At UMass, travel guru Steves argues for legal marijuana



Published: 10/11/2016 11:36:10 PM

AMHERST — Rick Steves, the PBS host known for his journeys across Europe, began his four-day trek across Massachusetts campaigning in favor of legal marijuana Tuesday at the University of Massachusetts.

And in true Steves form, the travel guru turned to drug policies in the places he knows best to make his case.

“We can learn from other societies. Europe is very into pragmatic harm reduction,” he said to the audience of some 175 people. “Not moralizing, not ‘just say no,’ not incarceration.”

Unlike in the United States, where marijuana possession remains punishable by law, public health policies that aim to reduce negative consequences of drug use are in force across the continent in varying flavors. In Spain, where marijuana is legal to grow but not sell, “cannabis clubs” allow smokers to cooperatively produce and consume the plant. In Portugual, all drugs were made legal in 2001 in an aim to save suffering addicts from jail time in favor of treatment and prevention programs, Steves said.

And famously, the Netherlands offers a plethora of marijuana options in its ubiquitous coffee shops. But still, production in that country remains in a legal “gray area,” he said.

Now, Massachusetts has the chance to go where European countries haven’t and tax and regulate the sale, use and production of marijuana, Steves said. The Nov. 8 referendum would put a law on the books that allows individuals and commercial entities to grow the drug and the establishment of dispensaries that would sell it.

Marijuana would be taxed at a rate of 12 percent, which includes the 6.25 percent sales tax, a 3.75 percent excise tax and 2 percent toward the city or town in which the drug is purchased.

Similar laws have been passed in four states: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia.

Steves, travel author and host of “Rick Steves’ Europe,” campaigned for and helped fund the initiative in his home state of Washington. He’s on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and smokes marijuana. His UMass appearances was sponsored by the university’s Cannabis Reform Coalition.

In a WBUR poll released last month, 50 percent of respondents say they’re in favor of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts, while 45 percent oppose the measure. Those foes join high-profile state officials, including Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, in their rejection of legal weed.

Baker and Healey coauthored a Boston Globe op-ed column with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh arguing that such a law would make marijuana more available to children and teenagers. THC, the active compound in marijuana, can harm their developing brains and cause dependence, and tempting candy and cookie edible marijuana products can expose children to high levels of the drug.

“The leaders of your state are talking like it’s 2010,” Steves said. “We need to remind them it’s not 2010 — we have a track record.”

A 2015 poll by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment showed that marijuana consumption by high schoolers in that state dropped slightly after the first recreational dispensaries opened the year before.

Steves said those unsure of whether to vote in favor of legalization should look at figures such as those. The position of Baker, Healey and Walsh, he said, sends the wrong message to kids. “You can talk to your kids openly about this,” he said.

Steves said the conversation around responsible marijuana use between parents and their children should be similar to those regarding alcohol consumption or the use of dangerous tools. Such things are reserved for adults and not children.

“No you can’t have a cocktail, no you can’t use my chain saw,” Steves said. “The worst thing is this ‘just say no’ fantasy.”

Steves said that if the plebiscite is passed by voters, it can still be amended by the state Legislature. Lawmakers will be able to apply further regulations on edible products, for example.

And he noted that cities and towns will be able to prohibit dispensaries from opening up within their borders, comparing it to the handfull of towns that still prohibit the sale of alcohol in Massachusetts.

For Steves, the Massachusetts ballot question is not a “pro-marijuana” one. He said it comes down to reducing harm, transferring money from drug dealers into state coffers, promoting criminal justice equity for people of color, who are disproportionately punished for marijuana offenses, and civil liberties.

“I’m a travel writer. I love to travel. For me ‘high’ is a place — sometimes I like to go there,” Steves said. “If my government says I can’t go there, there had better be a good reason — and there’s not.”

Chris Lindahl can be reached at


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