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"It’s not pro-marijuana it’s about pro civil liberties": Rick Steves, NORML Board of Directors Chair

Rick Steves, NORML Board of Directors Chair joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel to discuss NORML’S mission to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Well, earlier this month, dozens of the largest cannabis companies, including Canopy Growth and Curaleaf, joined up to form a nonprofit group to push for cannabis reform at the federal level. But interestingly, one of the largest cannabis consumer advocacy groups was absent from that list, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, did not join in.

It seemed to point of a bit of an elephant in the room. The farther we get into the details around cannabis legalization, that's perhaps most evident right now in the state of New Jersey, where they're going back and forth over the laws there, as some legislators want to keep civil penalties remaining in place for marijuana possession in adults under the age of 21, even though New Jersey voters voted to legalize last year.

So for more on the business versus consumer debate shaping up on the reform front, happy to welcome in long-time cannabis reform advocate and recently appointed chair of the board at NORML. Rick Steves joins us now, who you might know from his famous travel guides as well. But Rick, maybe a lot of people out there don't know you've been in this space. So talk to me about what you make of this battle between profitability around cannabis and the consumer side that you guys are pushing for. What are you seeing right now?

RICK STEVES: Well, it's no battle. It's two different things. There are people who want to make money off of marijuana, and there are people who want to defend the civil liberty to smoke marijuana. And at NORML, we are not in the business of making money on NORML, and we're not a lobby organization for or against the marijuana business. We have been working very hard for 30 or 40 years simply to take the crime out of the equation and recognize the civil liberty for adults to smoke marijuana responsibly in their home. And that's what we do.

So I'm all over the civil liberties aspect of it. And once we legalize, sure, people are going to make money for it, but we're not in it to make money. We're in it for, I think, a higher ideal, and that's just to stop the prohibition, the wrong-minded counterproductive prohibition against marijuana based on a lot of lies. It's racist, it's counterproductive, and it's not American. So that's what NORML is all about. And I'm proud to be the chair of the board for the coming year.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, it's interesting, too, because in New Jersey, that seems to be the hang-up here because they want to keep penalties around possession. But voters also voted to legalize. And everyone's saying, hey, look, that's not really what we voted for. And it seems like that's going to be the discussion the closer we get to it. So I mean, what do you make of that reaction? And how much of that is as to why maybe NORML remain separate from some of these other advocacy groups?

RICK STEVES: Well, don't frame it like we're against anything. We are just focused on our mission, which is to legalize marijuana. Now there's a lot of people that want-- that are businesses that are really aggressive, and they've got all sorts of ideas how they can capitalize on the end of the black market of marijuana. And that's a different issue.

I do find there's kind of two complexities injected into something that is as simple as stop locking up pot smokers. A lot of people have their agenda and their vision to make money on it. And they want to shape the kind of bill or initiative that's being voted on to favor businesses. And then there's the issue of once we do recognize the will of the people and decide to stop the prohibition in this state or that state, it's the people's will. Stop locking up pot smokers.

And then right-wing politicians, generally Republicans, they find a way to try to derail or mess up a clear message from the voters. I've been at this every two years since 2012 when we legalized, taxed, and regulated marijuana in Washington state. And I've worked-- I've gone barnstorming.

I've helped fund and been a spokesperson for successful initiatives in Washington in 2012, Oregon in 2014, Massachusetts and Maine in 2016, Illinois, Michigan in 2018. And just this year, or last year, I was working in Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, and New Jersey. And, you know, we just want to have exercised the people's will in these states. People voted to legalize marijuana. And then after we win, we have to shepherd it through because, time and time again, regressive politicians want to go back to the reefer madness kind of notion about marijuana.

AKIKO FUJITA: Rick, let's talk about what has played out in your home state of Washington, as you pointed to the fact that it was one of the very first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. As federal lawmakers looked at-- tried to piece together some legislation right now, what are the lessons that can be drawn from Washington state's experience in terms of the growth that you have seen there, the tax revenue that's been collected as a result of it.

RICK STEVES: Yeah, and that's a very important thing. When we legalized in Washington 10 years ago or eight years ago, we had a hunch that things would turn out a certain way. Now we have a track record. There's no more hunch. We have a track record, and it's clear when you legalize marijuana, use stays roughly the same. It maybe creeps up a little bit overall.

Teen use actually goes down statistically. It's just no longer so sexy. Grandma's rubbing it on her elbow. You stop arresting poor people and people of color. I mean, it's a racist law. Rich white guys don't get arrested. It's poor people and people of color. And you recognize the civil liberty.

But getting into the business end of it, in Washington state, before we legalized, marijuana-- illegal marijuana rivaled apples as the biggest cash crop in our state. It was a billion dollar industry, enriching and empowering gangs and organized crime.

And what the voters in Washington decided to do is, hey, let's just not wish this away. Marijuana is here, whether we like it or not. Let's turn it into a highly regulated, highly taxed legal market, and we'll create some good employment. So now eight years later, I'm a friend of our governor, Jay Inslee. He didn't support us in the beginning. Now he recognizes the common sense of this.

He's no longer locking up 10 or arresting 10,000 people a year. Instead of a billion dollar black market industry, we have a billion dollar legal, highly taxed and regulated industry. And it's generating, I believe it's $300 million a year in tax revenue, earmarked for public health and drug policy issues, and so on. And it's just been a beautiful success in our state. It's been a great success in Colorado. And more and more states are realizing this. So there's a rising tide of common sense and I think just sensibility.

And right now, it's kind of exciting because we're moving away from the state by state and into the federal zone. And our federal government is going to be dealing with this in the coming months with the MORE Act, which basically recognized it is states' rights to do what they want to do with that issue in their state. It opens the door to expungement, which is really important, considering the racial injustice of this. People can take their previous marijuana offenses off of their record.

And it also makes it easy for us to de-- well, hopefully, it will deschedule marijuana. You know, Nixon put marijuana right up there with heroin in the 1970s, and we've been paying the price for that ever since.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and that's a key point, too, because when we talk about the social side of this, it's not just a social thing. And you're right to point out kind of the social discrepancies around arrests. But it's also an economic driver not just in the job creation, but we've heard from a number of guests talk about expungement and what that means for them on a personal level and getting back into the workforce, rather than having to carry around a criminal history.

But when you do look at the way that the federal laws could change, we've heard timelines be moved up. We talked to some of the CEOs of the largest cannabis companies, saying that 2021 is the year that you're going to see that descheduling. What's your take on when we're going to see it finally happen? In your discussions, how soon is it coming?

RICK STEVES: Well, you know, it depends on the federal government. Thankfully, we've got-- with Democrats, we're more open to the pragmatic harm reduction approach to a very complicated and persistent problem, more of a European approach to it where a joint's about as exciting as a can of beer. You know, they can't believe we lock up-- what, we arrest 80,000 people a year in our-- no, we have 80,000 people in prison right now, and we lock up 600,000 or 700,000 people. Or we arrest a lot of people, just hundreds of thousands of people every year. They can't believe that in Europe.

So some people believe in just, you know, moralizing and locking people up and incarceration, and other people believe in just a more pragmatic approach. And I'm just so-- I just want to make the point. At NORML, where I'm now-- I've been on the board for more than 10 years, and now I'm the chair this year. You know, it's not-- for me, it's not pro marijuana. It's pro civil liberties.

And there's a lot of people, as just a matter of principle, recognize that this federal prohibition is so much like the prohibition against alcohol back in the 1930s. When they finally stopped that and relegalized alcohol, they weren't saying booze is good. They were saying the laws to try to protect people from its harms were causing more problems to society than the drug itself.

And that's the situation with marijuana. I believe it can be abused. It needs to be regulated. But right now, we have the-- you know, the status quo is non-productive. It's racist. And from a business point of view, it's flat out stupid because that is a thriving black market, whether we like it or not. It's not going to go away. And if you want to do something to pull the rug out from under gangs and organized crime financially, take away the marijuana industry, and regulate it. And it produces a lot of jobs, and it produces jobs in rural corners, where jobs are particularly needed.

AKIKO FUJITA: Rick, it's been good to get your insight on cannabis. But I think next time, we're going to have you back on when we can travel again. I know you're itching--

RICK STEVES: Hey, well--

AKIKO FUJITA: --to do that as well. But Rick, good to talk to you today. Rick Steves, NORML board of directors chair.