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Travel sage Rick Steves is heading out on a journey that's a first for him: a road trip that will find him hitting 20 U.S. cities in 20 days to talk about Europe.

If you've traveled France or Italy or Spain, you've probably seen Steves' blue guidebooks poking out of backpacks and jacket pockets. If you watch PBS, you've likely been entertained by the soothing cadence of his voice on his popular travel specials or his 90-show series, Rick Steves' Europe. The 56-year-old, who's been in the industry since 1976, says his main concern these days is "to inspire people to travel internationally, so they can better understand how we fit into this planet."

But he has another concern as well — the decriminalization of marijuana. In his home state of Washington, Steves has co-sponsored Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate the sale of marijuana for adults. Just two weeks ago, campaigners turned in the requisite signatures to put the initiative on the November ballot.

With a similar ballot initiative here in Colorado, we asked Steves last week not only to give us a little travel advice, but also to talk about weed worldwide.

Indy: I've heard you say that people are afraid to travel. Why do you think that is?

RS: I think there's a lot of people that sell organized trips that subconsciously find it in their interest to make it sound more difficult than it is to go on your own. But my feeling is, you know, if you want to go on your own, that's fine. If you want to take a cruise, that's fine. If you want to take a tour, that's fine. But once you get out there and do it once, you realize these perceived fears and apprehensions really are unfounded. ...

It costs the same to travel in Europe as it does in the United States. It's not cheap, it's about the same. People speak English. I speak only English — nothing to brag about, but it works. And people like Americans. They like American ideals, even if they don't like American foreign policy or trade policy.

Indy: You've also spoken about travel as a political act, or I guess in other forums, a spiritual act. Can you explain that?

RS: At first I was talking about the fundamental things — you know, cheap tricks, packing light, staying healthy, catching the train, finding a good hotel or restaurant. In the next decade, in the '90s, I was teaching about appreciating history and art and culture and cuisine and stuff. And then in the last decade, I've really been passionate about trying to inspire people and giving them the examples and tips for broadening your perspective through travel, how to get out of your comfort zone and come home with a broader perspective. That's the best souvenir.

And it really is determined by how you go and where you go, and it's wide open to everybody. There's nothing expensive or risky about it, but it's just, do you want to go to Mazatlan, or do you want to go to Managua? There's two different experiences you can have.

Indy: Something else you've been passionate about is your work with the decriminalization of marijuana. I'm familiar a little with your work with the ACLU and [as an advisory board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] NORML. How did that become such an interest for you?

RS: What I like to do is inject a European perspective into the whole drug-policy discussion. And in Europe, you know, people aren't so hysterical about marijuana.

Our drug policy goes back to President Nixon being pissed off at the hippies and wanting to put their drug in with heroin and LSD, so marijuana got classified with the most dangerous drugs. And I just think there's no correlation between how strict the laws are and marijuana and how many people use it.

Europeans, despite every measure — our government's measures and theirs — consume about half of what we consume, per capita, and they've got much looser and smarter laws on marijuana, and they treat it as a health problem and an education challenge rather than a criminal issue. And to me, that's just pragmatic harm reduction. That's just common sense.

Indy: Where do you find the most sensible [drug] policy?

RS: Well, European countries have different approaches to it. The consumption of all drugs has been legal in Portugal now for 10 years. Again, they've decided in Europe that the only thing gateway about marijuana is its illegality. You know, when it's illegal, the only place you can get it is from criminals on the street, who have a vested interest in selling something more addictive and more profitable.

Marijuana is not a gateway drug. The criminalization of marijuana causes people to get into harder drugs. That's the European discovery.

In Spain, they've got a system where you can't sell marijuana but you can sell marijuana seeds and all the gear to grow it, and everyone's welcome to grow marijuana on their own or in clubs. That's one way to do it. In the Netherlands, you know, they have their coffee shops where you can buy up to a certain amount every day if you're of age, and you can buy it to go, or you can just enjoy the ambiance of the coffee shop. That's another good way to do it.

All over Europe they're trying different laws, but the point is, they're trying different laws, realizing that you can't just have this moralistic, "Just say no" approach to drugs. People are gonna use drugs, and you want to do it in a way that allows some people to experiment without hurting other people, and [where] you have a situation where people who are trying to educate young people about drugs, have credibility.

I think our problem is, you know, when we have policemen and teachers and parents just parroting reefer madness propaganda from the government, kids stop paying attention to it, and all of a sudden you've lost any opportunity to really educate kids about the dangers of drugs, which is for real.

kakens@csindy.com

  • Author and PBS star Rick Steves wants to see us venture outside our comfort zones.

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