You may know me today for my guidebooks or my PBS series about traveling in Europe. But back in the late 1980s, I was the anonymous “responsible businessman who supports legalizing pot” guest on Jim French’s KIRO radio show in Seattle. My pseudonym was Jerry. My stance: Our society would be better off by taking the crime out of the marijuana equation. Back then, it felt risky to use my own name when advocating for drug-policy reform.
But times have changed. Now, two-thirds of Americans agree, as I do, that the responsible adult use of marijuana is a civil liberty and that we should stop locking up pot smokers. In fact, 10 states have legalized recreational marijuana and I’ll bet four more (Arizona, South Dakota, Montana, and New Jersey) will this November.
As a board member of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), I speak out publicly across the country on why rather than arresting folks for marijuana, we should embrace a “pragmatic harm reduction” approach so effective in Europe that treats drug abuse as a health and educational challenge.
One evening, a police sergeant whom I consider a friend asked me: “Why are you so committed to your drug-policy reform work? You and your friends could smoke pot with discretion all you want, and no one’s going to bother you.” That conversation made me even more committed to this issue.
Sure, well-off white guys like me can consume marijuana with little risk. But some 650,000 Americans will be arrested this year for marijuana-related violations, mostly personal possession. Most of those arrested are poor, young, and people of color. In New Jersey, an estimated 30,000 people are arrested for marijuana-related charges every year — a total that’s among the highest in the nation. Black Americans are arrested in New Jersey for violating marijuana possession laws at approximately three times the rate of whites, and this disparity is rising. Many have dubbed the war on marijuana “the New Jim Crow,” for good reason. Our country’s war on marijuana is flat-out racist.
Marijuana use — and how we deal with it — is a serious, expensive, and persistent challenge in our society. And it’s time for a new approach. That’s why I am asking you to support New Jersey’s proposed ballot amendment to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults.
My stance is not “pro-pot” — rather, it’s anti-prohibition, pro-freedom, and pro-common sense. Just like the failed prohibition of alcohol, our current laws against marijuana use are causing more harm to our society than the drug itself. Whether you’re concerned about the well-being of children, fairness for our minority communities, redirecting money away from criminals and into our state’s coffers, stemming the horrific bloodshed in Mexico, or advancing civil liberties, it is clearly time for a new approach.
I helped legalize marijuana in my state, Washington, back in 2012. And now, about a decade later, we’re glad we did. The numbers are in: Consumption overall is roughly the same, teen use has not gone up, there’s been no impact on road safety, we’re no longer arresting thousands of people a year, and our civil liberties are respected. That once-thriving black market — which enriched and empowered gangs and organized crime in my state — has been replaced by a highly regulated and highly taxed legal market — which employs a lot of good people. And from this legal market, my state is enjoying about $400 million of tax revenue each year. My governor, Jay Inslee, who didn’t originally support our initiative, now sees the wisdom of taking the crime out of the marijuana equation and he’s thankful that we’ve thoughtfully legalized marijuana.
Now, a handful of other states have smartly legalized, taxed, and regulated the responsible and recreational use of marijuana for adults. They’re glad they did too. With each election cycle, the laws are smarter and the wisdom of legalizing is more clear. And now it’s your state’s turn. Be sure you’re properly registered and understand your voting options whether by mail or in person. And vote yes to bring this tragic, costly, and counterproductive prohibition to an end in New Jersey this election.
Rick Steves is a travel writer and host of public television’s Rick Steves' Europe. In 2012 he was a lead funder, cosponsor, and spokesperson for the successful campaign to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana in his home state of Washington.