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Rick Steves: How do you talk to a Republican about legalization?

The famous travel writer worked to make cannabis legal in Washington and Oregon. To follow that winning formula in California, you need to reach out to people you might not agree with.

Rick Steves made his name and career by sharing his knowledge of Europe. His friendly authority put the beloved travel writer in the perfect position to talk to conservative suburban people about something even scarier and more terrifying than international travel: legalization of marijuana.

“I appeal to people who don’t want to smoke weed and vote for it to be legal,” he told SF Evergreen. “Most people who don’t smoke weed can vote to legalize weed, and that’s our challenge.”

Steves has been active in efforts to legalize cannabis in Washington and Oregon, and he hopes California will be next. “It would be so huge,” he says. “California is the big prize. When California legalizes, the federal government realizes it’s a new day. That’s so exciting.”

But to convince people who will never use marijuana in their lifetime that prohibition is bad, it takes the right message. Here’s his guide to achieving the ideal America from Rick Steves.
Our interview has been edited for clarity.

SF Evergreen: Do you consider yourself a marijuana activist?
Rick Stevens: There are many people who think that marijuana is the best thing that has ever come to us. I just think it’s a fun drug. And if someone wants to enjoy a fun drug, that’s a civil liberty they should enjoy.

EG: Why did you get involved in legalization?
I just want to make sure people don’t get arrested for smoking marijuana. The status quo is racist and unproductive and I don’t like us extorting other countries. Other countries are required to arrest a certain number of people each year for weed just to maintain trade status with the United States. I was in Denmark, in Copenhagen, and someone said to me: “Be careful. They need to arrest some people for weed to appease the US”

Our laws cause more damage than they avoid. They are based on lies, they are based on fear, and they are behaved in an unfair way.

EG: You live in a suburb of Seattle. How has legalization changed life there?
There hasn’t been a big change – and that’s the funny thing. Things are less tense. You can omit your bong. That’s just nice. Our state is arresting fewer people and organized crime is a little pissed off. Our government has more tax revenue. What’s not to like about that?

Some people thought it would be one big Hempfest [editor’s note: the famous annual Seattle-based pot smoking party]. That clearly didn’t happen. You don’t smell marijuana any more than you used to.

It’s just not a problem. People just don’t lie and hide and there are no illegal deals on the street. Everything is fairer, healthier and simpler.

EG: Who are you trying to reach?
I don’t need to talk to people who subscribe to High Times. Our challenge is the frightened people in the suburbs who say, “What’s going to happen to my child?” I want a law that puts them at ease.

It’s good for the movement to say, “Marijuana is a drug, it’s not healthy, it can be abused, but it’s a matter of civil liberty for adults to smoke weed. If you get caught driving stoned, they should throw the book at you, and it’s not for kids.” Suddenly people are like, “Oh. We need to listen to this man.”

People are afraid to talk about it. I have worked very hard to use the word “marijuana” in all my travel guides. I want people to understand that there is something called “marijuana,” it exists, and that more people are using it than you think. And it doesn’t have to be threatening to you.

EG: What’s holding back legalization in California?
Oregon and Washington had smart, public safety laws that people who don’t smoke were comfortable with. I think in California the drug reform community is inclined to make a pro pot law.

And I don’t want anything to do with a pro pot law. I want an anti-prohibition law. I want a civil liberties law, and a law that can embrace law enforcement.

It won’t be perfect, but a law can evolve. You don’t start with perfect. You have to be incremental. Baby steps are just a political reality.

It’s all hands on deck to get California on board in 2016, but if California writes a pro-marijuana law, I don’t know if I’d waste my time working on it.

If we draft a public health law that caring officials can embrace, good. We will overcome that fear and reach the goal we all work for much faster.

That’s why I can imagine that I frustrate many proponents of weed. I’m really careful not to raise the marijuana flag. I’m only talking about drug policy reform.

EG: Did it cost you anything?
Yes. I’ve lost some things. But I bet I won as much as I lost. I have more fun and I am more honest. That is what counts. I’ve been lucky with my business so I don’t have to worry about paying rent. I’ve been getting emails saying, “Now that I know what you think about marijuana, I’m not going to buy your book or take your tours.” All I think when I hear that is, “Good. Europe will be more fun without you.”

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie

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