These days, Rick Steves is looking a lot less like a happy traveler and a lot more like a road warrior.
Gone is his trademark boyish mien so familiar to the armchair travelers who have watched his mild-mannered shows on PBS for 20 years.
Today, this best-selling guidebook author and overall travel guru is revealing a glimpse of the ferocious drive and intellect that’s helping lead a wholesale change in how the country views our bedrock drug policies and enforcement.
Specifically, Steves has thrown his celebrity and a chunk of his personal fortune behind the move to legalize marijuana throughout the country. His advocacy could be a risky proposition, given that his business success is dependent on staying in the good graces of the 950,000 people who buy his travel guides annually, and the many thousands who book tours through his Europe Through the Back Door travel company each year. But Steves, master of the casual shirt-and-khakis mild, unthreatening manner that he projects in his TV show, feels an imperative to take a public stand on this issue, no matter the risks.
His marijuana advocacy is about more than the ability to smoke weed legally—although, no doubt, that’s part of it. He sees injustices in the way our current drug laws are enforced and the damage done by this country’s war on drugs.
In the bigger picture, it’s also about his ongoing advocacy for and support of what might be characterized as underdog issues. In 2005, he purchased a 24-unit apartment complex in Lynnwood called Trinity Way, which is run by the YWCA and provides transitional housing for homeless mothers and children. He also raises funds for the hunger advocacy group Bread for
the World. And in 2011, the former piano teacher donated $1 million to the Edmonds Center for the Arts and the Cascade Symphony Orchestra.
In the fall, voters in as many as 20 U.S. states will have a chance to legalize some level of medical or recreational pot use. In part, they have Steves to thank for that. Maybe more than anyone else in the nation at present, Steves, 61, is the public face of the move to legalize marijuana use. Just as many Americans unwind with a glass of Pinot Noir, Steves enjoys the occasional joint. It’s a right he believes adults around the country deserve.
“Our nation is embracing a lie, and it just makes me uncomfortable because we’re supposed to be a free society,” says Steves, whose Lutheran soul just can’t stomach the hypocrisy of it all. Before marijuana was legalized in Washington, many people were smoking pot but only a few were acknowledging it, he says. “The only people, it seemed, who were openly smoking pot were people you wouldn’t want your daughter to go out with. [But] there were a lot of decent people, businesspeople, a lot of church leaders, a lot of teachers, a lot of thoughtful, creative people who were enjoying marijuana responsibly. A good percent of the people I work with smoke pot responsibly on occasion—and it’s just not a big deal.”
He came out of the pot-smoking closet more than 10 years ago, sickened by what he viewed as the “big lie.” You know, the Reefer Madness lie, the one in which smoking weed dooms you to a life of addiction, chasing fixes through dark passages and into cheap motel rooms. Kind of like insisting that enjoying a gin and tonic will send you to skid row.
“I thought, everyone is so afraid to say the word [marijuana], and I am uniquely positioned to actually speak out on this,” Steves says. Since he owns his own, established business, he can’t get fired. As he writes on his website: “When it comes to America’s prohibition on marijuana, I can consider lessons learned from my travels and say what I really believe when I’m back home.” He adds, in an interview on a blustery, late-winter day in his Edmonds office: “If I’m careful and desensitize people to the ‘freaky scariness’ of marijuana, I can help people look at it in a pragmatic, harm-reduction, civil-liberties, honest kind of way.”
It wasn’t an overnight decision to go all in. Steves, who has helped PBS raise millions of dollars during its pledge drives, says it was only after a relatively lengthy period of talking to his family, employees at his Edmonds business and leaders in the pot legalization movement—and taking his minister for a long walk—that he came to realize he was well-positioned to educate the public about some uncomfortable truths around marijuana and drug laws. To wit, upper-class “white people are in less danger from this than poor people and black people,” he says. “From the start, that really bothered me. It just seems unjust.” He was heavily involved in the effort to legalize pot in Washington state, donating upward of $450,000 to Initiative 502 in 2012, which passed by a double-digit margin. He also campaigned for legalization in Oregon, where an initiative passed for legalization in 2014.
“Rick played an enormously important role in the successful effort to legalize marijuana possession for adults in Washington,” says Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, which helped lead the charge to legalize pot here. “As a highly regarded businessperson engaged in civic affairs, Rick helped move marijuana reform into the mainstream. He helped people feel comfortable that law-abiding American suburbanites, like himself, had nothing to fear from marijuana legalization.… People trusted Rick to guide Americans through unfamiliar European towns and villages; he could be trusted to tell the truth about marijuana and the benefits of legalization.”
His involvement with legalizing marijuana goes back to 1991, according to Allen F. St. Pierre, the Washington, D.C.–based executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), when Steves simply sent in an annual membership fee, and St. Pierre noticed his name as he processed the mail.
“I saw Rick’s name go by and I thought, ‘The Rick Steves?’” he recalls. “Back in the ’80s, I had purchased one of Rick’s books for a trip, and slept in my money belt like he advised. I appreciated Rick’s guidance then as an undergrad. So I started to write on the margins on the [membership forms], ‘Are you the Rick Steves?’ He wrote back and said, ‘I am’ and nothing else. So I wrote back and said, ‘What are your concerns? What is your stakeholdership?’ He wrote back, ‘I have a general concern around hemp.’
Over five to six years, we exchanged these little notes. Then one day, he picked up the phone and said he wanted to be more public about marijuana laws.”
St. Pierre, who estimates that Steves has spent close to $1 million of his own money to advance marijuana legalization, says it’s been fascinating to observe his evolution on the issue. “His persona is pretty clearly mainstream and nonthreatening, and he uses what his brand is known for, travel—and tolerance."
“Rick is not himself a political person, even though things he cares about puts him there. He just saw this as being a good citizen.”
Steves’ legalization work includes a star turn in the documentary Evergreen, which follows backers and opponents through the Washington I-502 campaign. In the film, Steves repeatedly stresses the importance of dealing honestly and tolerantly with pot, just as many European countries do. Of course, not everyone favored passage of the Washington state law. Opponents of the initiative, many in the medical marijuana industry, charge that the law passed here is flawed in a number of respects, including what the critics called an absurdly low intoxication standard for driving while under the influence of marijuana.
One critic from the medical marijuana side is Steve Sarich, who headed the No on I-502 campaign. He says Steves is disingenuous for advancing what Sarich views as unduly restrictive laws that he asserts will unfairly jail medical marijuana users for driving under the influence: “He did it here…and now he’s going to do it in other states.”
Steves shrugs off any criticism that the initiative was too restrictive. He believes a smart, pragmatic law needed to be crafted that would meet with the approval of average voters and their public safety concerns. “I-502 was more conservative than it needed to be because we wanted to win,” he says. The win here has allowed other states to get used to the idea of legal marijuana and build on Washington’s success—“a rising tide from the Pacific Coast,” he says.
The next state in his sights? Massachusetts, where the state Legislature is considering legalization and an initiative will be on the November ballot. Steves is planning to take his pot legalization campaign on the road. “I can hardly wait to go,” he says.
At the core of steves’ advocacy is his frustration with our country’s failed, costly war on drugs, a conflict that has spurred murderous drug trafficking throughout Mexico and Central America. It’s a conviction that almost certainly has roots in his core Judeo-Christian values of fairness and equality—coupled with a rational, Scandinavian-style sensibility.
Looking up from under his heavy, sandy brows, he patiently retells again—having given interviews on the topic scores of times—the bloody history of the North and Central American drug trade. It’s clear he’s still really pissed off about it. Our drug laws have “enriched and empowered gangs and organized crime,” he says. Steves has spoken publicly at length about our drug laws, comparing them unfavorably to what he sees as a more enlightened view embraced by some European countries.
“Because of my Europe work, I can talk about dealing with marijuana in a less hysterical, more pragmatic and honest way,” Steves says.
That includes educating this country about the more compassionate, pragmatic approach to marijuana there, regulating its use, rather than incarcerating its users, Steves says. In the Netherlands, for instance, pot is available in numerous coffee shops, where staff can check whether a buyer is under the age of 18. Police, meanwhile, can keep tabs on the sale of pot, and buyers are kept from purchasing pot from street dealers, who have an incentive to hook them on harder drugs.
With recreational marijuana legal in only four states right now—and potentially more in the not-too-distant future—it may be awhile before this type of compassionate, pragmatic approach reaches coffeehouses all around this country. But certainly, Steves will not give up his quest anytime soon to free the United States from what he views as backward, repressive marijuana laws.
There is no correlation between marijuana consumption and how strict laws are, he insists: “I don’t smoke any more marijuana now than I did before [legalization]. I just do it now without having to break a law.”