Rick Steves talks about his crusade to legalize pot, trips to Amsterdam coffee shops, his pot-smokin’ church pals, and how if you don’t like his politics, Europe’s better off without you
PBS's affable man of travel, Rick Steves, was none too happy when he heard Seattle's KOMO television had refused to run an infomercial he hosted about marijuana laws. After all, KOMO's parent company, Fisher Communications, accepted thousands of dollars in fees to record the program at its studios.
We reached the globe-trotting host in Brussels before he returns home to address the throngs at Seattle Hempfest in Myrtle Edwards Park this weekend, August 16 and 17. He speaks both days at 4:20 p.m., of course. He will probably give the standard rap that has astounded mainstream media—using his immaculate reputation to push for decriminalizing marijuana. After hearing his stump speech for several years, The Stranger wanted to ask Steves about his favorite place to get stoned, whether his crusade to legalize pot is making progress, and how hippies are making his job harder.
Is it hypocritical that a nation like the U.S.—which supposedly values the pursuit of happiness and personal freedom—provides less individual freedom than Europe?
I've been in Holland for the past week, and just marveling at looking out over the square at breakfast. People were biking to work and biking their kids to daycare, and there's a policeman standing there monitoring, keeping the peace. Everybody cares about neighborhoods and their security. And two blocks over, there are prostitutes trying to lure guys into their little rooms, and over at that coffee shop they have 10 different kinds joints out, all rolled up and laid out like little Pez dispensers. Everybody works together and lives together and... it can be a little more tolerant. People can have a few more individual liberties and still live in densely populated situations, they don't have anywhere near the same amount of incarceration and violence we have in the United States.
What's the most interesting thing you saw in a coffee shop last week?
The most interesting thing I saw in a coffee shop was older Americans—who haven't smoked for 20 years because they have kids, jobs, and a sort of personal image and security they have to maintain—kicking back and enjoying a joint while sitting there and looking at boats cruise by on the canal. And people go, "Wow, no paranoia!"
My goal when doing research is to help Americans have experiences wherever they travel that are appropriate with the local culture. In Finland, it is going to be going to a sauna. In Turkey, it is sucking on one of those big hookahs where they have dried apple they smoke; it's just a social, relaxing thing. In Switzerland, it may be playing the spoons and yodeling in mountains. In Spain, go to a bullfight if you want to experience a bullfight. And in the Netherlands, smoke some pot and go to a coffee shop if you want to know what that's like. I'm not going to be moralistic about this stuff. You can break a law outside of America. Some people disagree with me, but I think it is perfectly legal to break an American law outside of America.
I think it's pretty clear that American sensibilities break down when it comes to drugs. The question is why. I think that it's because of fear and because people feel isolated.
What are they afraid of?
I think they are afraid of sticking their head out and realizing that no one else is sticking their head out with them, and they are all alone and they will get shut down. I think if people realized how many people agreed with them, they wouldn't be afraid to speak out... You can go to church with 300 people and think you are the only person who smokes pot because nobody will talk about it in that venue. I have friends at my church who smoke pot and it is so fun to have that sort of silent support group.
One great thing about Hempfest is getting 80,000 people together who believe that smoking a soft drug is a civil liberty. It encourages you to realize you are far from alone.
You have been one of the few mainstream celebrities to stick your neck out on this issue. Have you seen any more celebrities willing to do the same since you began?
No, and that's one of my big disappointments. We all know a lot of well-known and respectable people who believe, whether or not they smoke pot, that mature adults who want to should have the right to. But they don't want to talk about it because they don't want to get embroiled in an issue that they think is secondary. They could be curing cancer, stopping the war, solving global warming, or [saving] kids dying of malaria. Those issues have so much more gravity than marijuana politics, but I think no one talks about this and we are spending billions of dollars on this ill-advised policy. I think it is a bigger issue than a lot of people realize. The fact that nobody will speak out about it makes me feel that I should speak out about it... But I'm not saying "smoke pot"; I'm saying "stop arresting people who choose to smoke pot."
Have you ever experienced any ramifications for speaking out—like slow business or someone threatening to boycott your tours?
Well, if someone hears me talk about drug policy and then says he is not going to go to Europe with me, deep down in my heart I celebrate. Because I think Europe will be better off without him.
Curiously, people are most offended not by me taking a political stance, but by the fact that I would take a stance that could hurt my business. They find that really offensive to American profit-maximizing sensibilities.
So has it hurt your business?
Well, there's no way I could measure that.
How has your business done in the four years since you started speaking at Hempfest and joined the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)?
Oh, my business is booming. I think my business is better off because I am outspoken on drug policy—because people can't believe I'm doing it. It would be different if I were a financial adviser, and they knew I was on the board of NORML. Then it would probably hurt my business. But I'm in the business of showing people how to have fun, so I think I'm the right candidate for speaking out on it. I spend one third of my life in Europe, where people aren't quite so uptight.
Soon you'll be at Hempfest advocating that we reform marijuana laws. What are the biggest challenges to reforming drug laws? Is Hempfest enough?
That is my big frustration. It's just a big pep rally... When I look at that crowd, I think, "Why are you guys all so docile, putting up with a system that says you're criminals?" You should all be voting, financially supporting groups like NORML that are educating frightened Americans, and educating politicians who are victims if misinformation from government organizations that try to teach them how evil marijuana is. I mean, if all 80,000 of those people got active, we'd see a lot more change than we are seeing now. But most people at Hempfest are not inclined to get on board with the boring grind of a political struggle.
Isn't that the case for most people? How do you think people at Hempfest could be inspired to pick up a pen and write a check, to get involved with a campaign, and get on board with the political struggle?
I don't know. If I knew how to do that, NORML could have more power to do its work. I want to inspire people to take their culture out of their culture and share it with people who don't need to be afraid of it.
One of the problems with Hempfest is that, at its core, it revolves around the hippie counterculture. But pot smokers overall—although some are hippies, others are hipsters, black urban youth, conservatives, or soccer moms—represent all different types of cultures. But from many of Hempfest's speakers to the fucking tie-dye on the stage, it seems like a holdout of a marginal culture. How do we change that?
Once I was talking with some guys from Hempfest and I was really earnest and concerned about how effective it was going to be, because onstage there was a guy with a ponytail saying, "Give it up!" And he said, "That was me." I was talking to the director, Vivian McPeak, and I was telling him to get rid of the guy with the ponytail and to not be so scary to people who really need to get the message. He said this is the one time of year that subcultures... can come out and feel they don't have to hide under a log.
Is that just an excuse to legitimize a subculture by tying it to a more widely relevant political issue?
I think it is impressive how big that subculture is. It is amazing that you can get so many people to an event that is hardly advertised. It's astounding. Then you think of all my pot-smoking friends who don't go to Hempfest because it's not their culture.
That seems like a real missed opportunity.
It's a huge missed opportunity, you're right. I walked with my wife the length of Hempfest and it really scared her. It was a freak show to her. It shouldn't be traumatizing for a person who is inclined to agree with the decriminalization movement to walk through Hempfest. It should be a much more inclusive atmosphere... I guess if this year a third more of the attendees were more conservatives types, that might steer Hempfest in a different direction.
I think there is a feedback loop. On one hand, it's easy for people like me, a total faggot who doesn't look like a hippie, to think these people are a bunch of burnouts. But I've also worked on the event—the permit used to be in my name—and I know that most people who look like me aren't willing to lift a finger to legalize pot. But those long-haired hippie types are actually the people sticking out their necks, like you talk about. If more people getting involved look like mainstream progressives, then Hempfest would attract a different crowd, but as it is, those people don't even want to get involved.
Don't a lot of these people kind of dress up for it and then on Monday they go to work and seem more straitlaced?
Just like Folklife, where everyone is wearing tie-dye that smell like mothballs. They should wear their regular clothes or a suit.
That's kind of what I'm encouraging. Don't live a double life. I have piles of relatives who are enthusiastic about marijuana, but nobody knows it. And what is most discouraging to me is someone who smokes pot in the closet, because that makes it tough on all of us.
Around 10 years ago on my website, I listed all my employees' favorite gelato flavors—they said pistachio and chocolate or whatever, and I would always say ganja.
Really, holy shit, where do you get ganja gelato?
Only in your dreams.
Maybe at Hempfest?
On another note, you recently hosted an infomercial, produced by the ACLU, which advocated that we reconsider marijuana laws. It was fairly tame, but one station refused to air it before 1:00 a.m., and two stations refused to air it at all. Why do you think that is?
My hunch is that there are people whose job it is to not risk offending corporate clients… They don’t care about the ethical issues here or civil rights. Its a business and they have to be worried about corporate sponsors. That’s why I am such a soldier for public broadcasting. I can do what I do because I am not a creature of commercial media. I am a product of public media… We don’t have corporations telling us what we can and can’t air. Most Americans can’t get their heads around that idea, which is kind of frustrating to me, because I understand the impact of media on our society and future. But most Americans just want to be supersized.
KOMO said it would jeopardize its federal license because the program advocated marijuana use. Is there any merit to that argument?
There is no way anyone can watch that show and think it advocates smoking marijuana… Nobody on the panel even hinted that they enjoyed marijuana. They were talking about the legal, social, and civil-rights ramifications of a misguided law based on lies and fear. For anybody to say that show is promoting the use of marijuana, that person is an example of why this show needs to be aired. We have laws on the books that are as stupid as the prohibition of alcohol and we can’t even talk about it on television because people are afraid of what the government or a corporation might do to them. It is symptomatic of a very serious problem.
I am very tuned into this. I was just in Iran, and that’s not a free society. I spent months traveling in communist countries before the end of the Cold War. I’m fascinated by this stuff. And when I see it in my own country, it really inspires me to get active. It is really important to the fabric of our democracy. Television is a powerful medium. We are a country that would rather watch television than read. TV, in a lot of people’s eyes, tends to legitimize things, which is kind of scary but I think it’s the truth. They will air so much trash, but they won’t air this which is just good citizenship.
When I spoke to the vice president of KOMO television he said the station couldn’t show the infomercial because it advocated breaking the law, even though it just promotes a political point of view. How should people respond? I think that they should all call the station. Stations listen. I know stations listen, and if people called and told the station what they thought, the station would be discussing it in one of its board meetings.