After years supporting cannabis causes at home in the Pacific Northwest and our nation’s capital, famed travel writer Rick Steves will keynote the first virtual edition of the International Cannabis Business Conference.

When not traveling through Europe or teaching others how to do it well, Steves serves as a member of the board of NORML. In recent years he’s supported legalization efforts in Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon and his home state of Washington, as well as the various federal issues he’s spoken on

Two years ago he hosted a pair of educational sessions on Capitol Hill, where he spoke on marijuana prohibition to a gathering of members of Congress and their staff. One of the things Steves said inspired his efforts over the years was his personal experiences seeing Europe’s harm reduction-based approaches to drug policy.

“Rick Steves has been one of the most consistent and passionate supporters of NORML and the broader effort to end our failed prohibition on marijuana,” Erik Altieri, NORML’s executive director, told L.A. Weekly.

Altieri went on to note that Steves is fueled by a strong desire to protect civil liberties and advance the cause of justice: “Rick has not only committed financially to organizations and ballot initiatives that support legalization, but countless hours of his own time to advocate in favor of these important reforms.”

“The legalization movement could ask for no better friend and ally than Rick,” Altieri said.

We spoke with Steves about his introduction to the cannabis movement, originally getting his start locally in Washington at Seattle Hempfest. Local is a relative term in this case since Seattle Hempfest is the world’s largest marijuana rally.

“It was just a very exciting period when we realized we could mobilize a lot of good people and stop prohibition,” Steves told L.A. Weekly. Steves had been concerned about the issue since first hearing Phil Ochs sing “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.” In the song, Ochs has a friend that gets 30 years for smoking weed.

“It occurred to me I could get away with speaking out on it because nobody had to vote for me, I could not be fired, and I could just blame my European friends for giving me the sensibility,” Steves said.

Steves always thought in the years leading up to legalization that society just needed some good b-roll to help normalize marijuana.

“The people who were the people you sit next to in church and people that you work with,” he said. “A lot of people smoke pot. It’s just an example of civil liberties. It can be done responsibly and doesn’t need to be scary.”

Ultimately, Steves wasn’t trying to preach to the choir at Hempfest, but present the idea of cannabis legalization in a palatable format to those who may be afraid of the idea. He thinks much of the time he has the opportunity to speak to people that enjoy his PBS work or guidebooks that may otherwise not be receptive to cannabis policy reform.

Steves isn’t trying to convince any of these folks that marijuana is the best thing around, but you should not be locking people up for enjoying it.

“That’s kind of what I’m into. I fully understand the value of medical marijuana but it’s not my crusade. I’m sure it’s really exciting to get into the Green Rush and make some money with legal cannabis but that’s not my thing either. I just recognize the racism in it. I recognize the inherent lies and good people embracing reefer madness propaganda. And I’m just a big fan of civil liberties,” Steves said.

So much of Steves’s support for cannabis over the years has been based around outreach to the people who enjoy his work. We asked how much that process has changed as he watched cannabis get normalized a bit over the last decade?

“I think it’s changed hugely,” he replied, “At first it was dicey. People couldn’t believe someone could seriously advocate for this. But that was just because people were afraid. Because they couldn’t understand it.”

The conversation is a lot different now that legalization has an eight-year track record.

“People on either side of the issue can cherrypick the data and statistics to make their case. But what I look at is governors were not in favor of legalizing marijuana in 2012. Today the numbers are in. They know how it works. Today, governors in both those states [Colorado and Washington] are thankful for legalizing marijuana,” Steves said.

Steves believes these governors have seen what can happen when you do it the right way.

For Steves, a big part of legalization is doing it well enough to pull consumers from the underground market.  We asked if he ever had concerns about over-regulation boosting those underground markets?

“It is an interesting thing to calibrate that, to finesse it. So that you do what you can to take away the need for a black market,” Steves replied. He thinks states are getting more and more experience with that from learning from each other’s hits and misses.

Steves has also had a front row seat to cannabis in Europe, but much of the time he’s seeing dated policy meant to keep up with the U.S. at the federal level.

“I was leaving Christiania once, the hippie commune in Copenhagen, and my friend says to be careful with your marijuana here in Copenhagen because every year we have to arrest a few pot smokers in order to maintain favored trade status with the United States,” Steves recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I learned more about it and it’s really true. They have to have a stance of illegal marijuana in a lot of places because they are scared of trade sanctions.”

Steves admits it’s tougher for the feds to mount pressure with so many states flipping on cannabis policy, but the status quo remains.

Steves entertaining his dogs through lockdown. (Courtesy of Rick Steves)

As we spoke to Steves, it was the first time he’d been home for the month of May in 30 years. “Everyone can’t believe they’re seeing me around town, but we’re locked down for a while so that’s just kind of something we have to be patient about.

We asked Steves what he thinks tourism will look like when the world eventually starts to open back up?

“I think it will be incremental,” he replied, “It will be local tourism. The French people will go to the French Riviera, Italians will go to their hill towns, and the Swiss will hike in their Alps. Then it will be individuals traveling as airlines and countries open up.”

Steves does believe some countries will have some concerns about who they are allowing in from abroad. He pointed to the problems Sweden is starting to have with its neighbors after taking a more lax approach to the pandemic.

“I think the sad irony, or sad state, would be if Europe is open for travel again and they don’t let Americans in because of our policies, we would be considered a dangerous country,” Steves said before saying the Europeans believe they are watching a ship of fools run the response to the pandemic. “It’s embarrassing. But in time it will all come back.”

Steves hopes everyone stays patient, healthy and keeps up to date with the needs of their community. “I expect tough times economically, but you just gotta have faith we’re going to come out of it, and hopefully we can learn something from it,” he said.

In closing, we asked Steves, apart from his emphasis on civil liberties, what he hoped people would get out of his keynote address at ICBC?

“I guess what I hope is that at a convention like that there is a lot of folks on the commercial end of it, ethical business people, and just good caring citizens,” he replied, “I think we all need to remember it is still a struggle on the civil liberties front and we all work together we can keep the ball rolling forward to end the prohibition of marijuana.”

The International Cannabis Business Conference’s Virtual Global Symposium takes place on June 9.


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