Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical
The Sweet Internationalism
of Rick Steves
Rick Steves is a travel guide and writer who lives in Edmonds, Washington,
and spends about 100 days abroad each year. His “Europe Through
the Back Door” books and TV shows on PBS are familiar to millions
of readers and viewers.
Two years ago Allen St. Pierre of NORML noticed Steves’s name
on the membership list and invited him to join the advisory board
and to talk at the annual meeting.
Every time I come home I’m reminded that I’m coming back
to the land that has the shortest vacations in the rich world,” Steves
told NORML in 2003. “And the highest prison population. It’s
really quite an adjustment. There’s been a mass dumbing down
of our society. We’ve been made to see things in a simplistic,
us-versus-them, Evil-empire way.”
At this year’s NORML meeting in San Francisco, Steves restated
his humane views in a keynote talk, excerpted below. Steves is in his
late 40s —a sandy-haired, bespectacled, intelligent, pragmatic
man, so calm that he seems slightly bemused even when he’s
expressing outrage. His experience as a travel guide makes him
suited to begin guiding this country back towards sanity. Rick
Steves for Secretary of State!
What Steves said to the marijuana-reform activists was implicitly
critical of single-issue narrowness, ostentatious patriotism, and
in soundbites. But the way he said it was so gentle, friendly,
and respectful that nobody took offense. Let’s hope Steves’s
message got through and that it actually gets heeded. It’s possible
to applaud and give awards to someone without actually following their
leadership. Just look at the serious face of Malcolm X on the 33¢ stamp.
Rick Steves: To me travel is accelerated living. You make more
friends and you learn more per day when you’re away from home than you
do at home. Everything becomes very vivid. When I’m in Europe
for a month I can recall every meal. Can’t do that when I’m
at home, it’s just not that vivid...
Travel really challenges truth. You’re raised thinking certain
truths are self-evident and God-given, and then you get over there
and you realize that people do things differently. Travel rearranges
your furniture. I mean, you go to Bulgaria and this means yes (shaking
his head) and that means no (nodding). And you go to France and slow
service means good service. Slow service is respectful service —you’ve
got the table all night, take your time...
You go to Belgium and they dip their French fries into mayonnaise,
they look at you strange if you ask for ketchup. I go to Japan
and I’m in a Raokan in the middle of the night and it’s cold.
They don’t heat their houses. And you slip on your slippers and
you put on your kimono and you shuffle down the hallway you can see
your breath, you’re not looking forward to sitting on the toilet,
but the seat is heated. That’s a nice jolt...
Travel carbonates your life. It makes things different, it sort
of refreshes your perspective and in a lot of ways, that’s
like marijuana, I would say.
When I started teaching I wondered if it was a noble thing to teach
rich Americans to do. My image of travel when I was a kid was rich,
white Americans on big cruise ships in the Caribbean throwing coins,
photographing black kids diving for those coins. It was a way to
flaunt your affluence. Nobody thought twice about it. That’s
what travel was all about.
Even today that notion of travel persists. For a lot of people,
travel is: see if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel
get into port. And that’s not something I wanted to promote.
I wanted to promote thoughtful travel. In the last few years, thoughtful
travel has become more important than ever for Americans.
I’m really committed to the notion that travel is a constructive,
healthy thing to do. That’s nothing new. Fourteen hundred years
ago Mohamed said “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell
me how much you’ve traveled.”
Thomas Jefferson said, “Travel makes a person wiser, but less
happy.” Mark Twain traveled, and he said “Travel is fatal
to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
I travel and I think of it as one of the last great sources of legal
When you travel you realize there’s things to get excited about.
I grew up thinking cheese was the same size as the bread —and
it’s orange. Then you go over there and they’ve got
a different cheese for every day of the year.
You go into a cheese shop in Paris it’s like a festival of mold.
I love hanging around with my restaurateur friends in Paris. I’m
their little American bumpkin and they can help me appreciate the fine
points of life. She takes me into the cheese shop and picks up the
moldiest one. (As if taking a deep whiff) “Oh, Rick, smell this
cheese it smells like ze feet of angels.” Now, imagine thinking
that cheese smells like ze feet of angels! It just changes your
perspective on things.
I was in Kabul, in Afghanistan. A professor sat down next to me and
said, “You’re an American, aren’t you?” I said “Yeah.” He
said, “I want you to know that a third of the people on this
planet eat with spoons and forks like you do, a third of the people
eat with chopsticks and third of the people eat with their fingers
like I do and we’re all just as civilized.” I was thankful
for that. He had a little chip on his shoulder and he wanted to tell
every American he could meet that he’s not less civilized because
he eats with his fingers.
I was in Eastern Turkey in a land that might be called Kurdistan some
day and met a carver who was famous in his corner of the country, everybody
wanted a prayer niche carved by him. And we visited with him, and he
was so proud to be showing his work off to these American travelers,
he lifted his chisel up to the sky and said, “A man and his chisel,
the greatest factory on earth!” Wow! There’s a fulfilled
guy. He may not know how to turn on a computer, but he can define his
own success, and I thought that was pretty cool.
When you travel you just meet people, you meet people all over the
place. A little while ago in Germany a little kid, like a 5-year-old
kid, was just staring at me. And finally his mom said, “Excuse
my son, he stares at Americans. You see, last week we were at MacDonald’s
and he asked me ‘Why do Americans have such soft bread?’” And
the mother told the kid, “Because they have no teeth.”
Travel puts you in your place. I’m as inclined as the next
American to brag about how well our athletes do at the Olympics,
and I grew up marveling at how great we were, it was always USA on
top of that Olympic medal list. Well, then my Dutch friend said, “Well,
you’ve got a lot of Olympic medals, but per capita, we’re
doing eight times as well as you.” We’re not used to
thinking of Olympic medals in terms of per capita.
It’s important to broaden your perspective and it’s important
to bring it home —to bring it home and share it with people
that way. We’re trying to bring it home with our kids. Grandma
and grandpa came over when my son was about four years old or three
years old and after table prayers I taught him to say “Allah...
Allah... Allah...” Just to freak out my dad. You’ve got
to put people a little outside their comfort zone to share what you’ve
learned from your travels.
One thing I’ve learned from my travels is how Europeans are
a little more progressive than us in dealing with social problems.
Every time there’s a death sentence commuted in the United
States, there’s a light show at the Coliseum in Rome. They
celebrate in Europe when we commute a death sentence in the United
States... And of course when you travel in Europe you realize that
there is a non-criminal approach to marijuana that could be quite
inspirational to American policy makers if they would just learn
When you think about taking a trip, you can take a trip with your
marijuana or you can take a trip with your passport. It’s kind
of fun to take a trip without having to travel. Just put me in a
nice location with a National Geographic and a joint and I’m
climbing Mt. Everest. That travel is really quite cheap if the dollar’s
too low... And you can do your actual travel and mix some appreciation
of marijuana into that and it becomes kind of super-travel.
A lot of Americans are not edgy enough to smoke here, where it’s
illegal, but it’s enjoyable for them to have an opportunity
to enjoy some recreational use of marijuana without the paranoia
that comes with doing that publicly in the United States.
First time I ever smoked was in Afghanistan. As a kid I didn’t
want peer pressure to make me do something my parents said I shouldn’t.
Over there it was just like going local. “When in Rome,” you
know. And when in Afghanistan, this is what you do. The bus stops
and everybody stands around and watches a goat get slaughtered
and passes around the bong.
I mean, you stand on the rooftop of your hotel and there’s
chariots going by, torchlit, and the lightbulbs are all breathing
and people are eating soup with their hands and they don’t
drop a bit. And you travel on over to Nepal and you can look right
into the eyes of the living virgin goddess the Kumari Deva, you’ve
got these slow-motion leech attacks and everybody is going “namestay,
namestay (I salute your virtues)...” and you write in your
journal trying to catch all this stuff and you get home and you hardly
remember where you were high and where you weren’t. But when
you read it, there’s a certain dreaminess that comes into your
journal writing that you can kind of derive, it couldn’t
have been that great, I must have been high.
When I teach a writer’s workshop a lot of times people will
ask me “What’s a trick? How can I be a better travel writer?” One
of the tricks of travel writing is to be able to experiment with your
perspective —smoking pot if you want to sharpen your ability
to be a good travel writer. Like photographers will experiment with
light. Any good photo-grapher’s going to play around with existing
light, it’s a fascinating thing. Well, as a travel writer you
want to experiment with different perspectives on things. When you’re
a keen observer you realize —you can try and kill flies forever
on the bed in Cairo but if you realize that when they’re rubbing
their little front feet together, they’re toast! You can get ‘em
when they’re doing this... (rubs his hands).
When you’re in Shanghai you see these skyscrapers. They’re
throwing up the equivalent of a skyscraper every day in Shanghai,
surrounded by a sea of poverty. When you write about that, it helps
to see these skyscrapers as stilettos just sticking up through this
fertile soil of a billion people. You’ve got to make your observations
from a different angle so people can better enjoy them.
You’re looking into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David
and you’re actually seeing him sizing up the darkness of medieval
superstition right there, five hundred years ago when Florence was
pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages.
For 25 years I’ve been taking groups around Europe. We take
five thousand people around Europe every year on 200 different
Trying to get my travelers engaged to travel thoughtfully —not just fun
in the sun, not just bingo and not just shopping but thoughtful travel. Going
to Europe is going to a continent where people realize that society has to
make a choice. You can tolerate alternative lifestyles or you can build more
prisons. But you’ve got to make a choice. In Europe they’d rather
tolerate alternative lifestyles. In our society we’d rather build
We live in a country where the hottest thing in real estate is gated
communities for the wealthy and prisons for the poor. And we’re oblivious. I don’t
know why we don’t see this as a political issue, but it’s a scary
thing. Europeans are quick to remind me that my country has 4% of the world’s
population and 25% of its prisoners. That’s not a good statistic.
Europe has learned that you cannot legislate personal morality. It’s
futile. It’s counterproductive. The Dutch say “We’re businessmen.
If there’s a problem, we deal with that person as if he’s
a future customer or partner.
The Dutch have so many creative ways to solve problems. You can complain
about junkmail all you want. In the Netherlands they have stickers
on their mailboxes
that say yes or no, so they don’t get junkmail unless they want it. Americans
say “We can’t have pedestrian streets because then cars can’t
get to my shop.” In Europe they have pedestrian streets with little swipe
things for a credit card and you swipe it if you’re a resident and the
gate goes down but otherwise it’s traffic free. In the Netherlands 40
percent of the traffic is on two wheels. There are entire communities in Europe
that are going to be wind-powered. There’s a race going on right
now for that.
They deal with their problems by thinking outside the box. And as
Europe unites, what they’re doing gets more impressive. It’s easy to write Europe
off as the “old world,” but they’ve got a bigger economy
and a bigger population than we do right now. 400 million people with 11 trillion
dollar GDP and they’re not spending half of their disposable income on
the military, they’re investing it in their own infrastructure. It’s
breathtaking what’s going on there.
Our society is making some hard choices right now to cover our government’s
military needs -cutting right into people’s programs that weaken our
communities. In Europe those are the last things they’d be
United States applies pressure on them. I had people in Copenhagen
tell me they had to arrest a couple of potsmokers every year just
trade status with the United States of America. That’s a
Coming home for me is always a little bit of a jolt. The first person
that meets me at the airport is a dog. I can’t help but think: “One
nation under surveillance.” We pride ourselves on life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness, but we have the shortest vacations in
the rich world.
We’ve got an uptight situation about sex where even my travel
shows on PBS are rated for mature audiences only —if you can
imagine that. David’s going to be pixilated here pretty soon.
TV programmers around the United States have a list of how many seconds
of marble penis and canvas breast are showing as I show art from
Programmers can’t inflict a Titian painting or a Michalengelo
statue on their viewership in some conservative communities without
In a lot of regards we’re going in the wrong direction in this society
and that’s why it’s good for us all to get together and encourage
each other and break from this huddle [the NORML meeting] and go back
into our communities.
Jailing people for pot in Europe would be laughable. But that’s not the
case here in the United States. In so many ways I think we’re
living a lie.
And that’s one reason why I got involved with NORML. I just don’t
think if you’re a successful, affluent, free country you need to embrace
lies to con your electorate into this or that. We just heard that the intelligence
on weapons of mass destruction was mistaken. And they all pretend they didn’t
We are routinely outvoted in the United Nations by 140 to four on
environmental issues, development of the third world, the criminal
court, on Cuba,
on Israel. Who stands with us? Israel, the Marshall Islands, and
what I call a rogue nation.
If there’s something going on to help solve the problems of desperately
poor people, there’s one country that gets in the way, the U.S.A. It’s
us! If Canada wants to give discounted medicine for AIDS to Africa,
who gets in the way of it? We do. If Americans knew this, if it
communicated effectively, I think it would be not a very tough
sell to get our country
a little more tuned into the needs of the people on this planet.
But we are embracing these lies. We buy this stuff. “No child
left behind.” “Clean
skies.” “I love trees.” “The party of life.” “Tax
relief.” “Death tax.” All of this terminology
we just embrace. They call it the “defense” department.
Nobody should ever let that word go by without a challenge. It’s
not a “defense” department.
We spend as much as the rest of the world put together on the military
and you can’t get elected without promising more. There’s a mania in
that regard; it’s a big problem. We hear that we’re for peace and
we’ve got these ‘Christian values,’ but we’re pounding
plowshares into swords these days at a record pace. Somebody’s got to
just stand up and just say ¬—you know, when Bush talks about freedom
and liberty, he’s talking about freedom to other people’s natural
resources and liberty to use their cheap labor. That’s what they’re
I was down in El Salvador last week. I just wanted to see what
was going on in the developing world. They’ve got their struggles between the left
and the right down there and the leftwing party in El Salvador was almost going
to win the presidential election last year and President Bush had to send his
brother Jeb down there to stand by the rightwinger and tell the Salvadorans “If
you vote for the leftwing, we’re going to stop remittances coming down
from all the refugees working in the United States.” Which is a third
of the money in El Salvador’s economy. So most of the people voted for
the rightwing, against their interests, because of this threat from the United
States. That’s democracy these days.
A leading Jesuit priest, an educator in El Salvador, says whenever
he hears the term “democracy” these days, his bowels move. I’ve got
a journal about that. If you’re curious about what I learned down in
El Salvador. It’s at ricksteves.com,
One thing I’m concerned about is the mass dumbing down of our
society. The stuff I’ve been talking about, we go “yeah,
yeah, yeah,” but the average person doesn’t get it. It’s
because of fear, I think, and because powerful forces in our society
have been dumbing us down. They would find it convenient if we all
become just mindless producer-consumers. We’ve got to not let
them dumb us down. Because when we’re dumbed down, that’s
the only way political initiatives against the interest of the people
in general can have a chance.
The news is not news. Reality tv is not reality. When you see steroids
on TV, and Michael Jackson and Terry Schiavo and so on, nobody’s talking about
the big issues. I mean every day, if you care about people if you’re
into sanctity of life, every day three times as many people who died on 9/11
die in Africa. Every day because of AIDs. That’s a real problem that
can be dealt with. We hear about the tsunami, and then it’s gone out
of the news. And nobody tells us that every week there’s a tsunami worth
of innocent children that die of starvation on this planet. It’s just
structural poverty, and America is the flagbearer of this structural poverty
around the planet. As good people we can encourage our neighbors and so on
to become a little more progressive.
The problem with marijuana is, if they’re trying to make us just mindless
producer-consumers, marijuana is not good on either account. It doesn’t
make us want to produce more and the only thing we would consume more is
The thing this society doesn’t like about marijuana is it turns people
who wouldn’t otherwise be poets into poets. Think of Maslow’s famous
hierarchy of needs. First you get your clothes and your car and your house
and then you can do things that are more creative and then at the top you get “selfless
actualization,” helping other people.
It’s more convenient in our society to have barbed wire strung around
Maslow’s hierarchy about midway, so that we continue to consume on the
bottom end, out and out and out, not realizing that we can step over the barbed
wire and live more fulfilling lives. One of the reasons why philosophically
I’m into marijuana is that it’s a good way to cut that
barbed wire and be true to yourself and be what really is successful.
To sell this propaganda of our government’s war on drugs requires using
the big-lie technique. Hitler learned that you can tell a big lie over and
over again, and people believe it if you tell it enough times. We’ve
got to recognize the propaganda. The propaganda erodes the credibility of the
government, of schools, of families when it comes to marijuana. We’ve
got a White House that spends millions of dollars advertising in the Super
Bowl trying to tell people that marijuana causes teen pregnancies. And it’s
surrounded by beer ads! Now what’s causing the pregnancies?
I’ve got friends who are teachers and the DARE program by any teacher’s
assessment is somewhere between ineffectual and counterproductive. When you
get a DARE officer in the teachers lounge, teachers who are free spirits —Dead
Poets Society types— are cowed into silence. You can hear a pin drop
in the teacher’s lounge when the DARE officer is there. No one will question
DARE because it’s bad news for your job security if you are known as
somebody who is a little bit open-minded about creative ways to deal with drugs
and children. It is so exciting to go to a DARE meeting at school and question
it. I mean, many parents there want to do it but they’re just too chicken.
Many parents know this is bogus but they just are afraid and this fear is what’s
keeping us down.
At home, I have two teenage kids. My wife is a nervous wreck. Parents
are taught that this is a gateway drug and it’s 20 times as powerful back when we
did it innocently when we were kids and all this kinds of stuff. I’m
excited about having credibility with my kids. One of the perks
I get for being on the advisory board here at NORML is I can invite
Stroup over for dinner
and introduce my teenage kids to a lawyer who has dedicated his
an ideal rather than people with a lot of money.
There’s a nobility in our struggle that I think can be explained a little
better. My daughter just wrote a paper. She got to choose whatever topic she
wanted and she chose “Why marijuana should be decriminalized. I just
read the teacher’s response to it two days ago. She got an ‘A’ but
the teacher said, “We don’t all have to agree with you, but it’s
a good paper.”
I think the underlying thing about this propaganda war on the part
of our government against marijuana is that even more than stopping
drug use, what’s
motivating them is instilling fear in parents. Because fear is the only way
they’re going to keep us down.
Normally, I’m not talking about the decriminalization of marijuana, I’m
talking about foreign policy and 9/11 stuff and terrorism. That
relates to my travel stuff more directly. But it is the same thing!
us to be afraid and the fear enables them to manipulate us this
For goodness sakes, we’ve got doctors and scientists and medical
experts that have to be politically correct to give our government
advice. It’s sort of bad news to make Hitler parallels but it’s
getting more and more like that. Our environmental policies, our health
policies, our AIDS policies, are shaped by people who are driven by
ideological agendas. I mean, tears cause AIDS now... Our government
is embracing this. It’s amazing to me.
I was very impressed when I read on the NORML website a bulletin the
Drug Czar sent out to all the prosecuting attorneys listing 20 reasons
is the devil’s weed. Each one of these points is refuted very solidly
on the NORML website. But that our government would be giving this trash to
prosecutors with the implication that you better be running with this sort
of standard....That’s just really —somebody’s got to stand
up to that.
Travel teaches you a respect for history. We should learn from history.
We had this 13-year experiment with Prohibition and I think by any
it just made a lot of criminals, filled a lot of prisons and cost our society
a lot of money back in the ’20s. It was big government at its worst.
Today, more and more people are waking up to this prohibition that’s
keeping Americans who shouldn’t be criminals criminals. It’s causing
so many people to be arrested every year. If one person arrested for marijuana
is contributing to the congestion of our prisons right now, that’s
one person too many.
We need to balance our activism. I think your marijuana activism will
be more effective if you’re also into the PTA and homelessness and the schools
and public television or whatever. It makes me more credible because people
know I’m into other causes, also. It makes me feel more effective
as an advocate of decriminalizing marijuana.
We have a clear message and you’ve just got to have these figures:
750,000 Americans were arrested last year because of marijuana, 88%
of them for simple
possession. Our country blew seven billion dollars on this.
This should be a conservative issue. We can talk about the European
solution. Fifteen years they’ve been experimenting with treating
marijuana as a medical concern rather than a criminal one. Even
types like it this way.
We need to pre-empt the discredit. They’re going to say: “You’re
for children abusing drugs?” “ No, we’re not for children
smoking pot, we’re not for hard drugs, we’re not for driving when
you’re high, none of that stuff!” But you need to pre-empt that
because they’ll try to discredit you right away.
Responsible adult use is okay, but nobody’s talking about
kids getting easy access to pot. We need to shoot off that torpedo
us with it.
People think advocating for NORML is advocating for breaking a
not. It’s advocating to change a law —and that’s a very fundamental
difference. I’m not saying to smoke pot. I’m saying it’s
wrong to arrest people who want to smoke pot as mature adults, or for medical
use. We’re not saying break the law. I want to support NORML publicly
like I support travel. I think it’s a matter of freedom. I think it’s
recess, and we need it in this society.
Being high to me is a little like Cuba. Any time my government
says I can’t
go somewhere, I feel it’s one of my rights to go there. My government
can’t tell me I can’t go to Cuba. Everyone else is going to Cuba,
why can’t I go to Cuba?
And I don’t think my government can tell me what I can do
as a responsible citizen in the privacy of my own home...
So, happy travels, even if you’re just staying home. Thank
you very much.