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Mr. Steves Goes to Washington – to Talk Drug Policy

PBS travel guru Rick Steves appeared in front of Congress to tell Jeff Sessions his idea of pot users is wrong – and the Senate is moving on it

Travel guru and television personality Rick Steves visits Maine to lend support to the Yes on 1 campaign.

Travel guru and television personality Rick Steves visits Maine to lend support to the Yes on 1 campaign.

Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

In the minds of many American small government supporters, Europe is the quintessential nanny state – a place where big government intrudes on personal choices to protect citizens from themselves. But when it comes to regulating cannabis, it’s Europe that values personal responsibility over prohibition.

For years, PBS star Rick Steves has tried to persuade U.S. policymakers that Europe offers a superior approach to regulating weed. The affable host of Rick Steves’ Europe and prolific travel guidebook author is also a longtime anti-prohibition advocate who leans into his wholesome image and decades of European exploration. Meeting by meeting, he tries to persuade U.S. policymakers of the social and financial ways that Europe has thrived – or at least not slid into chaos – after legalization.

Those efforts were increasingly successful over the last decade as states like Washington and California legalized weed entirely, while other states decriminalized possession or relaxed laws for medical use. Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is determined not only to hit the brakes on that progress, he’s ready to go in reverse.

Steves credits his European travels for opening his eyes to a more creative and sensible approach to drug policy. Last week, he indulged in creating a pot-centric, eye-opening European travel itinerary tailor-made for Sessions on the off chance some of the old world’s tolerance could rub off on the AG.

“I would take him to Switzerland and we’d go to a heroin maintenance clinic,” Steves says of the Swiss clinics where even hard drugs like heroin are not treated with a carceral approach.

Next, Steves says they’d hit a Barcelonan cannabis club. “In Spain they can’t sell marijuana but they can grow it. In practice, they don’t want to grow it so they join a club that grows it collectively, and they can enjoy the harvest.”

Then, Steves says it would be off to the Netherlands where he and the attorney general would visit a Dutch “coffee shop,” where adults can buy a variety of cannabis items in limited quantities from a reputable seller.

“After the coffee shop, we’d visit a mayor and a policeman and have [Sessions] listen to the mayor and policeman explain why they’d rather have coffee shops than have marijuana sold on the street,” Steves says.

Sessions, however, is oblivious if not outright hostile to the fact that an unprecedented number of Americans, including Republicans, would rather see a relaxed and regulated approach to cannabis.

In January, the attorney general rolled back the Obama-era guidelines that had allowed weed operations to flourish in states that made it legal. But if things work out as many legalization advocates predict, resistance to Sessions endangering a $10 billion-a-year industry will jolt the already-mounting federal reform efforts. Ultimately, Sessions may play a key role in fostering the legalization of a drug he’s spent his career demonizing.

“In a curious way, Sessions is actually helping,” says Oregon Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a longtime champion of ending marijuana prohibition. “The legalization train has left the station and one way or another, it’s going to be game over in four years. Thanks to Jeff Sessions, this might be over a year or two sooner.”

Just last Wednesday, Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand signed on to Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal prohibition of the drug; there’s already has a companion version in the House. Republican lawmakers have grown increasingly critical of Sessions with more of them than ever calling for a bipartisan solution.

The day before Sen. Gillibrand’s announcement, a bipartisan group of reform-minded lawmakers known as the Congressional Cannabis Caucus arranged for Steves to brief members of congress and their staffers on supporting legalization.

Someone like Steves – the non-threatening, backpack-wearing public television star – upends Sessions’ Reefer Madness narrative of weed as a dangerous drug with capricious and immoral users.

“I’m not a scary person. I’m a nice person. I’m a church-going guy who is a business leader who writes books about going to Europe and am a host on public television,” Steves says. “And people go, ‘What? Rick Steves? Marijuana?’ Yeah. I’m not pro-marijuana. I’m pro-civil liberties. I’m anti-prohibition, anti-racism, pro-respect for law enforcement.”

Blumenauer notes that in the legal weed battle, Steves embodies the mainstream; it’s Sessions who is the outlier.

“We all have people who validate for us,” Blumenauer says. “And Rick is somebody, because he’s got a familiar face and a nice manner, that resonate with a lot of people.”

Since the late Nineties – when Steves joined the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) – he’s crisscrossed the U.S. on his own dime to lend what he calls his “two-bit celebrity” to state-level legalization efforts. He’s addressed everyone from state legislatures to college students. He enjoys marijuana himself, but is no more “pro pot” than someone who enjoys an after work beer is pro-alcohol. A practicing Lutheran, the particular racial injustice of the U.S. drug war bothers him deeply.

“I think it’s just good citizenship to attack a federal prohibition that’s hurting people,” Steves explains. “I’m very committed to the notion that it’s a horrible, racist thing and a counter-productive thing that brings a lot of heartache into our society to continue to criminalize marijuana.”

As far back as the late 1980s, when advocating for weed carried a much greater stigma, Steves was aware he had more freedom than others to speak out since he was a successful, business-owning white man. Though his advocacy hasn’t hurt his business, every now and then someone who disagrees with his stance will threaten to stop buying his books or taking his tours. As he’s fond of saying: “That’s alright. Europe will be more fun without them.”

On Capitol Hill this week, Steves appealed to a range of concerns that could hopefully resonate with members of Congress.

“There are so many reasons to end the prohibition on marijuana,” Steves said in one of his two briefings. “Whether you’re concerned about the well-being of children, fairness for minority communities, redirecting money away from criminals and into state’s coffers, stemming the horrific bloodshed in Mexico, or civil liberties; it is clearly time for a new approach.”

Moments before briefing the lawmakers, Steves was more blunt. “I don’t care what you’re politics are,” he says. “If you’re embracing federal prohibition of marijuana, you’re just asleep at the wheel.”

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, agrees. He considers Sessions a friends, but criticizes the attorney general’s approach.

“He thinks he’s trying to protect people from hurting themselves,” Rohrabacher says. “In the past, I always thought conservatives thought it was about self-reliance and personal freedom. I thought we were always opposed to the nanny state taking care of this.”

Rohrabacher and Blumenauer separately admitted that lawmakers tend to lag behind the voters on issues like legalization, but have finally caught up. Politically, it’s safer than ever to back legalization; Steves says the tidal wave of evidence that favors legalization will eventually come crashing down on prohibition.

“We have a system up, we have a track record and states have hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax revenue by taxing what was a thriving black market,” Steves says. “I think Trump and Sessions are about five years too late to roll it back.” 

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