High Times Greats: Talking To Travel Writer Rick Steves About Exploring The World

Amsterdam is PBS personality, guidebook author and NORML advisory-board member Rick Steves’ favorite stoner travel destination.
High Times Greats: Talking To Travel Writer Rick Steves
Rick Steves by Simon Griffith

From the August, 2005 issue of High Times comes Rick Steves’ ode to Amsterdam. In honor of his birthday on May 10, we’re republishing it below, followed by a Q&A between Rick Steves and Steve Bloom.

Rick Steves: 2005

I’ve spent a quarter of my adult life in Europe and Asia, living out of a 9 x 22 x 14-inch bag, promoting the idea that travel is accelerated living, the last great source of legal adventure for Americans. When you travel, everything is vivid; your cultural furniture is rearranged. Life is carbonated with a different and refreshing perspective. It’s like smoking pot.

Travel is full of learning. A self-assured American can learn about dealing pragmatically with societal challenges through travel. In Europe, people say a community must make a choice: tolerate different lifestyles or build more prisons.

The Dutch, who have very few people in prison, are quick to remind me that America, with four percent of the planet’s population, holds over a quarter of its prisoners. “We Dutch are businessmen,” one explained. “If there’s a problem, we deal with it as if that person is a future customer or partner.”

In Amsterdam—where 40 percent of the traffic is two-wheeled, mailboxes have decals saying either “ja” or “nee” to junk mail and junkies are given dean needles—people believe it’s futile to legislate personal morality. In the Netherlands, euthanasia, third-term abortion, prostitution and the use of marijuana are considered “victimless crimes” and, if not entirety legal, these actions are at least tolerated.

Dutch prostitutes are unionized, taxed, counseled and provided with health care. If a prostitute needs help and pushes her emergency button, the police—rather than a pimp—come to her aid. As a result, crime and health problems associated with prostitution are minimized.

Dutch coffeeshops—many decorated with Rastafarian colors—sell marijuana to locals and tourists alike. Older users get their weed “to go.” Younger users enjoy the ambience and consume it there, often with loaner bongs and vaporizers. Coffeeshop proprietors work with the police to educate people about the dangers of hard drugs. The coffeeshops provide a helpful wall between the use of tolerated soft drugs and still strictly illegal hard drugs.

Conservative Dutch drug-enforcement officers report that there has been no increase in drug problems with the spread of Holland’s coffeeshops. The major concern is pressure from the US and certain European Union nations (Sweden, France) to arrest pot smokers. Some European countries make a few arrests each year just to maintain favored-trade status with the US.

On my website we have a board where travelers share information about the opportunities to smoke pot in Europe (without the paranoia that comes with smoking in America). I don’t understand why so many righteous people complain to me that I’m promoting breaking the law.

To think that a politically driven prohibition in our country makes enjoying pot abroad evil is a gross example of ethnocentrism. The US may have a law making smoking marijuana illegal, but that has nothing to do with its legality outside of our country.

Through The Back Door With Rick Steves

Why did you Join the advisory board of NORML?

Rick Steves: I believe it’s good citizenship for anyone who thinks a law is wrong to encourage our government to change it. Conversely, I believe that to have this belief and do nothing is cowardice. Advocating for the rights of people who want to smoke marijuana is what NORML does, and the best way I can help NORML is to publicly put my name on their list of supporters.

Lots of counterculture types go public with their feelings about the recreational use of pot. They surprise no one and take no heat. Millions of other people have the same take on this issue but are in circles where this would raise eyebrows and perhaps discredit them—lose their job or an election. They smoke pot in hiding. No one should ever have to be shy or apologetic about working to change a law that’s so ruinous to so many good people.

What’s your favorite coffeeshop In Amsterdam?

Rick Steves: The Grey Area, famous for its Cannabis Cup awards, is a good place. But my favorite is the Paradox, tucked away in the Jordaan, run by a wonderful man named Ludo, with a mellow and graceful ambience, fresh juice and my kind of music. It’s an ambience that my older readers feel comfortable in and therefore is perfect for my guidebook.

Does PBS or anyone else give you flak about your marijuana advocacy?

Rick Steves: Most people in authority are smart enough to understand that my stance is correct or at least reasonable, and I’m just in a better position than they are to be honest about it. If someone boycotts my travel information because they disagree with my politics, that’s their loss.

What’s your No. 1 travel destination?

Rick Steves: Globally, it’s India. In Europe, it would be Italy—because, for a traveler, Italy offers Europe’s most “India-like experience.”

Besides Amsterdam, where have you smoked the best pot or hash in the world?

Rick Steves: Kathmandu. One of the happiest days in my life was at an open-air cafe/bakery called Pie and Chai, waiting for the next apple pie to come out of the rustic Nepali oven, listening to the Rolling Stones, surrounded by fascinating travelers from around the world and new Nepali friends. High in the Himalayas!

What’s something every stoner traveler should know?

Rick Steves: Don’t buy pot on the street. Buy from a source that locals will use on a regular basis and therefore needs to be reliably good-quality. Europeans mix their bud with tobacco, which I don’t like at all.

How did you become a travel personality?

Rick Steves: I’m passionate about European travel. I’ve made my life’s work spending a hundred days a year over there making all the mistakes, taking careful notes, then coming home and teaching fellow travelers in hopes that they can learn from my mistakes rather than their own and travel smarter. I’ve done this for 30 years now.

Do you write high?

Rick Steves: Yes. When I teach a travel-writing workshop, I joke that a travel writer could make a case that his or her marijuana expenses could be written off as business expenses. Journaling when high on the road has taught me to observe things differently. I don’t think the actual writing is that great, but it opens me up to experiencing things—from slow-motion leech attacks to Botticelli’s confetti maidens—differently, even when I’m not high.

This has been a huge help to me as a travel writer. I have on occasion brainstormed captions for books while high. For example, there’s a beautiful painting by Leonardo da Vinci of the Madonna and Christ child with Saint Anne. Anne speaks to Mary as the two women look, concerned, at baby Jesus. My caption: “It’s so sad when a child’s birthday falls on Christmas.”

If someone didn’t have any of your DVDs, which one would you recommend getting first?

Rick Steves: I have DVDs for each of my 50 travel shows. I suppose the most important would be the three-part special on travel skills. But my guidebooks are far more helpful for travelers than my DVDs. The most important of my 30 guidebooks is my travel-skills handbook, Europe Through the Back Door. At the risk of being immodest, I consider it the Kama Sutra of European travel fun. For High Times readers, perhaps my Amsterdam guidebook would be a close second.

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