“I speak out on this issue, in part, because most Americans cannot, out of fear of losing their jobs or reputation or both.”
Every movement needs its public champions, and the legalization effort is no different.
Leaders from within the cannabis community have spoken through the organization NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and magazines like High Times. Jack Herer and Ed Rosenthal were among many who spoke of common sense and liberty, but were not well-known. Since the turn of the 21st century, cannabis has become a full-fledged social movement with the rise of our own public champions.
We still have lots of friends in the entertainment world — the indomitable Willie Nelson, the late Bob Marley (for whom it was a sacrament) and Woody Harrelson come to mind. A nifty list of the “50 Most Influential Marijuana Consumers” compiled by the Marijuana Policy Project adds more; Whoopi Goldberg, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, Rush Limbaugh, Martha Stewart, Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Lady Gaga to name but a few. The MPP list also includes quite a few people from the world of politics — Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, eight 2016 presidential candidates, plus Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and Secretary of State John Kerry. Legalization backer and businessman George Soros is there, though not the outspoken Richard Branson, founder of Virgin.
Except for Bill Gates, luminaries from science and technology are missing from that MPP list. A 2011 Coed.com list called “The 10 Smartest Pot Smokers on the Planet…Cool Enough to Admit It” fills the gap. Here you’ll see Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, biologist Stephen Jay Gould, anthropologist Margaret Mead, Nobel Prize winner (for the discovery of the DNA molecule) Francis Crick, quantum physicist Richard Feynman, and neurologist Oliver Sachs. Demon weed definitely didn’t ruin their lives! In fact, several of these brilliantly successful people credit cannabis with heightening their creative powers.
All of these public people speak the truth about cannabis while countering the continuing stream of misinformation flooding the media and internet. But none of them have quite the middle class wholesomeness to represent a sensible, mainstream American, anti-prohibition voice of reason.
That’s the genius of Rick Steves. Long-time public TV host and specialist in European travel, Steves is worthy of the old Clark Kent/Superman adjective — mild-mannered. He’s Mr. Nice Guy. Everybody loves Rick Steves. That makes him the very best person to speak on behalf of cannabis legalization. And as a member of the NORML board of directors for several decades, he has done just that. As he says, legalization is about “ending a stupid law that’s counter-productive.” And he’s said it in Washington, Oregon, California, Maine and Massachusetts.
His practical, low emotion style, so well known to PBS watchers, perfectly frames his powerful words. In a video piece from the 2007 National NORML Conference in Los Angeles posted online by the Drug Truth Network Unvarnished Truth series, Steves declares that 50 million Americans smoke cannabis. He adds, “If we arrested them all tomorrow… the country would be a much less interesting place.” That’s his sense of humor talking, but Steves can also hit hard. He has called anti-cannabis laws racist and anti-youth. He toured communities all over Oregon to help with their successful Yes on 91 campaign, after doing as much for his home state of Washington. In video footage released by the Yes on 91 campaign from Rick Steves’ “Travel as a Political Act: Ending Marijuana Prohibition in Oregon” tour, you can watch as he explains how cannabis prohibition ruins the lives of poor youth and youth of color, “One little indiscretion is gonna send them down the wrong road — they can’t get a loan, they can’t get a job, they can’t get into school… Rich, white kids are not being arrested. It’s poor kids and kids of color. It’s a racist law.”
In the same mini-lecture, Steves mentions another way “legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana is good for children.” Taking the criminality out of the cannabis market means buyers are no longer introduced to more harmful substances from the same source. No one will be stuck buying cannabis from someone pushing addictive, and more profitable, drugs. Cannabis is not a gateway into drugs, the dealers in an illegal system are. Some of us can avoid interactions with the drug underworld by associating only with known growers, people who are gardeners, not drug dealers. That’s not yet possible for the majority of tokers.
Rick Steves’ European expertise plays a crucial role in his anti-prohibition arguments. In the Yes on 91 video footage as well as in writings at his website, RickSteves.com, Steves points out that Portugal and The Netherlands realize major benefits from decriminalization. Criminalizing drug use develops no social dialogue around use and abuse, and does not differentiate between different drugs’ potential for harm. Lumping cannabis in with addictive drugs like heroin also undermines law enforcement credibility, especially with youth, and wastes taxpayer money that could go to serious public safety needs. Countries taking a social/psychological services approach to drug use find many more avenues for steering public dialogue while eliminating the thrill factor of buying an illicit substance. Steves claims that in many parts of Europe “a joint is about as exciting as a can of beer” and lighting up is “just another form of relaxation.”
At his website he relates that, back in the 80s he tried to speak out anonymously in support of cannabis decriminalization by appearing on a local radio show under the fake name Jerry. He made his pitch as an ordinary local businessman. As he explains, “The next day, I was walking… out for my morning cup of coffee. Someone I didn’t know drove by, rolled down their window, and hollered, “Hey, Jerry…right on!” He’s been “out” about it ever since. Feeling secure in his good reputation with PBS viewers and travelers, he says, “I speak out on this issue, in part, because most Americans cannot, out of fear of losing their jobs or reputation or both.” Yup, he’s Mr. Nice Guy alright and we all owe him our thanks.
Written by Molly Cate