Rick Steves is the affable host of public television's best travel series, "Rick Steves' Europe." He's also the author of "Europe Through the Back Door," a best-selling series of travel guide books. His approachable demeanor makes him one of your grandparent's favorite television hosts; his boyish good looks and friendliness remove any trepidation imposed by his six-foot frame.
What your grandparents might not know about Rick Steves is that he is an unapologetic proponent of the legalization of responsible adult use of marijuana. He sits on the board of directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and contributed large amounts of his travel business profits into passing the legalization laws in Washington State and Oregon. It's his frequent travels to Europe, where many countries like The Netherlands and Portugal have gone beyond what America has tolerated so far in marijuana reform, which leads him to see the two countries America has become with respect to marijuana legalization.
In a three-part interview with SFGate columnist David Downs, Steves explains how the attitudes toward marijuana reform differ so greatly in America based on geography. "We have two different countries right now," Steves tells Downs. "I've traveled all over the country. Look at the East Coast. They just can't hardly believe how far along we are and in their world it feels like they're still behind. They're on the dark side of the moon."
One indication of how different the two coasts are is the plethora of business seminars now servicing the fledgling legal marijuana industry in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, as well as the continuing evolution of the quasi-legal medical marijuana industry in California. Steves is one of many speakers presenting at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco next month, an event that is drawing scientists (Dr. Carl Hart, Dr. Amanda Reiman), politicians (California Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher), activists (Oregon legalizer Anthony Johnson, California Prop 19's Dale Sky Jones) and business leaders (Harborside's Steve DeAngelo, ArcView Group's Troy Dayton), and others seeking to shape and grow the cannabis industry.
Steves, however, isn't as sanguine about marijuana reform as an issue of business profits. He'd rather people took marijuana legalization to heart as a civil rights issue. "I wish we could all just grow two plants on our windowsill and share them with each other, but that's not going to work that way," Steves says with regret. "I'm out of the fray there. I'm sure there was lots of cannabis people that wish I was all for the investors and stuff. I'm just agnostic on it. I just want to stop locking people up for smoking pot."
But Steves recognizes that the cannabis club ideas, like the grow-and-share system that works in Spain, aren't going to suffice in capitalist America. "You can't fight that. Big business, free enterprise, greed -- it's the American way," Steves notes. "So you can't legalize marijuana and not have it legal."
How marijuana becomes legal, though, will likely be very different on the east Coast compared to the West Coast. "There's a huge difference between the more progressive and more regressive parts of the country. That's just the way it is," Steves observes. "I think that's going to change very quickly and I think after 2016, once California legalizes, and a couple other states will go along with it -- it'll be easier because it's a presidential year -- I think it will be pretty hard to deny the fact that prohibition of marijuana is on its way out."
Steves, however, also recognizes that some true believers' ideas about ultimate cannabis freedom without restrictions are unlikely to win at the ballot box. According to Steves, "You need a public safety law that respects the concerns of most people that don't smoke pot. That's just a pragmatic thing. I'm not saying that's right -- that's just reality. I mean, my record is 2- 0. We legalized in Washington and we legalized in Oregon and we needed every bit of common sense pragmatism and respect for people that oppose us that we could."