Why Rick Steves Wants Your Mom and Dad to Legalize Marijuana

The PBS star on being stoners' spokesman for polite America.

rick steves 1

photo by Spencer Buell

Rick Steves is many things all at once: Mild-mannered TV personality for Rick Steves Europe, shuffler of Boomers through pristine French churches, globetrotting spokesman for legal ganja.

As far as persuasive advocates go, he has it all: celebrity, approachability, authority. And it’s this mix that makes him exactly the kind of guy who could get your mom and dad to vote in favor of pro-pot ballot questions, like the one Massachusetts will vote on in just a few weeks: Question 4, which would legalize recreational marijuana.

Steves, 61, is currently in the midst of a three-day swing through the state in support of legalization, a tour that wraps up on Thursday night with an ACLU-hosted talk at Suffolk University. He has also made a hefty donation to the Yes on 4 campaign here, offering up $100,000 of his own money in matching funds.

So we sat down on Wednesday at 21st Amendment, the Beacon Hill pub named after the end of alcohol prohibition (his choice), to talk about how he’s deploying his good-guy image, and knowledge of European drug policy, to nudge Massachusetts’ non-stoners to his side. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

But first, a few things you should know about Rick Steves: He smokes pot, which often comes as a surprise to many of his fans of gentle television. He prefers joints, he says. He’s tried edibles, but doesn’t like them. He also has a bong. “I’ve got my bong on my shelf in my living room, instead of hiding it away in a closet,” he says. “It’s just sort of a declaration of independence.”

You’re open about being a marijuana user. You have that line about wanting to come home from work, smoke a joint and ‘stare at the fireplace for three hours’ if you want to. You say it’s your ‘civil liberty.’

That’s my applause line at Hempfest.

So I’m wondering, you’ve argued that legalization won’t increase usage, but you also talk about why you like using the drug. Do you think people should use less marijuana, or more?

Personally I would hope people who want to use marijuana recreationally and creatively would be free to do so. But I’m not pro-pot. I mean, I smoke casually and socially every once in a while, but it’s not a big part of my life. For me high is a place. And sometimes I may want to go there. I should be able to go there.

Traditionally, this movement has been led by people who say marijuana is a big part of their lives: Many of your colleagues at NORML, for example, and the stoner-advocates of the Freedom Rally.

It sets me apart from a lot of people in this movement. I’m involved with this in spite of the cannabis crowd. The old school, they’re never going to get anywhere. It’s so frustrating. I mean, they’re just going to preach to the choir and be angry at the system and smoke pot. It’s counterproductive. This is a racist law, this is a very expensive law. This is a law that erodes respect for law enforcement. I can’t think of a good defense for it.

There is also criticism of people from out-of-state influencing the vote and bankrolling the campaign. You’re a Washingtonian here boosting for Yes on 4 and you’ve given handsomely to the cause. Why shouldn’t we be suspicious of you?

I am adamant as a board member of NORML that we are not a lobbying organization defending the interests of the big marijuana industry. The last thing I’m ever going to do is make a penny in marijuana.

I’m a person with some celebrity and some high profile who can talk about this and not be fired, and I don’t need to worry about being elected. That’s what distinguishes me.

There is bipartisan support for the No on 4 campaign. How tough are you willing to get with our Democratic mayor, our Republican governor, and other influential people, about this?

I don’t want to give them tough talk, but I would remind them this is not 2010. They’re talking like this is 2010, like consumption will go up if Question 4 passes. Consumption will not go up if Question 4 passes. We have a track record.

A lot of politicians have to be careful. They don’t want to be thought of as soft on drugs. I would question the mayor here and the governor: What is their motive? Are they worried about their image when it comes to law and order? Are they worried about the money from donors?

It seems like you have a unique capacity to reach moms and dads on this issue. I want to ask specifically about that picture of you on Facebook with a wine glass full of buds. What did you want that picture to communicate?

Responsible adult use of marijuana. It may not be your thing but it’s not a bad thing. It’s no more evil than getting a little buzz from your wine with your friends at dinner. That’s what I wanted to show there. Snoop Dogg may be more famous than me, but he’s not gonna do anything but scare people into the ‘No’ campaign.

I have credibility because people think I’m not scary. I’m just kind of a nerdy old guy that travels on public television, and I love this issue because people need to know. People need to open their brains about this a little more.

Ever meet Snoop Dogg?

I think I met him once just in passing.

Why ‘scary’?

There’s that whole cannabis culture that I find scary. I wouldn’t want my daughter to hang out with the people that fill the Common, or for Hempfest in Seattle. But I have learned to respect that segment of our society.

You’re a regular at these places.

They are a beautiful and diverse part of our society, and they may not dress like me and look like me and talk like me, but as long as they’re law-abiding people, they’ve got every right that I’ve got to do their thing.

You talk a lot about drug laws’ impact on communities of color. Is it strange for you to speak for people of color like that, as a white person from TV?

Very strange. I’ve never been hugged by so many big black Baptist ministers as after we legalized marijuana in Washington state. They were so thankful their kids were no longer going to get a record. Now they could get into schools and get jobs.

Ever lobbied Hillary Clinton?

I’ve had a couple chances. I didn’t want to throw too much at her, so I lobbied her for better foreign policy in Central America and support for public television [laughs].

Not a lot of people on both the legal pot and pledge drive circuit, are there?

I’ve got this weird combination of activism for public television, activism for affordable housing, and then marijuana. It really causes people’s brains to kind of spark and go haywire. But what a travel writer does is get people out of their comfort zone to see things from a different perspective.

Steves will be at the function room on the first floor at Suffolk University Thursday night at 7 p.m. The talk is free and no RSVP is required.