TV travel guide Rick Steves is best-known for his mild-mannered jaunts across Europe, but he traveled to Chicago to speak out Tuesday on a favorite side project: legalizing marijuana.
"This is not a pro-pot movement. This is an anti-prohibition movement,” Steves said at a press conference Tuesday morning in Chicago, where he appeared with Illinois lawmakers who are pushing a state legalization bill.
He acknowledged cannabis is a drug, saying, “It’s not good for you. It can be abused.” But he says laws that prohibit it tend to be unfairly applied to the poor and people of color.
Steves, who advocates packing light and sharing memorable experiences with locals, also has long backed legalizing recreational pot.
He supported the legalization of cannabis in 2012 in his home state of Washington, is a board member for the pro-marijuana group NORML and has spoken around the country on the topic, arguing that criminalizing the drug causes more problems than it solves.
Later Tuesday in Chicago, Steves testified before about 20 Illinois lawmakers who are holding a series of hearings on the proposal to legalize marijuana. The bill would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to 28 grams and five plants or marijuana.
Several lawmakers voiced support for or openness to the law; others expressed reservations.
State Sen. Dan McConchie, a Republican from Hawthorn Woods, challenged Steves’ assertion that legalization has caused no problems elsewhere. McConchie cited studies suggesting increased adult use of marijuana in places that have legalized it, and called for better data on the question before acting.
“There’s been a number of broad-brush statements that you have made … but the data does not bear that out,” McConchie said. “Just because you legalize it doesn’t necessitate that all of these problems are going to go away. … I think we would be jumping the gun to legalize this in the absence of robust data.”
People will smoke pot whether it’s legal or not, Steves maintained, arguing that it’s much better to tax and regulate it rather than creating a criminal class of users. He testified that the marijuana industry is generating $300 million a year in tax revenue and 26,000 jobs in Washington, while reducing law enforcement and prison costs.
“Nothing has changed except there’s not people selling marijuana illegally on the streets. They’re selling it in the shops,” he said.
Besides Washington state, Steves has campaigned to help legalize marijuana in Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts.
McConchie wasn’t the only person to question Steves at Tuesday’s hearing.
Tom Britton is a clinician certified in addiction medicine and president and CEO of Gateway Foundation, a large national substance abuse treatment provided. He also challenged Steves’ claims that marijuana legalization doesn’t increase use.
Britton cited a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found there was a 4 percent increase in teen use in Washington after legalization. The same study also found that adolescent use in Colorado did not change following legalization.
“I would not keep the current system,” he said, “but legalizing is a radical step.”
The lawmakers also heard from two witnesses from Colorado, where voters authorized legalizing marijuana in 2012.
State Rep. Dan Pabon, a Democrat from Denver, said the law has had “no discernible impact” on the quality of life there, with unemployment remaining low and general health and homelessness remaining high.
He said he initially opposed legalization but now believes the program has value and that parents are talking with children about the harmful effects it can have on developing minds.
Rather than limiting the number of licenses to sell marijuana, and giving existing medical marijuana companies the first licenses, Pabon urged lawmakers to let the free market dictate the number of licenses, to allow small businesses to participate, as in Colorado. He noted that many local jurisdictions in the state opt out of the legalization program.
Adam Orens, a founding partner of the Marijuana Policy Group in Denver, testified that sales of marijuana in Colorado have almost doubled in three years to $1.3 billion last year, generating $250 million in taxes and fees. He estimated it generated $3 billion in overall economic activity including real estate, security, packaging and testing.
“It’s relay become woven into the economy as another market sector,” he said, adding legalization has both drawn some people to the state and driven some away.
He urged lawmakers not to overtax the product but to keep the price about equal with the black market, because the industry will draw customers who want a safer, better product.
He also estimated that heavy users dominate the market: 20 percent of customers drive 80 percent of consumption.
A representative of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit that claims it has defeated legalization in more than a half dozen states, said the organization is starting a new group, A Healthy and Productive Illinois. It will be made up of mental health professionals, law enforcement, business leaders and youth groups and will fight against legalization in Illinois.
But Steves urged lawmakers to look at Europe’s approach to drug use. The two countries with the most permissive marijuana laws, he said, are the Netherlands and Portugal, which were successful in reducing hard drug addiction. Spain doesn’t allow the sale of marijuana, but allows users to grow it.
“My friends in Europe consider a joint about as exciting as a beer,” he said.
He said Illinois can benefit by learning from other states and nations that have already legalized pot, and can fine tune the law by being the first state to have lawmakers pass it by law, rather than a ballot initiative, which is difficult in Illinois.
Steves encouraged Illinois to keep laws very strict in enforcing driving under the influence of marijuana or any drug, along with maintaining the rights of employers to prohibit marijuana use, and against under-age use, while allowing municipalities to opt out.
Supporters claimed the state would reap a financial windfall from taxing the sale of legal cannabis. The sponsors of the legalization bill, Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, both Democrats from Chicago, said legal marijuana could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
Steves has also argued that making marijuana possession a crime fuels violent drug wars among dealers.
Steves, known for his plain-spoken approach to broadening perspectives through travel, has a “Rick Steves’ Europe” show on PBS, writes a column syndicated by Tribune Content Agency and runs his own European travel business.