Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) is one of America's foremost European travel experts. He has written 30 books, such as Rick Steves' Best of Europe 2012 and Rick Steves' Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels; hosts TV and radio shows; and has a thriving tour business.
What may surprise some is that Steves advocates legalizing marijuana. He's on the advisory board of NORML, has co-sponsored Initiative 502 to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in his home state of Washington and speaks frequently at events like Seattle's Hempfest.
Steves, who supports the legalization of marijuana among responsible adult users, credits cannabis for helping make him a better travel writer by opening his mind to new ways of seeing things.
ROLLING PAPER: Describe yourself in 30 words or less.
RICK STEVES: As a travel writer, author of 30 guidebooks on European travel, host of the PBS TV series Rick Steves' Europe and of a weekly hour on public radio, Travel With Rick Steves.
You say you've spent a third of your life traveling.
Four months a year, ever since I graduated from college, primarily to Europe. I just did a road trip across the United States, giving lectures in 20 cities in 20 days. People said, "Why don't you see your own country?" So I did.
What languages do you speak?
Just English. It substantiates my claim that you don't need to be a linguist to enjoy traveling.
Do you still guide tours?
Did it for 25 years. We now have 80 guides who coordinate about 400 bus tours a year. These days, I sign up for my own tours. (It's good to eat your own cooking.) It's nice to let someone else do the driving, and I learn a lot from our guides.
You have a new book.
Travel as a Political Act. Our big job is updating the guidebooks each year, like Rick Steves Italy 2012. Americans have the shortest vacations of any First World country. So every year we update our guidebooks, hoping to help Americans not only save money but also get the most out of their limited vacation time.
I understand you feel pot has helped you in your career and life.
Marijuana refreshes your perspective and allows you to see things in a different way. It's humbled me about my ability to really appreciate things. When you're not high, it reminds you that there might be more to appreciate about something than what you're seeing, hearing or tasting.
Do you mention cannabis in your books or TV show?
I do, whenever I can. I try to desensitize people to the word marijuana, as we're not doing a counterculture guidebook but one aimed at a mainstream, older audience. Our government has spent billions of dollars trying to make it an evil weed, but for a lot of people it's a friendly weed. I think it's good citizenship to reconsider a law that might be causing more harm than good. Today's marijuana laws — like the laws against alcohol during Prohibition — are causing more harm to our society than the drug they are designed to protect us from.
Have you tried to get high in all 30 countries you've written about?
No. But I have used cannabis all over the world. My problem is that I'm so busy with my work while on the road that I don't have time to smoke pot. I wish I could smoke more. It distracts you and it takes time, so you don't have as much time in front of your keyboard.
Is Amsterdam still the top international destination for marijuana users?
Yes, but no country wants to be known as a drug tourism center, so they downplay it. Switzerland's "head shops" seem less welcoming in the spring, because they don't want to be known as a haven among backpackers. Even in the Netherlands, they're concerned about coffee shops just across the border from Belgium or Germany. The Dutch have not arrested anyone in 25 years, although coffee shops can be busted if they violate their strict regulations. In Denmark, where I've smoked with friends in Christiania — an alternative community in Copenhagen — I was told, "Be careful with marijuana. We have to arrest a couple of pot smokers every year to maintain favored trade status with the United States."
Marijuana is not legal anywhere because the United States made a trade law in the United Nations requiring everybody to keep marijuana illegal. Because of this law, any country that dares legalize marijuana will incur trade sanctions from the USA and all other signatories of that law. The United States has a lot of sway. That's why I hear the word decriminalized a lot. You can't legalize it, but you can say you're going to ignore it. It's embarrassing to be in a country that, ever since Nixon declared marijuana was the devil's weed, forces everyone to embrace reefer madness as a policy. Mexico has lost more than 40,000 people to the drug war. If you took the crime out of the equation, you'd take most of the money and the violence out of it, too.