PORTLAND, Ore. — Rick Steves smokes the occasional joint, but he’s not arguing for marijuana legalization in Oregon just because he likes to get high.
Steves, a nationally known guidebook author and host on public radio and television, said Tuesday he’s convinced that marijuana prohibition in the U.S. operates solely to harm the poor and people of colour, and to profit off their punishment.
“It’s not guys like me, rich white guys, who need it,” Steves said Tuesday at a downtown Portland hotel. “It’s the people who are arrested and cited, who are poor.”
Steves is crisscrossing western and central Oregon in support of a ballot measure to legalize marijuana, a movement that picked up steam in 2012 when Colorado and Washington state each approved legal marijuana and commercial outlets to sell it.
None of it would have happened without a plummeting stock market in 2008, Steves said.
“When you look at the end of Prohibition, it came during the Depression because they couldn’t afford to jail all those guys,” Steves said. “There’s no coincidence that (marijuana legalization) was taken seriously only after the recession.”
Steves wrote in the book “Travel as a Political Act” that his globe-trotting reveals marijuana decriminalization is good for society.
“There is this idea that there’s this reservoir of people who will immediately begin to smoke pot if it’s legal and ruin their lives,” Steves said. “In Europe, they’ve shown that that’s not true.”
The No on 91 campaign, which draws most of its funding from law enforcement groups, has said that marijuana legalization will make it easier for children to access the drug.
Spokeswoman Mandi Puckett said Steves’ message is muddled.
While European drug-control measures may rely on reducing harm instead of imprisoning users, Puckett said Holland has found it is “not successful at all there” in reducing dependency or crime.
Puckett said Washington and Colorado should be left to experiment with the drug.
“Oregon would be wiser to slow down,” said Puckett, adding that she would likely never support full legalization. “Let them be the guinea pigs.”
Steves supported Washington state’s successful 2012 measure to legalize marijuana, but didn’t back a 2012 Oregon legalization measure because, he said, it was “pro-marijuana,” without any input from groups with a stake in the measure, like law enforcement. This year’s ballot initiative, called Measure 91, is “anti-prohibition,” Steves said.
The difference is the planning, he said. Money in Measure 91 is set aside for law enforcement, schools and drug-treatment programs. The measure seeks to legalize the sale and taxation of marijuana in Oregon. The drug is now legal for medicinal use.
The campaign to legalize marijuana in Oregon raised about $2.4 million by the latest reporting deadline in late September. The opposition, No on 91, last reported about $170,000 in its coffers.
“If we jailed everyone who smokes the occasional joint in Oregon tomorrow,” Steves said, “it would be a lot less interesting place to live.”