Travel writer and television host Rick Steves, well-known for his years of exploring Europe, took a trip to Montpelier, Vermont this week to discuss marijuana policy reform.
"I’m not pro-pot," the host of "Rick Steves' Europe" on PBS told the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee. "I’m anti-prohibition."
The board member of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the panel of lawmakers about the new jobs and revenues his home state of Washington has seen through regulating and taxing legal marijuana sales.
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Steves said Washington recently collected $310-million in revenues from marijuana in a 12-month period, some of which helped fund state initiatives into prevention and health care. Much of the money spent on the black market in Washington has now entered the regulated system, Steves said.
The knowledgeable European traveler also pointed to some of his observations from Portugal and the Netherlands.
"They’re saving a lot of money by not putting law enforcement against petty marijuana crimes—and diverting it to hard drug challenges," Steves told committee members.
Steves also said he believes reforming marijuana laws would have a powerful racial and economic justice component, arguing that marijuana enforcement has disproportionately affected non-white and low-income suspects—sending people behind bars for non-violent marijuana charges.
Starting this summer, Vermonters will be able to legally grow a handful of marijuana plants at home for personal use, under a new law recently authorized by Republican Gov. Phil Scott which takes effect July 1.
Possession of small amounts of pot will also be allowed in Vermont, but that new law did not authorize retail sales of recreational marijuana.
"It is coming to us, whether we like it or not," observed judiciary committee chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, referencing the fact neighboring Massachusetts has authorized the creation of legal marijuana shops. "My constituents will be buying it and paying a tax in Massachusetts, instead of Vermont."
When asked by necn if he believes more travelers would come to Vermont if marijuana retail operations were legal, Steves said he doesn’t like to encourage marijuana legalization as a tourism promotion tool.
"If anyone is concerned that if you legalize in this state, you would dampen interest in coming here, they're wrong," Steves said.
The idea of legal pot shops has been met with opposition from Gov. Scott, many members of law enforcement, and some representatives in the Vermont House, who have worried if the state would see side-effects, such as more drugged driving.
"I’m not convinced yet that it’s the right thing for Vermont," said Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington. "There’s a lot at stake here, and I don’t think we need to rush into this."
Despite that strong pushback, marijuana policy reform advocates plan to keep pressing the issue, saying it's time for Vermont to embrace a taxed and regulated system.