OLYMPIA, Oct. 12.—Friday’s rally for this year’s marijuana-legalization initiative, I-502, probably wasn’t one of the epochal events in Washington state politics, but it was definitely a trippy thing. You had travel guru Rick Steves reading a speech under the Capitol Rotunda declaring the right to smoke marijuana to be a civil liberty. You had noisy protesters screaming that he wanted to take it away. You had I-502 advocates shouting right back.
And because the acoustics in the marble-filled Capitol are so bad, everyone had to stand within about five feet of each other for their hollering to be heard. Steves hunkered down at the lectern, stared at his paper and kept reading. Not that anyone could hear a word he said.
Definitely surreal. But those who came to listen to the dialogue – reporters, say – had to admit that it was nice of organizers to bring along an enormous selection of sandwiches for what might have been a big outdoor picnic, if it hadn’t been raining outside. At least the munchies were good.
It was the first stop in a statewide tour being made by Steves and marijuana-legalization advocates this weekend, and if anything it demonstrated the chaos in the world of marijuana politics. I-502 would make Washington the first state to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana – a measure that might generate as much as $500 million a year, as long as the feds don’t step in and stop it, as they likely will. But within the state there is plenty of opposition from medical-marijuana quarters. The standards the measure sets for impaired driving might trip many users, even after the buzz passes, simply because it takes a while for the THC to pass out of the system.
At least that’s the argument. When it was over and the shouting had died down, Steves said you might see it all in the same light as the effort that banned marijuana in the first place. In the 30s, big interests like the cotton growers were threatened by the hemp industry, one of many interests that benefitted from prohibition. And these days medical marijuana interests and growers are threatened by a measure that would make marijuana legal and available to all. If the opposition seemed noisy but disorganized Friday, that’s been true of the campaign itself, which has raised a grand total of $6,828. But there’s a big yes campaign, garnering contributions from outside the state from legalization advocates who see Washington as one state that just might be willing to challenge federal prohibition. It has raised $4.8 million.
Just Like California Campaign
“These are the kind of people that got in the way of Prop. 19 in California two years ago,” said Steves, who is a member of the advisory board for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. “The people wanted to get smart about marijuana law, but in the last inning the federal government came in and scared people intentionally, the medical marijuana industry was threatened by losing their monopoly, and the people who make a lot of money because selling pot is illegal – you have to look at the contributions to the campaign fund, they were opposed to it – so that all combined to narrowly defeat Proposition 19. Since then 50,000 people have been arrested for possessing marijuana in California. I’m concerned about 50,000 people being arrested in California in the last two years.”
Steves, a prominent travel personality, known for his public-television program “Rick Steves’ Europe,” his best-selling travel books and his Edmonds travel agency, said he agreed to get out front in this year’s campaign because “nobody else can talk about it who is a celebrity. I can talk about it because I’m not running for anything.” He has put $450,000 of his own money into the campaign.
“People keep asking me, what’s in it for you? As if I’m going to profit from this. I’ve spent more on this than I have spent on anything in my life. I’m taking a week away from my office right now when I am really needed there and the only thing that is really going to be in my vested interest is in having a society that doesn’t lock up mature adult pot smokers, because I believe it is a civil liberty. That is what is in it for me.”
Steves said you can make liberal arguments for legalization and conservative ones, arguments based on racial equity and class equality, even a law-enforcement argument – resources could be put to better uses. He says he takes sort of a “European perspective” on things – which no doubt stands to reason when you think about it. “Europeans, they see society has to make a choice — tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons. They tolerate alternative lifestyles and we build more prisons. And we arrest eight times as many people per capita as the Europeans do. Even within Europe there are differences. The Dutch are looser on marijuana than are the Belgians. And today the Dutch are renting prison space out to the Belgians because the Dutch don’t know what to do with it and the Belgians have too many.”
“I want a society that doesn’t have a wrong-minded prohibition based on reefer madness propaganda and a bunch of lies criminalizing black people and causing, I’m an internationalist — 40,000 people have died south of our border because to a great extent marijuana is illegal in the United States. I care about that. When I am in Copenhagen, my friends say be careful with your marijuana because every year we have to arrest a couple of potsmokers in order to maintain favored trade status with the United States of America. That is embarrassing. Our country is extorting every country on this planet to keep marijuana illegal because it is hell-bent on keeping marijuana illegal. Our country has made a treaty requiring all the signatories, and all of the United Nations are on board, requiring everybody to wage trade sanctions against any single country that dares legalize marijuana and treat it as a health problem and an education challenge. This is so regressive and it is so embarrassing as an American. It is just flat-out wrong.”
And he said it looks like the only way change will happen is for laws to be rewritten, one state at a time, until the feds finally have to throw up their hands and say uncle. “The people on the no-on-502 bandwagon ought to relax a bit. We’ll get this thing legalized and taxed and regulated. We will evolve to the point where our society can maturely handle marijuana across the board. It is just a silly weed and we are going crazy over it. Europeans look at this and they wonder, what is up with you guys?”