Rick Steves came to Corvallis last week to advocate for Measure 91, which, if it passes, will legalize marijuana in Oregon. He packed the house—the spacious main meeting room of the Unitarian Church—with people of all ages. Though some in the crowd had questions about the measure, my sense was that most all who attended will be voting yes on 91 come November 4.
I’ve been watching Rick Steves’ travel programs on OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting) since moving to this state eight years ago. I also own a super-light, well-designed shoulder bag and one carry-on suitcase made by his company—the man knows travel, and makes good stuff. The television personality known as Rick Steves is intelligent, charming, funny, and entertaining. In person, those qualities are all enhanced—he has a wealth of interesting stories to tell and he’s the same urbane, easy-going guy you see on television, only more so. The real surprise, to me, was that Rick Steves is also political.
His presentation was scheduled to take an hour and a half, and I had expected it to focus primarily on the reasons to vote yes on Measure 91. Though that was the main event, Steves put the common sense approach of legalizing pot in the context of his experiences as a world traveler, and the perspective he has gained from seeing how other countries (especially European countries) approach drug use and the problems caused by addiction.
Steves has written a book called Travel As A Political Act. I haven’t read it yet, but I intend to, because his talk makes a convincing case for travel as a way to change minds, better understand each other, and potentially create a saner, better, more peaceful world. I was impressed by the fact that he hadn’t brought any books to sell—he had only four copies with him, and one of them was given to a lucky person waiting in line to meet him at the end of his talk; she asked if he was going to do a book signing some place where she could get an autographed copy, and he signed the only copy left and handed it to her. The other three copies—along with three travel bags (made of hemp) and several DVDs about marijuana becoming legal in Washington—were given as prizes to people who knew the answers to trivia questions about marijuana, such as this four-part question: A) Which President was behind classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, worse than cocaine? B) What year did it become a Schedule 1 drug? C) Which group of people was this criminal prohibition designed to punish? D) Why was this President angry at this group of people? The answers are at the end of this post.
Seeing the answers, if you don’t already know them, is an eye-opener. The law had nothing to do with public health or safety; it really came out of a personal vendetta. Ultimately, making marijuana illegal has left us with less public safety – how much violence and how many deaths have come about via the black market and drug cartels? And how much have we lost as a society, as a nation of families, by imprisoning so many thousands of people — most of them black and brown boys and men, and most of them poor?
Steves said, “When I was young, I thought the world was a pyramid, with the United States on top and everybody else trying to figure it out.” Travel has given him a different view of things. For instance, Europe produces less than we do, they don’t get as rich as we do, and they take much longer vacations than we do – because they value having more time with their families, more time to live and enjoy life – all the life there is outside of work. In Amsterdam, he saw a bunch of guys on a boat having a party – on a Wednesday afternoon. “What’s the occasion?” he asked.
“It’s Wednesday!” they said. “Come join us!”
The United States and Europe, he pointed out, are the same in that we are wealthy, have capitalistic, market-based economies, and democratic forms of government. “Here,” he said, “we have government of, by, and for the people via the corporations we own. In Europe, they have government of, by, and for the people in spite of of the corporations they own.” There are corporate interests who want us to be full-time consumers: “…go shopping, let us take care of it…We are living in a dumbed-down society,” he stated. “It is subversive these days to be smarted up.”
In Europe, “…they know and understand that you can’t legislate morals.” Here, when kids graduate, parents make their kids promise that they won’t drink at the proms and parties they attend, and make them absolutely promise that they won’t drink and drive. A lot of them do drink, and some of them drink, drive, and die. In Copenhagen, they figure that most of the graduating kids will want to celebrate with alcohol. There, they provide buses that the kids get to paint and decorate in whatever way they like, and a sober adult drives them all over town—the kids go from house to house partying and getting smashed, and they all arrive safely home at the end of the night.
“We’ve spent one point five trillion on the war on drugs since 1970, and there’s been no change…In Spain, in the Netherlands, the word for addiction is the same as the word for enslaved. They understand that addicts need counselors, not cops. They are interested in, invest in, pragmatic harm reduction.”
Though Steves touched on it only briefly, legalizing marijuana would also legalize industrial hemp. Taxing marijuana would enrich the state’s coffers, and growing industrial hemp would also help grow the state’s economy: Right now all the clothing and food products made from hemp and sold in our stores comes from overseas and Oregon’s neighbors to the north—Oregon has the right soil and climate for growing hemp, and it would be a great cash crop for the state. Environmentalists are also in favor of legalizing marijuana: As long as marijuana use is treated as a crime, marijuana crops are hidden in forests and wildlife areas; the growers remove vegetation, harm habitat, and hurt wildlife. Legalization would benefit the environment in numerous ways.
Outside money will come in to fight this measure, Steves told the crowd. “I call them the PPPs—Pot Prohibition Profiteers—the pharmaceuticals, police unions that get grants for drug arrests, and private prisons.”
Near the end of his talk, Steves shared that there are some people who learn of his support for legalizing marijuana and let him know that in future they won’t be buying his travel guides or going on his tours. His reaction: “Europe is going to be a lot more fun without you.”
A) Nixon, B) 1970, C) Hippies, D) They were protesting the Vietnam war.