By Nicole Bellford
Prominent travel writer Rick Steves said it is time America followed suit with European marijuana policies, thus taking a pragmatic harm-reduction approach rather than one of moralized incarceration.
“It’s not a matter of being soft or hard on drugs, but being smart on drugs,” Steves said to the crowd of approximately 450 people gathered in The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Schofield Auditorium Wednesday night. The speech, titled “European Takes on America’s War on Marijuana,” served as part of The Forum’s 75th season.
Throughout his speech, Steves made an argument for altering America’s marijuana policies and said the nation would benefit from adopting Europe’s method of approaching marijuana with laws similar to that of alcohol.
Steves made points in favor of Initiative 502, the legalization and taxation of marijuana, by discussing the reform’s economic benefits, crime reduction rates and impact on drug education.
Steves said states that have already enacted marijuana legalization are proof that it poses viable benefits for regional economies. States, such as California, have already legalized cannabis and experienced economic growth in the forms of tax revenue and the creation of thousands of jobs.
“The legalization of marijuana in California, that’s a big deal,” Steves said. “You are looking at a billion-dollar tax boom revenue.”
In terms of crime, Steves explained that current American drug policies tend to cause more harm than good. The speaker cited statistics that 700,000 people in the United States were incarcerated for nonviolent drug possession charges in the past year. Steves said eliminating marijuana use and possession as a criminal offense would result in far less funding being required for incarceration institutions.
Furthermore, he attempted to shut down any misconceptions about the risks of legalizing marijuana. Steves said contrary to beliefs that marijuana reform will result in increased usage or provide “gateways” to more illicit drugs, it would likely do just the opposite.
“The only gateway danger of marijuana is that it’s illegal,” Steves said. “Then kids have to go to the streets or the black market to get it, where they will probably be offered even worse drugs.”
Steves also utilized examples from European countries that have taken the initiative to legalize marijuana. He showcased the lack of disparity between European percentage of drug users versus the American percentage of drug users, both polling in near an identical 1 percent.
While some fear that legalizing marijuana sends the wrong message to kids, Steves said he believes it is step in the right direction of educating future generations on proper drug use.
“I think we need credibility as parents and teachers and cops when it comes to the dangers of drugs,” Steves said, “and if you talk credibly about these drugs, it sends the right message.”
Steves’s presentation served to both educate and entertain, inciting laughter during his recurring spurts of comical relief and unified applause when he addressed key points.
Brianna Hedeman, a biology and Spanish student, enjoyed the humor Steves was able to incorporate in his advocacy for marijuana legalization.
“He was hilarious,” Hedeman said. “This is really such an important thing to talk about. I appreciate his efforts to make this issue not so taboo.”
Laura Helgen, a Spanish and political science student, said she felt satisfied by the perspective he brought to the discussion.
“The whole thing was very comfortable,” Helgen said. “Coming back from a study abroad trip last semester, it was cool to hear his perspective and information on places that I visited.”
Above all, Steves said that supporting this alteration in American drug policy should be thought of as a valid push for change rather than promoting the drug itself.
“Advocating to change the law is not advocating to break the law,” Steves said. “It is supporting civil liberty.”