Known for his European travel guides, author Rick Steves visited the Kirkland Performance Center Feb. 4 to discuss a different topic: the decriminalization of marijuana.
"I'm a travel writer," Steves said. "For me, 'high' is a place, and sometimes I want to go there. And if my government says I can't, I want to know why."
Hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, the event featured a half-hour film, "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation," discussing the perceptions and facts surrounding the drug, as well as a public forum with Steves and three local speakers.
Steves is well known as an author and public television and radio host. Less known is the fact that he is a homeless advocate (he owns a
Lynnwood transitional-housing complex for homeless mothers and children) and is also a passionate supporter of marijuana decriminalization.
Steves believes that, based on his travels throughout Europe and his examination of federal policies, the "War on Drugs" has been an ineffective response propelled by hysteria and propaganda.
"When it's courageous to talk about a law that's counterproductive -- that's a problem," he said.
The author discussed how many European countries have instituted a policy of "harm reduction," in which age limits and quantities are strictly enforced, but using the drug is viewed as a health issue as opposed to a criminal one.
"The War on Drugs in my view is absolutely terrible," said David Nichols, a forum speaker and retired Whatcom County Superior Court judge.
All of the speakers emphasized that they were not advocating the use of marijuana. Instead, they pressed for regulatory methods, and for making a distinction between "hard" and "soft" drugs, putting marijuana in the second category.
A discussion of the effects of marijuana on the body drew a lively response. Panelists and interviewees in the film (ranging from medical professors to criminal justice experts) believe that marijuana poses little social or medical risk.
"The most damage someone is likely to do is to a bag of Doritos," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., who was featured in the film.
However, both panel members and speakers in the film frequently repeated that it has only been since the 1930s that marijuana has been criminalized, with the Marihuana Tax Act establishing a prohibition on marijuana in 1937. The film states that before that time hemp-paper had commonly been used. In fact, even the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written on hemp-paper, according to the film.
With a bill to decriminalize marijuana brought forth last month in Olympia, the issue has become very pertinent for Washington state.
Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), a speaker at the event, said the state is also considering lowering sentencing for marijuana-related crimes because of budget constraints.
Seattle City Councilmember and panelist Nick Licata also believes the issue to be of severe importance because of what he sees as a direct correlation between the current drug policies and an overabundance of related arrests, contributing to the need for a new municipal jail in King County (the construction of which is an idea he said he hates).
According to the ACLU, in 2007 872,720 people in America were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, with 89 percent solely for possession. The ACLU also estimates that the cost for taxpayers nationally to enforce this prohibition is approximately $7.5 billion, while Washington state spends roughly $90 million annually on marijuana enforcement.
When asked about what they thought the Obama administration would be doing on the issue, the speakers sounded cautiously optimistic.
Steves also said that, while he has often been met with positive responses for his advocacy of the issue, there have been some negative reactions as well.
"People say they will boycott my book, but I think Europe will be more fun without you," he said.