Travel guru Steves urges lawmakers to push ahead on pot

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Guidebook author and public TV travel show host Rick Steves told a Senate panel on Thursday that when pot became legal in his home state of Washington he didn’t smoke more marijuana, he just no longer felt a criminal when he did.

And, he said, he isn’t alone.

“Anybody who wants to smoke pot already does,” Steves said. “I don’t smoke more pot now than I did before, I can just do it as a legal activity.”

Steves, who said marijuana is a “small part” of his life, told the panel that usage rates didn’t “skyrocket” in Washington when that state established a tax and regulated market for marijuana sales in 2012.

Steves is a staunch supporter of marijuana legalization and is also a board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

He traveled to Vermont as part of an East Coast advocacy tour in support of legislation for a tax and regulated system for the retail sale of marijuana for adults.

His testimony before the Senate panel Thursday comes on the heels of the enactment last month of H.511, which legalizes the possession of up to 1 ounce of pot and the cultivation of two mature and four immature marijuana plants. Legalization goes into effect on July 1.

Vermont is the ninth state to legalize marijuana, and the first to pass a legalization measure through legislation rather than a voter initiative.

While Vermont has taken the “incremental step” of approving the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Steves said he didn’t believe it would be long before it joins other states that have established tax and regulated markets for marijuana sales.

He told the Senate committee that in Washington state, marijuana generates about $1.4 billion in sales, leading to more than $300 million in tax revenues for the state. Those funds, he said, help to pay for drug education and health programs.

Efforts to establish a marijuana tax and regulated retail market in Vermont have run into headwinds. An advisory committee established by the governor is currently studying the matter with a report not expected until December, well after the current legislative session concludes.

Steves appeared to have found a friendly audience for his message among the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Here you’re addressing the converted, or the choir,” Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said to Steves. “There are so many people in Vermont who are stuck in 1952. I don’t know how to get to them.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the committee’s chair, told Steves that the Senate has passed legislation to establish a tax and regulated marijuana retail market in the past, only to have it fail to advance any further.

Under the bill that did pass and becomes law July 1, it remains a crime for a person to sell or buy marijuana.

“I expect this issue is not going away,” Sears told Steves. “We’ve created a legalized system that keeps the black market alive. We don’t have a way to buy.”

Steves said he tells people, “You can disagree with me, but I’m not pro pot. I am anti-prohibition because it’s not working.”

Vermont Tax Commissioner Kaj Samson, a member of the Governor’s Marijuana Advisory Commission looking at tax and regulated systems, attended the Senate panel’s session with Steves.

“It’s just more information for me as we do our work in 2018,” Samson said after listening to Steve’s testimony.

“Our committee is trying to stay out of the debate on whether there is wisdom or not in taxation and regulation, but just to talk about the pros and cons of different ways to get there,” Samson said. “Washington is one of those states that appears to have gone about it successfully. We want to look at those states.”

Steves, who said his business in Seattle employs about 100 people, told the Senate panel he hasn’t suffered any “blowback” from his vocal support of marijuana legalization.

“Once in a blue moon somebody says, ‘I know what you think about marijuana, Rick Steves, and we’re not going to take your tours, we’re not going to use your guides books,’” he told the committee. “I just think, ‘Europe is going to be more fun without you.’”

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