For two decades, Rick Steves has guided viewers through capital cities all over Europe, helping them find the best sites to see and the best food to taste. But when he traveled to the U.S. Capitol this week, it wasn’t to check out the marble — it was to explain why legalizing weed is about more than getting high.
Steves was in D.C. as a guest of Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who first met the roving television star in 2014 when they teamed up for a marijuana legalization fight in the congressman’s home state of Oregon.
“I’ve been a fan of his work for years,” Blumenauer says.
When people think of legalization, “they see some scary guy with dreadlocks and, you know, all sorts of head garb, and playing a didgeridoo, not working like mom and dad want him to work,” Steves says. “And people say, ‘I don’t want one big hemp fest for my future.’”
Enjoying recreational marijuana isn’t the point, according to the travel guru.
“This is a race issue,” he says. “This is a civil liberties issue. This is a respect for law enforcement issue. This is a way to get serious and effective about hard drug issues: Take marijuana out of the equation and address serious drug abuse in more credible fashion.”
Throughout his treks in Europe, where “a joint’s about as exciting as a can of beer,” people ask him about incarceration disparities driven by drug arrests.
“They always told me, ‘You Americans lock up about eight times as many people per capita as we do here in Europe. Either you’re a more inherently criminal people or there’s something scary about your laws,’” he says.
When it comes to opposition to legalization, critics are largely driven by outmoded beliefs, according to Blumenauer.
“Part of it is inertia,” he says. “Part of it is not everybody has caught up intellectually. And they’re nervous. We’ve spent over a trillion dollars on a failed war on drugs.”
Carrying a backpack like a teenager on a gap year, Steves doesn’t have much interest in drinking in the historic art collections contained within the Capitol, or discussing the finer points of its cast iron dome. Instead, he’s focused on the legalization fight, which moves him more profoundly than wine at a hidden Portuguese cafe.
He’s only in D.C. because he missed his flight to Europe, he jokes.
When asked about 2020 and whether legalization has enough support among presidential candidates, Steves isn’t ready to make an endorsement just yet, but cites his home state governor-turned-candidate Jay Inslee as someone who initially opposed legalization but eventually came around.
Whoever gets the 2020 Democratic nomination will be pro-legalization, Blumenauer insists. “We are never going to have, at least in the Democratic Party … somebody who’s anti-cannabis.”
Steves writes a bestselling guidebook series, hosts a public TV show and a weekly public radio show, and runs an annual group tour program taking travelers to Europe. He ends every show with his signature catchphrase: Keep on travelin’.
Despite his popularity, Steves says his advocacy is not without controversy among some fans.
“Every once in a while somebody would say, ‘Rick Steves, we know what you think about marijuana. We’re not going to take your guidebooks and we’re not going to take your tours.’ And all I can think is well, Europe’s going to be more fun without you.”
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