BOSTON — When Rick Steves is home in Seattle and looks out his window, the European travel expert said he sees "a beautiful city where we're not locking up pot smokers" and a state where the fears of marijuana legalization have not materialized.
"I'm very proud of what we accomplished. We were the first state, along with Colorado, to actually take it away from the black market and turn it into a highly-regulated and highly-taxed industry," Steves said of his home state's 2012 vote to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. "We're creating tens of thousands of jobs in our state, in the last year we've generated $130 million in tax revenue, and this does not come from more people smoking pot, this is money taken away from gangs and organized crime."
The public television star, who was active in the push to legalize cannabis in Washington, Colorado and Oregon, and sits on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is in Massachusetts this week to stump for Question 4, which would open the door to legal cannabis in the Bay State.
"I'm a hard-working, tax-paying, church-going, kid-raising American," Steves said. "If I work hard all day long and want to go home, smoke a joint and just stare at the fireplace for three hours, that's my civil liberty."
As he traveled around the state with the Yes on 4 campaign this week, Steves said he heard a lot of the same arguments against legalization that he heard in the months leading up to Washington's successful 2012 legalization ballot initiative: concerns that more people, especially teens, would begin to use marijuana, that it would drive crime rates up and that more drivers would be under the influence of the drug on the roads.
"The surprising thing to me is I've always thought of Massachusetts as a progressive state, a very creative state, a state that cares about tolerance and is a leader in that regard and in a lot of ways you are," he said. "But you've got a pretty regressive political establishment here that is kind of parroting the same warnings and the same excuses that were parroted by frightened politicians in 2010."
Led by Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, Attorney General Maura Healey and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts has rallied opposition to full marijuana legalization following the marked success activists had in 2008 and 2012 in decriminalizing marijuana and allowing for a medical marijuana program.
Opponents of Question 4 — which would legalize marijuana possession and use for adults 21 and older, charge a 3.75 percent excise tax on sales of marijuana, and set up a Cannabis Control Commission to regulate the new industry — have said legalizing marijuana would make the drug more accessible to children and could send a message to teens that marijuana is safe to consume.
"In Washington state after four years, use is not up, teen use is not up, DUIs are not up, crime is not up," Steves, who has offered to match donations to the Yes on 4 campaign up to $100,000, said. "The only thing that's up is tax revenue and people recognizing their civil liberties."
Steves said he is not "pro-pot," but instead gets involved with and tries to "raise public awareness about a smart public health initiative that is anti-prohibition, not pro-marijuana." He said he opposes the "Joe Camel kind of big tobacco approach to marijuana," and instead favors policies that would "take the crime out of the equation" and deal with marijuana in the same vein as alcohol or tobacco.
"It can be abused, it's not good for your health. But let's give credibility to law enforcement, let's give credibility to parents and teachers, and tackle the hard drugs with honesty and recognize that marijuana can be used and can be abused," he said. "Take the crime out of the equation and treat it as a health and an education challenge."
Steves described Question 4 as "a pro-public safety law," "taking down a prohibition" and "fiscal responsibility."
"Conservative, realistic, credible estimates in Massachusetts estimate that this state will make $100 million a year in tax revenue that they don't have now. That's not because more people are smoking pot, that money today is going to gangs and organized crime," he said. "Why not have it go right into this Statehouse so you can have better education, so you can have drug awareness programs, so you can take care of people who have problems with dangerous drug abuse?"