By Libby Schauer
American guidebook author and TV travel guide Rick Steves argued that European’s pragmatic harm reduction
stance on drug use is more effective than the incarceration tactics utilized by the United States.
“We can either tolerate alternative lifestyles, or build more prisons” Steves said during his almost two-hour presentation.
Steves spoke Wednesday evening in Schofield Auditorium to an audience of about 450 people at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire as part of the university’s forum series. This year the university celebrates its 75th season of The Forum, created to bring brilliant minds and ideas together to create a cultural center at the university.
He credited his race and high-ranking social status as his inspiration for speaking out on such a controversial subject. Because he is white and owns his own business, he doesn’t feel the disparities from society that other groups face due to marijuana use. His travels all over Europe, including nations that have light punishment laws for marijuana use and stricter education policies have provided him with a knowledgeable and substantial platform from which he speaks. His home state of Washington now has a proven track record for the benefits of legalized recreational use of marijuana. In its first full year of sales, from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, more than $250 million has been generated in excise tax to the state according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Steves said him and others like him are very concerned about public safety and the well-being of children. He gave the example that if someone were to smoke a joint in their home and then drive a car and crash, they should have the book thrown at them and be held accountable for their actions. No one is saying that marijuana should be available to individuals under 21 years of old. It requires smart labeling, packaging and advertising towards adults. Steves claimed that in states where recreational marijuana use is legal, teens have less access to the drug now that it’s off the street.
“The only dangerous thing about marijuana is having to buy it from a criminal who won’t card you and has a vested interest in selling you something harder for more money,” Steves said.
He argued that America should take a soft-drug approach to marijuana, like the country has done with alcohol and tobacco instead of spending millions of dollars every year in privatized prison systems that benefit private corporations whose main agenda is filling prisons to fill their pockets. Around 80,000 people are incarcerated every year for marijuana related charges, and 45 percent of all drug arrests are due to marijuana. To Steves, those statistics are absurd.
It is not a matter of being pro-marijuana or pro-drug, Steves said, but rather being pro-civil liberties. It’s about civil liberty for adults, fiscal responsibilities and social justice. If a person wants to smoke a joint in their own home after a long day of work, who is the government to tell them what they can and cannot do?
Steves kept the majority of his presentation informal, with casual puns and humor to keep the audience engaged. His method worked for one audience member, UW- Eau Claire Student Senate Vice President Colton Ashley. In response to Steves’ comment about the pairing of marijuana use with listening to music, Ashley asked Steves what his favorite type of music is, and Steves asked Ashley right back. Ashley was in attendance as a Student Senate representative, since the senate allocated student money to fund the Forum, but found common musical ground with Steves. Ashley said he also had a personal desire to learn more about the legalization of marijuana because of the economic and racial implications it could have.
“In 1971, 1 percent of our society was addicted to hard drugs, today one percent is addicted to hard drugs,” Steves said. “In Europe, 1percent of the population is addicted to hard drugs.”
So, Steves argues, that marijuana use is not the problem. It’s the lack of health and safety drug education, as well as the inherent racial divide that the criminalization of marijuana creates. The United States should follow suit from Europe and install a more pragmatic harm reduction method to the use of marijuana, he said.