PBS travel guy Rick Steves explains why he backs cannabis legalization in N.J.

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Rick Steves, an American travel writer, wine connoisseur and the host of the PBS program, “Rick Steves’ Europe,” put his French red wine aside and filled his cup with some pot nuggets, to talk about why he believes legal cannabis is common sense. He spoke to NJ Cannabis Insider recently to discuss what he has learned from European attitudes toward recreational marijuana and his support of the Public Question on the Nov. 3 ballot to legalize cannabis in New Jersey.

Q: What brings you out for the New Jersey legalization campaign?

A: Well, I was the co-sponsor, funder and leading spokesperson of I-502, which legalized and taxed and regulated marijuana in Washington State back in the breakout year of 2012, when Washington and Colorado were the first states to do this.

I’ve long been an advocate for ending the prohibition against marijuana and what I bring to the discussion is European sensibility. You know, with my work, I spend 100 days in Europe every year for the last 30 years, and I’m really interested in comparing the two societies because we were struggling with the same problems, and we should be able to compare notes because we want to figure it out.

I’ve jumped at every opportunity I can to make a difference in the fight to legalize and tax marijuana for recreational use. I don’t get into medicinal use, that’s important and I agree with it, but my thing is civil liberties, and fighting racism, and just a pragmatic harm reduction approach to soft drugs.

Every two years, marijuana is on (the ballot) in different states as we work to get enough states where we can bring it down from a federal point of view, but prohibitions are taken down one state at a time until you reach a critical mass and then the government realizes the rising tide of sensibility and drop prohibition.

After Washington State in 2012, I worked and succeeded in Oregon in 2014, and then in 2016, I spent a lot of time and money in Massachusetts and Maine, in 2018. I was in Illinois, and Michigan, and all of those states were victorious.

And this year, I would have liked to be physically on the road doing this in different states, but I can’t because of the pandemic, so I’m just dedicating 10 days here and I’ve set up a kind of a war room in my my home working with (Marijuana Policy Project) and NORML.

I’m working to raise awareness and share the experience that Europe has had with this issue and the experience we’ve had in my state of Washington, by doing as much as I can in the media in Montana, South Dakota, Arizona and New Jersey.

Q: Based on your experiences, what do you believe that Americans can learn from Europeans with respect to cannabis and cannabis policy?

A: Well, we can learn the folly of legislating morality.

My European friends always tell me that society has to make a choice to tolerate alternative lifestyles or to build more prisons. And then they remind us that we’re really into legislating morality in our country and we lock up 10 times as many people as they do per capita. Then they remind me, you know, either you’re an inherently more criminal people or there’s something screwy about your lives. So I think there’s something screwy about our lives.

It’s hard to paint Europe with a broad brush because each country has its own unique approaches to this, but generally a joint is about as exciting as a can of beer.

It just doesn’t raise many eyebrows. They just can’t imagine arresting 600,000-700,000 people like we do here in the United States and they certainly can’t imagine having tens of thousands of people in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses. It just seems ridiculous in Europe and it seems ridiculous in the 11 states where we’ve legalized.

It’s part of our tourism industry. It employs people, raises tax revenue, and it’s a direct exercise of our civil liberties. So we don’t know why some states are a little slow on this, but every state wakes up at a different time.

One thing that Europeans have taught me and I’ve really enjoyed talking with Europeans is the whole idea about marijuana being a gateway drug. There’s never been a society that has seen that if you smoke marijuana you’re on track to becoming a hard drug addict or something like that.

My European friends tell me the origin of marijuana as a gateway is when it’s illegal, you’ve got to buy it from a criminal on the street, who’s pretty ruthless, and he’s interested in selling something more addictive and more profitable, not just marijuana. That’s a dangerous thing for young people.

In our state, it’s tougher for young people to get marijuana now than it was before because it’s sold in highly regulated, really shipshape retail outlets, where you’re carefully guarded when you get in there.

And we’ve got a track record down and use does not go up. When we legalize among teens, there’s no question about it, in fact, in Colorado, in Washington, with the local departments of health, they’ve found that teen years has actually gone down.

It’s just not as sexy as it used to be, you know, grandma’s rubbing this stuff on her elbow now to take care of her aches and pains.

The most progressive countries in Europe, when it comes to marijuana, started their progressive approach to marijuana, because they had a difficult opioid problem and they decided to take marijuana out of the equation and to deal credibly with the hard drugs. You don’t see a rise in use of marijuana, it’s just done without people being considered criminals, and then you focus with credibility on the serious problem, which is opioid addiction, and you save a lot of lives, and you avoid a lot of hardship. So there’s a lot of common sense in Europe, and I think we can learn from that.

Q: Is there any particular country or countries that you believe, serve as the best example for the United States?

A: Not in particular, because we’re ahead of them when it comes to what the Dutch would call the gray area. The Dutch were famous for their easygoing approach to marijuana, but it wasn’t legalized, it was decriminalized.

When you hear the word decriminalized, I think that’s a reminder that the United States has pushed through a trade agreement in the United Nations that requires all signatories to wage trade sanctions against countries that flat out legalize marijuana. Our country is hell bent on keeping marijuana criminal, both in our country and around the world, and countries rather than go up against the United States, don’t really want to risk a trade extensive conflict with the United States.

Instead of legalizing, they decriminalized and you can buy marijuana in little coffee shops in the Netherlands and Amsterdam, but they’ve never figured out the backside. How do you distribute it? How do you mass produce it? How do you wholesale it? All of that is just, ‘I don’t want to know, don’t tell me about it.’ It just appears somehow in the coffee shops, and the coffee shops are carefully regulated, but they just couldn’t figure out that gray area. It was complicated.

No, no state or country has ever done it until 2012 when Washington and Colorado decided to give it a whirl. And every year, these laws get smarter. Our law was very conservative, and it needed a lot of adjustments, but then two years later Alaska and Oregon had a smarter law. Some states had not smarter laws, and they failed. I don’t embrace and promote pro-pot laws. I embrace and promote public safety laws and smart policy laws and laws that respect people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana. So, each year the laws get smarter. In 2016, the laws got smarter, and in 2018 the law got smart. So we’re learning and I’m happy to be part of that conversation.

Q: How would you rate Portugal’s decriminalization efforts?

A: I’ve interviewed the drugs czar for Portugal for my radio show and I’m fascinated by Law 30. It decided to legalize the consumption of all drugs, soft and hard, and go for the people who are selling it, rather than targeting people who are using it. In Portugal, like in many countries, the word for addicted is ‘enslaved.’ Addicted makes you sound like you’re a criminal, and you need lawyers and cops and judges and enslaved is I think more accurate, you’re a person who’s struggling with being addicted to drugs — you need counseling, you need nurses, you need a little compassion. And that’s what Portugal wanted to get at.

Portugal decided to take crime out of the equation as far as consumers go, and they were worried about the people who were opposed to it said, we’re going to have drug tourism, and nobody wants that. Well, it didn’t happen. People don’t go to Portugal to smoke pot. They worried that marijuana use would go up, it didn’t go up. What happened is that the state and law enforcement became the friends of people who were struggling with drug problems, rather than the enemy.

And the addicted population in Portugal has gotten smaller and older. It’s shrinking because of their pragmatic harm reduction approach. It’s fundamental.

In Europe, it’s pragmatic harm reduction. In the United States it’s legislate morality and incarcerate. The people who opposed Law 30 (in Portugal), the conservatives were out of power. They opposed it, but it passed. Ten years later, the conservatives were in power and it was time to reconsider the law. The conservatives acknowledged and realized that Law 30 is a smart law and they continued it and Portugal is following that track to this day.

In Spain, just across the border, it’s different. In Spain, you can’t sell marijuana. It’s illegal and it’s dangerous to sell marijuana. But you can grow marijuana, and you see grow shops all over Spain that have a marijuana leaf hanging outside the dark. But in practice, people don’t want to grow marijuana, I don’t grow marijuana.

In Spain, you can’t buy marijuana, but you can join a club, and you can collectively grow marijuana, and then you can enjoy smoking the harvest with your club. So it’s sort of an end around, it just kind of finessed it. That’s how Spain works with laws that don’t make much sense. They just find a way to live with them. And in Spain, you have these cannabis clubs, they’re social clubs. I’m a member of two of them — one in Madrid and one in Barcelona — and it’s a very interesting way to handle this problem. What it does is, it lets people who really want to smoke marijuana do it in their social clubs, and they do it legally. So that’s another approach different than Portugal’s.

Q: Turning back to the states, you mentioned the potential for reaching critical mass federally in terms of state legalization. Do you believe that we’re close to that?

A: Yes, I do. So matter of fact, the (House of Representatives) is ready to vote on something called the MORE Act which would deschedule marijuana right now. Marijuana was made Schedule 1 by President Nixon in 1971, mainly because he was mad at the hippies and he didn’t like the Black community. He thought, “How can I upset these people the most? We’ll criminalize their drug of choice.”

And so marijuana is stuck there with heroin and LSD or whatever — it’s just kind of laughable if you know anything about mind-bending drugs.

But now they want to deschedule it, which is common sense. It’s just honest. They want to allow states to have the rights to do whatever laws they want and they want to open the door for expungement, which kind of makes sense when somebody is saddled with a felony or criminal record after they’ve done their time for nonviolent marijuana offenses. This MORE Act, I think it’s too dangerous to bring up in an election year, so I don’t blame them for being nervous about that. They’ll deal with it next year.

But I think that it’s just like alcohol with taking down the prohibition against alcohol. The federal government sees states as incubators of change and the federal government is not going to say, “Oh, we screwed up, let’s stop this prohibition.”

States, one at a time, we’re going to override it. So first, it was incremental, I believe, first, it was New York for beer. And then it was other states for beer, and then it was hard liquor, and then you could brew your own beer and there’s still some counties that are dry. And that’s the same thing that’s going to happen, I think, with marijuana.

Q: Do you have a particular favorite strain of cannabis yourself?

A: No, I’m not that sophisticated of a pot smoker. I smoke casually. Actually until this pandemic, I’ve never actually paid for marijuana, friends just give it to me all the time because of the work I do. Strangers come up to me and put a joint in my pocket and they say thanks for legalizing. So I don’t really have a favorite strain. I just wish I did. I smoke, occasionally, just socially, and I really like it when I do. I love to play the piano high.

I’m just really determined for it to fight for this civil liberty of this and get rid of the black market and to recognize the racism that’s inherent in it. It’s particularly bad, I think, the racism in New Jersey.

This story first appeared in NJ Cannabis Insider.

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Justin Zaremba may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JustinZarembaNJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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