While you may be more likely to associate him with his numerous guidebooks or his eponymous public television show, the bespectacled travel guru Rick Steves is also a passionate advocate of cannabis reform. Steves has served on the board of NORML for fifteen years, championed legalization in his home state of Washington and subsequently stumped diligently (and successfully) for adult-use in Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine, Illinois and Michigan.
Steves’ work campaigning on behalf of the four states with adult-use legalization on the 2020 ballot – Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota (where residents are also voting on medical marijuana) – pits him against a hefty share of legalization skeptics and opponents. Despite substantial bipartisan support, adult-use legalization remains significantly more favorable among Democrats than Republicans, and with the exception of New Jersey, Trump won all of these states easily in 2016. The hyperpolarization of our current moment forces a question: how do we get legalization over the finish line in a time when we seem so divided?
Building Bridges and Understanding Perspectives
Steves is well-suited to offer some solutions: a longtime champion of the “civil liberty” side of legalization and a veteran debater on cannabis reform, he has extensive insights into what could push skeptics away, and how to pitch them effectively.
At least in theory, Steves’ strong emphasis on civil liberties could resonate with libertarian-minded voters. (In 2012, a Libertarian candidate for public office in Montana won 43% of the statewide vote, a national record). “If I work all day and want to go home and smoke a joint and just stare at the fireplace for three hours, that’s my civil liberty,” he told Wikileaf from his home in Washington, where he has set up a “public relations war room” to wage a socially-distanced press campaign. “I happen to be a workaholic and I think it’s a great opportunity to relax by enjoying a little bit of pot. Do I want my neighbor to do that? I don’t care.”
The same policy extends to his staff of nearly a hundred people, the majority of whom Steves told me are cannabis consumers. “I just want them to show up to work not impaired,” he said.
Steves is full of tips to sell red-state skeptics on legalization. For one: he encourages advocates to know their audience: “You can frame [legalization one way] at a Hemp Fest rally filled with a bunch of tree-hugging lesbian vegetarians, and that would be a whole different speech than in a conservative club in Montana somewhere, [where you would] talk up the ideas that would make perfect sense to a libertarian,” he quipped.
Keeping Messaging and Legislation Simple
Steves recommends keeping social equity out of legalization legislation; he’s worried that it could turn cautious voters off to cannabis reform. For many advocates, that’s not an easy pill to swallow: racial disparities in both the cannabis industry and American society at large are becoming ever more visible and pronounced. At the very least, however, I see where he’s coming from: in Montana, where I live, only 41% of residents support Black Lives Matter; if prohibitionists succeed in tying the movement to cannabis reform, it could work in their favor.
“I am sympathetic with the case for racial justice when it comes to [making] money off of this industry after it’s legalized,” Steves explained. “But I’m not interested in complicating the issue right now when it is gotta be a real simple issue: do you want it legal or not?”
“I don’t want to go into South Dakota, and I don’t want to go into Montana, and start talking about a lot of things that are going to scare people,” Steves added. “I want to remind them that this is good for veterans. I want to remind them that road safety is not an issue. I want to remind them that we need to get rid of that black market…We need to acknowledge and respect people’s concerns if we want to win, because, you know, we could blow it,” he cautioned.
“Remember, that’s not a bunch of potheads that are going to the polls,” he added. “It is suburban people who are afraid of this thing: make it not scary.”
Capitalizing on Anti-Corporatist Sentiments
There’s also a bit of a populist bent to his legalization argument that could resonate with any advocate of minimizing corporations’ political influence, also known as, well…draining the swamp. (Montana is the only state that has challenged the 2012 Citizens United Supreme Court case, which facilitated corporations’ ability to pay off politicians).
“The people against us, all they are motivated by is the bottom line of corporations that make money because marijuana is illegal. And the obvious example of that is the pharmaceutical industry,” Steves said. “Do you think the pharmaceuticals want to let [veterans] just enjoy a joint at night and get some good sleep? No, that’s cheap. They want them to have to buy something in a bottle that they’re selling. I just think it’s flat out evil…that you would deny veterans access to medicinal marijuana.”
My conversation with Steves underscored the ways in which cannabis reform – which generally enjoys bipartisan support – can easily morph into another culture war battleground in a moment of extreme tribalism and division. While there’s certainly no easy solution to legalizing cannabis in such a fraught time, Rick Steves has some bold ideas that could help proponents of legalization find common ground with wary Americans and move us all towards reform, both this November and beyond.
For more of Rick Steves’ tips and insights, check out the audio version of this story, both in full and in clips throughout this story.
For more resources, http://ricksteves.com/