A Founder Looks at 50: The Rick Steves Advice for Surviving the Pandemic

NORML Founder Keith Stroup
NORML Founder Keith Stroup

For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the twenty-first in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

“Happy travels…even if you’re just staying home.”  – Rick Steves

I am borrowing that line today from my friend and colleague on the NORML board of directors, renowned travel author and guide, political activist and television personality Rick Steves. The phrase, which Rick uses to close many of his public lectures, captures the ability of marijuana smoking, in the right circumstances, to enhance one’s life by allowing us to enjoy the experiences of everyday life (including being locked-down during a pandemic) in a new, more vivid and creative manner – like taking a trip without ever leaving home.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves is an especially unlikely NORML advocate, whose public support carries great credibility. He is perhaps our single most effective advocate for full legalization of marijuana.

 As countless American travelers know, Rick Steves is a popular, prolific, and clean-cut travel expert who hosts the popular public television series “Rick Steves’ Europe” as well as public radio’s popular show “Travel with Rick Steves,” and has authored many popular guidebooks aimed at Americans traveling in Europe, beginning with Europe Through the Back Door, first published in 1980. He helps readers and viewers discover not just great cities, but cozy villages off the usual tourist-trampled paths. He says his goal is to “empower Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable and culturally broadening.” He helps American travelers connect more intimately with Europeans — often for a fraction of what mainstream tourists pay. And he must be doing something right, as his small group tours  annually take more than 30,000 people to Europe.

Rick relaxing (chillaxing) in the Swiss Alps. Photo: Rick Steves’ Europe

Rick has a wonderfully wholesome and charming style, and has developed a somewhat unique comfort level with average Americans. He received his undergraduate degree in 1978 from the University of Washington with majors in European history and business administration and was trained as a piano teacher (his father was a high school band director and piano technician who owned a piano store). It was on a trip to Europe when he was fourteen with his family to tour a piano factory that Rick became fascinated with Europe. Rick spends about four months each year in Europe, researching guidebooks, find-tuning his tour program, filming his TV show and making new discoveries for travelers. Rick’s mission these days as a teacher is to inspire Americans to “venture beyond Orlando”…to get out of their comfort zone and come home with what he considers the best souvenir: a broader perspective.

Rick is also active  on the national level with the Lutheran Church and espouses liberation theology, which emphasizes social concern for the poor and political liberation for the oppressed. 

Steves has prospered well with his travel-related businesses and he is extraordinarily generous towards his favorite charities. He is an environmentalist who has pledged to donate $1 million as a “self-imposed carbon tax” to fight climate change each year starting in 2019 to a group of environmental advocacy groups; and he has dedicated all the royalties earned on his Travel as a Political Act book to Bread for the World, an advocacy organization that speaks up for hungry people in Congress. And as an advocate for the homeless, in 2005 he purchased a 24-unit apartment complex in Lynnwood, WA called Trinity Place and administered by the local YWCA, to provide transitional housing for homeless mothers and their children. In 2017, Steves donated that $4 million apartment complex for homeless women and kids to the YWCA.

Steves similarly makes a substantial financial gift each year to NORML, as well as committing his own time and money to support progressive marijuana initiatives every two years. He was both a principal sponsor and a major financial supporter of the successful Washington state marijuana legalization initiative approved by the voters of his state in 2012, making Washington, along with Colorado, the first two states to end criminal prohibition and replace it with a legal regulated system. This year he is focusing his time and resources on full  legalization voter initiatives in New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana

Rick has developed a large following of dedicated fans, sometimes called “Rickniks,” who both like and trust him to maximize their European travel. To many of them, it may initially come as a surprise to learn that Rick has another side to him: he is also a marijuana smoker and a public advocate for legalizing the responsible use of marijuana.

When Steves first contacted me in 2002 to indicate his support for ending marijuana prohibition, and asking to learn more about the work of NORML, he did something else that few others have done over these five decades of advocacy; he invited my wife, Cindy Magill, and me to visit him in Edmonds, WA, to stay at his home and meet his family, and equally important, to meet with the senior employees in his company so they could form their own opinion regarding whether this was a group that Steves should publicly identify with. It was as if Cindy and I were auditioning, but the test was to determine if NORML was doing serious work to end legalization or whether we were just a bunch of stoners having a good time. In my case the answer was both (my wife is not a smoker), as I am a proud, regular smoker — for 55 years now — but I also take the importance of our work very seriously.

Rick speaking at Seattle Hempfest in 2011. Photo: Trish Feaster

Apparently we passed the try-outs both with Rick’s family and with his senior staff, as shortly thereafter, Steves became a regular featured speaker at numerous NORML conferences around the country. In 2013, he was elected to the NORML board of directors, where he is currently serving his third three-year term.

Smoking Pot Can be an Enhancing Experience

Rick brings to this issue a unique willingness to articulate in public what many marijuana smokers believe, but are uncomfortable saying out loud: that smoking cannabis can be a positive and life-enhancing experience. Not only is it not harmful behavior, but it can actually improve the quality of one’s life. The mind is clearer and one’s creative juices are enhanced by the experience of getting high. For example, inevitably when I sit down to write when I am stoned, the words just seem to fly out in new and interesting ways. And inevitably ideas pop into my head that should have been obvious, but were not, until I was high. 

Photo: Rick Steves’ Europe

Of course, no one should go to work in an impaired condition, on marijuana, alcohol or any other mind-altering substance; and no one should drive a car while impaired. But used responsibly, marijuana can improve the quality of one’s life. That basic point is one that we should all take advantage of as we work through these tedious days of pandemic quarantine.

Steves has a unique and effective way to explain his interest in marijuana smoking. “I’m a travel writer. For me ‘high’ is a place. Sometimes I just want to go there. And if my government says “no”, there better be a good reason. And there isn’t.” Rick finishes his talk by wishing his audience “Happy travels…even if you’re just staying home.”

Steves is a tremendously effective advocate who helps us bridge the gap between those of us who smoke and those who don’t. There is no one more effective at overcoming negative stereotypes of smokers than Rick Steves and we are fortunate that he has made this issue such a high priority in his life. 

Rick taking a break from filming in Italy’s Dolomites. Photo: Rick Steves’ Europe