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Pragmatic Harm Reduction 

Travel guru Rick Steves advocates for an end to pot prohibition

Rick Steves wants to end pot prohibition one state at a time.

Therefore, the well-known travel guru has spent the past two decades—and a substantial amount of money—advocating for marijuana laws appearing on state ballots in order to "legalize, tax and regulate" the drug.

"One thing I'm very clear about when I'm talking about marijuana is I'm not 'pro marijuana,'" he said. "I don't go on the campaign trail and advocate for laws that I think are just 'pro-pot' laws: I'm into civil liberties; I'm into public health; I'm into respect for law enforcement, I'm into pragmatic harm reduction."

Steves has a huge international following. Since 1976, his face and genteel persona have become a staple to generations of American travelers through his best-selling guidebooks, a popular PBS travel series and a weekly public radio show. In the 21st century, he has dedicated his time and fortune to ending pot prohibition in the United States, even serving on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws for more than 10 years.

He brings a "European sensibility" to his advocacy.

"I've spent 100 days a year for the last 30 years in Europe, and I'm just fascinated by how different societies deal with complicated, persistent problems," Steves said. "I like Europeans' approach. I think it's an approach of pragmatic harm reduction, rather than legislating morality and incarceration. It's actually doing a job better than our prohibition."

This year, he is focusing on four states with legalization on the ballot: Montana, South Dakota, New Jersey and Arizona. Should the four initiatives pass this November, there would be 15 states with legalized recreational cannabis. There are currently 33 states, including Arizona, with legalized medical marijuana laws on the books.

Steves' journey to advocacy took off in 2012, when he was a lead funder, co-sponsor and spokesperson for I-502, which legalized, taxed and regulated marijuana in Washington state. Since then he has moved on to support successful campaigns in Oregon, in 2014; Massachusetts and Maine, in 2016; and in Illinois and Michigan, in 2018.

The group that initially supported I-502 did so "on a hunch" that use would not go up among adults, teen use would not go up, and road safety would stay the same. They were also convinced legalization would replace "a thriving black market that was enriching and empowering gangs and organized crime with a highly regulated and highly taxed legal market," according to Steves.

"Eight years later, we have a track record," he said. "You can have our opposition cherry pick statistics and con people into thinking that use will go up and road safety will go down, but any honest look at the situation will see that there's a track record and we know what happens when we legalize, tax and regulate."

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy and lobbying group formed in 1995, legalized pot in Washington and Colorado enjoy widespread popularity with citizens, at 65 percent and 71 percent respectively, and the laws have largely had the expected effect on crime and economic activity.

In 2019, Colorado collected more than $300 million in taxes from marijuana businesses and Washington generated $440 million. Cities and towns also benefited, collecting millions of dollars in local taxes and fees.

Both states have enjoyed increases in tourism, and the legal cannabis industry has provided jobs in a thriving legal, taxed and regulated industry. In Colorado, 41,953 individuals are licensed to work in the marijuana industry with 1,686 marijuana business owners, as well as increased business for attendant industries, including construction, security, legal and real estate.

Teen use has not increased in those states and black markets and drug cartels have suffered with widespread legalization happening throughout the U.S.

"There's no statistical evidence that there is any correlation between consumption and how easy the laws are on marijuana," Steves said. "In fact, there's not a reservoir of decent people that would love to ruin their lives smoking pot if only it was legal: If you wanna smoke marijuana in Arizona, you do. Now it's a criminal activity: After the election you'll do it as a responsible adult American exercising a civil liberty."

Despite the current political divide in American, for Steves the issue is not one of Republicans versus Democrats, it's one of civil liberties and states' rights. He sees Arizona as fertile ground for legalization, due to its citizens' love of personal freedom and its "civil libertarian" bent.

"Most people who vote for legalized marijuana do not like marijuana. They're just smart citizens recognizing that the law is causing more problems than the drug it's designed to protect us from," he said. "I love to talk to conservative groups about this because many people think this is a liberal versus conservative idea, or that Democrats are for it and Republicans are against it."

Steves says the conversation has been heavily influenced by what he calls the PPP: the Pot Prohibition Profiteers, the "hired hands that sow confusion and misinformation" in service of legalization opponents, including the pharmaceutical industry.

He is also fighting what he calls the "dickish insistence on the part of our government to impose its hang-ups on marijuana to every other country on the face of this planet," via foreign policy that forces adherence to anti-pot policing through trade sanctions.

"Some people are hopelessly wired by a generation of Reefer Madness propaganda and the billions and billions of dollars spent by our government, which is hellbent on keeping marijuana illegal," Steves said. "But if people can just take a moment and learn about the issue and also recognize that we have a track record now, they would be comfortable voting to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Arizona and still not be pro-drug."

Recent polling shows that citizens of Arizona are ready to pass Prop 207, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act on the ballot next month. Strategies 360, the political advocacy group working to get the proposition passed, recently conducted a poll of 800 likely voters showing 57 percent to 38 percent in favor of the proposition. Of those polled, Democrats and Independents supported 207 by margins of 70 percent, while Republican support was at 42 percent.

The Arizona Republic even endorsed Smart and Safe, calling the criminalization of cannabis a "historic wrong" and citing a Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll showing support for Proposition 207 at 45.6 percent versus 34.2 percent opposed, with about 19 percent of voters undecided.

But to Steves, the issue is clear cut.

"We have a challenge in our society: There is a very popular drug that can be abused and cause problems," he said. "How do we deal with it to look out for our children? How do we deal with it to look out for our Black and brown and poor communities? How do we deal with it in regards to the opioid crisis that's costing us more lives than the Vietnam War cost us?"

He sees pot prohibition ending, as there has been a wave of state laws passed, with full legalization in Canada and Brazil, that are turning the tide much like the tide turned on alcohol prohibition in the 20th century.

"A prohibition is taken down one state at a time and the federal government doesn't just voluntarily wake up one morning and say, 'Oh, this law was mistaken. Let's not do it anymore,'" he said. "I just think a state like Arizona that really values libertarian values and conservative values and civil liberties would be offended by a federal prohibition that dictates how Arizona should treat the use of a recreational drug."

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