Editor’s Note: Rick Steves is a travel writer, public television host and chair of the board of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I’m a hard-working, kid-raising, churchgoing, tax-paying American. And if I work hard all day and want to go home, smoke a joint and stare at my fireplace for three hours, that’s my civil liberty. This is my basic, principled message on marijuana legalization, a cause I’ve promoted for many years.
But my interest is grounded in something more: 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. And his administration made sure to include marijuana as a public enemy, even listing it in the “Schedule I” category of drugs, alongside heroin, where it remains to this day. In the decades since, millions of Americans have been arrested and imprisoned on marijuana charges.
It has long been obvious that our nation’s marijuana laws seem to be built on lies and racism and are an affront to civil liberties. As a travel writer and television host, I’ve seen how other nations – such as the Netherlands and Portugal – have tackled the complicated issue of marijuana in ways that are arguably more effective than ours, and at far less cost, both in money and the toll on human lives.
While it’s true that marijuana, like any drug, can be harmful and abused, it is also true that we can and should have smarter policies about it, based on pragmatically reducing harm rather than moralizing, overreacting and locking people up.
I started speaking out on marijuana when I realized that it was easier for me than for other people – I had a public platform and no concern about being re-elected or fired over marijuana. It seemed like a matter of good citizenship. And as I started sharing what I had learned from my European travels, I became more active in the cause.
Things are changing quickly in the US. Since the 1990s, more than 35 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and since 2012, 18 states have made it legal for adults to consume marijuana for enjoyment. I was a co-sponsor, leading funder and spokesperson for a 2012 bill in my home state, Washington, which joined Colorado that same year as the first to legalize pot for recreational use.
Progress has been steady in the last 10 years. At first it was the more progressive states that legalized through their initiative process. The next two were Oregon and Alaska in 2014, then California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada in 2016, Michigan and Illinois in 2018, and four more in 2020. In just the last few months, legislatures in five more states, including New York and New Mexico, have legalized.
While opponents painted a gloomy picture of what legalizing recreational marijuana would do to society, many supporters predicted only upsides. But there was a lot that people didn’t know. Would teen use increase? Would road safety suffer? Would there be a “gateway effect,” with more people abusing hard drugs after trying pot? Would society become one big hempfest?
No one knew for certain, because no country or state had ever done what Washington and Colorado did. Now we have a track record. Marijuana use has crept up a bit across society, but by every state’s statistics, teen use has not. And marijuana has not become the much-feared “gateway” to harder drugs.
It’s harder for teens to get marijuana now, since it is no longer sold so much by criminals on the street, but by legal retail outlets with strict attention to the nationwide 21-year-old age limit.
And the mystique of sharing something illegal has lost its appeal. Pot is now used by Mom and Dad. And Grandma’s rubbing it on her elbows.
States also report that legal marijuana does not imperil road safety. Researchers have found no appreciable difference in traffic deaths in states where medical marijuana is legal and widespread and those where it is not.
One clear and predictable effect of the nationwide push to take the crime out of the marijuana equation is that black markets that have long enriched and empowered street gangs and organized crime have been replaced by thriving and highly taxed legal markets that employ thousands of people in rural corners, where such employment has been much needed, and generate billions of dollars in state taxes.
Consider, too, that the underground trade in marijuana has over decades resulted in huge numbers of arrests and imprisonments, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, diverting limited law enforcement resources away from more serious challenges, and contributing to the United States’ disastrous mass incarceration problem.
In Washington, where illegal marijuana once rivaled apples as the leading cash crop, marijuana is now a billion-dollar legal market generating $469 million in tax revenue in 2020, much of it earmarked for health projects and drug education and awareness. Our governor, Jay Inslee – who was elected in 2012, the year we legalized marijuana, and didn’t originally support that law – now sees its wisdom and is thankful that, rather than chasing down pot smokers, he can now tax the businesses that grow and sell it legally.
And as our country grapples with systemic racism, the racist dimension of marijuana prohibition has become very clear. Wealthy, privileged, white people like me rarely get arrested for marijuana. But poor people, Black people and other people of color have had their lives changed forever because of the 50-year-old war on marijuana. Nixon’s war on marijuana had a racist agenda from the start, and our society has paid a huge price for embracing it.
With millions of black ex-felons unable to vote because of their marijuana possession convictions, the status quo is rightly called “the New Jim Crow.”
Thankfully, in the last few years states are recognizing the built-in racism in this prohibition. They are working to ensure that communities of color, having paid the dearest price for our war on marijuana, are the first to see the benefits of the newly legalized market, and that portions of the tax revenue raised from new cannabis sales are reinvested in the communities most ravaged by our War on Drugs. We also need to clear the records of people with marijuana convictions, something the governors of Illinois and Washington have made a priority.
We are at a threshold now where most of our country allows legal marijuana use (medical, recreational or both) and Congress is debating the MORE act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement) and the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.
While not legalizing marijuana outright, these laws would bring several important changes to enable states to deal with marijuana more reasonably. The common-sense changes include removing marijuana from the Schedule I list of the most dangerous and highly regulated drugs, allowing cannabis businesses to use the federally overseen banking system, and expungement–which would clear the records of people convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses, thus restoring their right to vote.
The MORE Act was approved by the US House of Representatives in 2020, and is expected to do so again this session, while the SAFE Banking Act has already been passed by the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.
On July 1 Virginia becomes the first state in the South to legalize recreational marijuana. On that day Keith Stroup, who founded NORML 50 years ago – in the same year Nixon declared war on marijuana – will legally exercise a civil liberty in the privacy of his own home; an act that he had done illegally and with regularity and can now do legally and with great joy: He will roll a joint and smoke it.
And as Keith legally inhales, it will also be time for our government to recognize something that more than 60% of the American people now believe and understand: that the current war on marijuana is racist, it’s an expensive and counterproductive mistake, and it’s time to recognize the civil liberty of mature American adults to enjoy smoking pot in their own homes and to do so without breaking the law.
A previous version of this article incorrectly listed cocaine as a Schedule I drug. It is categorized as a Schedule II drug.