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Travel Legend Rick Steves Lights up the Marijuana Debate at the Vermont State House


by Mike Dunphy


While most viewers know the gentle and bespectacled face of the renowned travel guru Rick Steves from his PBS television shows, guidebooks, and more, far fewer are aware of his passionate crusade to reform drug laws, particularly regarding marijuana. On February 15, he arrived at the Statehouse in Montpelier to speak to the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee about allowing for commercial sale of the drug. Afterwards, he was kind enough to speak to The Bridge about Vermont’s legalization law and drug policy reform.

It always seems like a surprise to people when they learn you are such a passionate advocate for marijuana reform. Why so?

Rick Steves: People think I am a marijuana enthusiast; I’m not; I’m a drug policy reform enthusiast. I’m in this for civil liberties, and I think our prohibition against marijuana is an expensive, non-productive, racist law, and it’s time to speak the truth about this. I think a lot of people out there are afraid to talk about it because they have to get elected or whatever. I’m one “two-bit” celebrity who can speak out about this, and I kind of surprise people because they think I’m not the kind of person who would be involved in this, but I think this is important for our community and our democracy that we get this law off of the books. This is the tragic prohibition of our age. I acknowledge that marijuana is a drug that’s not good for you and can be abused, but I don’t think we should lock people up for smoking it.

What initially ignited your passion for this?

RS: I had an interest in this mainly because people who are very respected in my community, and whom I respected a lot in my church, in my work, in my hometown, were closet,  responsible adult pot smokers and keeping it a secret from their kids and friends and work. I thought, “We are the land of the free and home of the brave, and we have to smoke pot in closets so our kids don’t tell on us when they go to school.” I just thought, “This is based on lies,” and everybody’s afraid to discuss it because they might lose their jobs or not get elected. Nobody needs to work for me, nobody can fire me, so I can talk about this. I felt I had a responsibility as a citizen to speak for those who aren’t able to speak on this.

A lot of people have been saying this for years, including Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, but only recently has there been significant movement on it. Why do you think this is so?

RS: There’s more movement on it because now we have a track record. The big news is that the states of Washington and Colorado legalized in 2012. I happen to be from Washington and was a co-sponsor and leading spokesperson for our law that legalized, taxed, and regulated marijuana for responsible adult use. Now we have a track record, and people are realizing, “Oh, we’re not talking about hunches; we have a real track record.” What happens when a state legalizes is that it takes a thriving black market…and turned it into a highly taxed and regulated legal market. More people don’t smoke pot. It just becomes legal instead of criminal. Teen use doesn’t go up; DUIs don’t go up; crime doesn’t go up. That’s not my marijuana law reform pitch; that’s reality. In my state, we taxed the heck out of it and this last year had $310 million in tax revenue. That’s real money, and we’re putting it to good use.

Vermont presents a stranger approach by making it legal for home use but not establishing a commercial market to reap the tax benefits.

RS: This is an interim law that’s kind of wimpy, I think. It’s just a baby step. I’m all for baby steps because then people realize the sky is not going to fall. But you don’t need to take these baby steps right now because someone else fell on the barbed wire for you. My governor and the governor of Colorado were not in favor of these laws when the people voted for them. Now they are in favor of these laws because they see they are smart. They are not pro-pot; they are just pro-smart policy.

What about the black market in your state?

RS: Well, the black market is essentially gone because it’s now a legal market. But it’s a transitional period, and there’s always going to be a little bit of a black market. And a state has to be careful not to be too greedy with their tax rates. Oregon learned from us that Washington was taxing it pretty high, so Oregon taxes it less so it’ll have more affordable marijuana in the legal market and less in the black market. It’s so reassuring to know what you’re getting. It’s like you are going in an Apple shop; it’s slick and well organized, and you know this guy is for real and what you’re getting is pure. Anybody would prefer buying it from a legal dealer than some sleazy guy in the street, who has a more vested interest in selling you something more addictive and profitable.

Even if legal, maybe some people would still prefer not to have their names on any official record.

RS: Yeah, it takes some courage to be in the marijuana business these days. I’m not in the whole “green gold rush,” or whatever they call it, but I do know that our governor did not arrest 8,000 people who he would have otherwise this last year. Those are 8,000 people who can’t afford that bump in the road.  Most are disadvantaged to start with, and now they have a record, so they can’t get a job; they can’t get into school; they can’t get a loan, and that pushes them even more down a very unfortunate road. We arrest 600,000 nationally in a year. It’s part of the tourist industry now in Colorado, and you can do hard time for it in Idaho. It’s crazy.

Perhaps Vermont wants to take it slowly to learn from other states.

RS: Yeah, but every year you delay you are losing a lot of tax revenue to a black market, which is empowering organized crime and gangs. There’s a rising tide of sensibility in our country, and what’s fast tracking it around here is that Massachusetts and Maine are going to have their legal markets are up and running before you know it.

Has your advocacy hurt you in any way?

RS: Every once in a blue moon, I have someone say, “Oh, Rick Steves, we know what you think about marijuana; we’re not going to take your tours or use your guidebooks,” and all I can think is Europe’s going to be more fun without you.