have strict DUI provisions and I think that it should be taxed a great length in helping our communities. I am concerned about the bloodshed in Mexico; 40,000 to 50,000 people have died in Mexico. If you look at No Country By Old Men by about 1,000, you can see there's a problem of what's going on and it's all our country treating marijuana like it's some evil weed.

420: Why is it important this year, you know, of all the years, is this year different or is this time different than in the past to do something about it?

Rick: No, it's no more important this year than last year, it's just -- I have been asking this for 15 years and there is a rising tide of awareness that prohibition days are numbered and our society is dealing with a lot of government propaganda and it's just an uphill struggle to overcome all the fear that is instilled into the minds of well meaning.

And slowly we're explaining to people that if you want public safety and if you want economic and social justice and if you know what's best for your kids, we got to take the crime out of the equation here and treat marijuana abuse as a health and a education challenge and based upon responsible adult use as a civil liberty.

This year, California had their shot two years ago, there have been different attempts throughout the country to get groups legalizing things and watching and with a great coalition of smart people, you and carrying law enforcement people and professors and doctors and people in drug treatment programs and children's groups. We have all got together and we think we have straightened things out and because it's a pretty smart law and a relatively conservative law that's in tune one of the concerns of the majority of the voters here, I think who are falling at 67% and I think we have a chance of winning this.

420: How did you get involved with the ballot initiative?

Rick: I got involved because I am a rare celebrity that's got the balls to speak out on this truth issue.

A lot of people are just afraid that it's going affect their business and so I just think, I'm lucky, I don't need to be elected. I can't be fired. Lot of people -- I'm in the travel business. I write guide books and take an organized tours around Europe, 10, 20, 80 people. We take 12,000 American there every year.

I'm a host of a TV show and a radio show. We are in public television and public radio and in public radio, you don't have -- you are not being shaped by the needs of the advertisers because we don't cater to advertisers. We cater to the truth and I can have my show and not be off the air.

If I was Michael Phelps and I am being supported by Kellogg's and all of a sudden they realize I think something different and I'm supposed to not talk about marijuana, well I'm just right out the door. But it's not like that way in public television. And in my own business, as a travel feature and a travel tour guide and people tell, we know what you think about marijuana, we're not going to use your guide books, we're not going to take your tours, and all I can think is Europe is going to be more fun without you.

420: So, you've done very well in business, obviously, like you said, you know with everything. I mean, what steps can just sort of the average Joe do to get involved in their community?

Rick: Well, I think a very interesting thing is -- to me it's a fascinating issue. I mean, I have been telling this for 10 years and being as people who are -- how the law is working and everything and the basic dynamic of the drug policy discussion here is pretty simple, but it takes a couple of hours to get your brains around it and then you can sit down at tables and polite company and talk about this. I've been talking about this for a long time and right after that I have to explain I'm not pro drugs. This is not for kids. If you got caught intoxicated by anything they threw the book at you, so it's just right now a problem, that's the law, it's causing the harm to our society than the drug abuse itself.

And I make it really clear that I think marijuana is not healthy, it's not good for you, it's not for young people. On the other hand I say, if you are a mature adult, you like to get high, I trust that's your complete civil liberty. So, it's just a beautiful thing about the United States of America. We can talk about this. We can defend civil liberties and it's not really a right wing or left wing or democrat or republican or libertarian issue on its own. It's simply pragmatic and smart.

Right now, think of the -- cash crop in our state is marijuana after apples and it's all in the black market. And it's enriching and empowering gangs and organized crime and it's the nine yards case. Not only does that get you a lot revenue and it's grown to $500 million a year according to our Olympia organization that in essence that is how much taxes will be raised a year once we get this thing up and running, but it's costing our state a lot of needless law enforcement and it costs $38,000 to keep this guy in prison and that's taken out of the workforce and out of paying taxes that we have been seeing all around.

There is a lot of -- I was just talking to people working in foster care organizations in Washington state and a big percent of the foster kids, they have to deal with as orphans because of our laws against marijuana that sends people who want to smoke marijuana to prison.

Now in our generation we have economic tough times or so we think and people are recognizing that this is just a matter of fiscal stupidity to keep marijuana on the same schedule as heroin or methamphetamine or LSD or something like that.

Europeans know that marijuana is a drug just like alcohol or nicotine, not for kids, needs to be regulated if taxed and it's no big deal. That's what they do in Europe and much of Europe and that's what we want to do here.

420: What's kind of given you the biggest hope or you've been traveling around the state a little bit and talking to everybody, has it been the baby boomers, has it been the younger voters that surprised you the most that's for the initiative?

Rick: Yeah, you know, I have been talking about this for a long time and I enjoy talking about this to older conservative crowds. I think, if I can have half an hour to explain this to anybody, and I feel again in respect that this is a reasonable position to have. But I don't see it as an age thing. I really don't see it as an age thing.

I mean, I suppose people who are young enough to have smoked pot when they were kids and they are grow out of it, you know, they come to realize it's not as scary thing as a lot of people like to contend. So we could make a case that people 60 and younger have a little more experience with this so it is tougher to fear monger them. And then I think younger parents are realizing that, the thing that's really dangerous about marijuana is in fact that it's illegal.
There are kids who get caught and it's a group of friends that had some pot and all of a sudden this kid has got a record and all of a sudden he is going to be a hark in the road and he is not going to be able to go to college or get loan order, get a job and this is what's really dangerous about marijuana.

I think people are recognizing that, you know, it really is a parenting issue, it's a kids issue, it's a social justice issue. That's why I think The Children's Alliance is endorsing us. That's why the NAACP is endorsing us.

Rick: I hope that it's helpful for you and if people want to learn more, they can obviously go to our website. It's www.newapproachwa.org