PORTLAND, Maine — Rick Steves is well known for playing two roles: the earnest, affable host of a European travel program on PBS, and the deep-pocketed, staunch advocate for the legalization of marijuana.
Steves, a 61-year-old travel writer and TV host, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause in Maine and across the country.
He has donated the most of any individual to the Yes on 1 campaign this election cycle — contributing $100,000 of his own money to one of the most hotly contested political issues in Maine, a state that, before coming this week for a talk at the University of New England, the world traveler had never even visited.
“People do wonder why am I this mild-mannered kind of dad that’s traveled around on public television speaking out on this controversial issue,” he said. “Part of that is I am not scary. I can talk about this in a way that people will listen to. I don’t want to go to Hempfest and scream ‘legalization’ or ‘legalize it.’ I want to talk to people who have legitimate concerns and fears about this and explain to them that we can be smarter about this.”
Steves said he’s been “inspired by Europe’s approach to drug policy reform.” He has insisted he’s not pro-pot, but anti-prohibition and refers to the criminalization of marijuana as a civil liberties issue that has caused more pain in this country than the drug itself.
That’s why he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money trying to legalize it in four states.
“For me, as somebody who cares about our community … it’s good citizenship,” he said Monday afternoon during an interview at UNE, where he was scheduled to give a talk on the issue.
In addition to Maine, Steves also gave $100,000 to the cause in Massachusetts, and previously funded the campaigns in Oregon and Washington, his home state, he said. “I try to give $200,000 to the drug policy reform campaign every two years,” he said.
If approved next month, the ballot question would allow Mainers to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana, give the state regulatory power over cultivation and retail stores, and add a 10 percent tax for marijuana products.
“I think Maine has a very smart law. Now there’s little glitches in the law and there’s oversights in the law and because it’s an initiative I’m very comfortable with that,” he said. “Because that’s the nature of an initiative — the Legislature can tweak the law.”
The initiative seemed to suffer a setback last week when Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said the referendum could make it legal for minors to possess marijuana, which Steves shrugged off, saying it would be easy to fix.
“As if kids don’t don’t already smoke marijuana,” he said. “What we’ve learned is if you legalized marijuana tomorrow, use among teens will not go up. … Nobody intends to legalize marijuana for children, or people under 21.”
Scott Gagnon, who fronts the formal campaign opposed to the ballot question, said he was “baffled” that Steves wasn’t more concerned about that issue. “I don’t understand why anyone would be OK with that concept,” he said.