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.
Do you think there should be limits on marijuana's availability?
Absolutely. It should not be available to minors. And anyone driving high should have the book thrown at them. But our current situation is like Prohibition: The laws are causing more harm than good.
Are cannabis tourists helping improve the woeful finances of countries like Portugal?
I don't think any country wants drug tourism. Ten years ago, when in Portugal they decided to legalize all drugs [under Law 30], they were concerned about this. And Portugal has not turned into one big Hempfest. In fact, they found that when they stopped arresting people, use did not increase. By dealing with pot smokers in a harm-reduction way, marijuana has become kind of boring. And their prisons and court system are no longer clogged up with petty drug offenders. The Greeks have a lot of people locked up. Just as the Great Depression hastened the end of Prohibition, countries in economic crisis, like Greece, may see the economic wisdom of no longer locking up pot smokers.
Which are the best — or safest — countries for smokers to visit?
The Netherlands, with a well-established and easily accessible marijuana scene in its coffee shops, gives American tourists a chance to hang out in a cool pub environment and enjoy marijuana without anxiety. In other countries you have to work at it — make a friend, and score it socially. Countries like the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland come to mind. France and Germany are more uptight.
By all measures, Europeans smoke less pot per capita than Americans. The Dutch smoke about half the European per-capita average, the Czechs smoke the most. … In Switzerland, you might see people playing chess in the grass in front of the parliament building passing a joint. In Holland, people like to go to the Van Gogh Museum and see Vincent's art when they're high. Or in Barcelona, I've smoked with friends after the kids go to sleep.
On an overseas trip, what's the safest way to get pot?
Be careful of crossing borders anywhere [while holding]. It's safest to consume it socially with friends you've met in different bars or other places.
How do you make friends while traveling?
Sit at the bar in a restaurant instead of at the table. Be outside when the locals are strolling and join in. Or in Turkey, I don't let a day go by without playing backgammon with the locals in the teahouse. However, I wouldn't mess with cannabis there — remember Midnight Express. Morocco has a lot of marijuana, but it's also kind of scary.
What makes you such a marijuana advocate?
I'm motivated by civil liberties for responsible adult users. I'm a travel writer and, for me, high is a place. Sometimes I want to go there. There's no good reason for my government to tell me I can't go to that place called high. I believe the mature, adult, recreational use of marijuana is a civil liberty. There are plenty of other reasons to support the end of the war on marijuana. There's the fiscal side — we're wasting billions of dollars every year and losing lots of tax revenue to boot. There are the race and class part of it. There's the value of marijuana as medicine, and the harm reduction. If we take crime out of the equation, we can treat responsible use as a civil liberty and problem use as a health and education challenge.
Do you have a medical marijuana card?
No. I don't like to abuse that law. It's sort of insulting to law enforcement. I'm in this discussion to speak up for civil liberties and because I like to smoke pot. Regulate and tax it, and the sky won't fall.
Do you think you've paid a price for your outspokenness?
We all pay a price when we embrace a law based on lies. I'm one citizen who can get away with speaking out against our laws against pot. If someone doesn't take my tour or buy my guidebooks because of my stance on marijuana, I just think Europe will be more fun without them.
What's your favorite music to medicate by?
I like to play the piano when I'm high. Classical music, like Debussy, Schumann and Scarlatti.
What's your funniest pot story?
I cannot inhale tobacco. In Europe it's a real challenge to find a joint not rolled with tobacco mixed in. In the Netherlands at a coffee shop, they may have eight different joints for sale. Maybe one will be without tobacco for the odd American tourist.