When the states of Colorado and Washington legalized the adult use of marijuana in November 2012, what had been almost unimaginable two decades earlier suddenly seemed inevitable. Much like gay marriage, polls now regularly show majority support for marijuana legalization, and it’s not unusual today to hear people say it’s just a matter of time before the drug is legal across the country.
Many groups are now devoted to legalizing marijuana, but only one has fought cannabis prohibition since 1971, when public support for legalization barely registered above the single digits: the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. Attorney Keith Stroup founded NORML and served two terms as its executive director, from its founding until a scandal rocked the organization in 1978 and again from 1994 until his semi-retirement in 2005.
Stroup tells both his story and the organization’s in It’s NORML to Smoke Pot.
Though the book primarily focuses on the politics of pot, the first 100 pages also illustrate how bizarre politics in general were in the 1970s. Stroup opens with an account of meeting Yippie activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, future High Times founder Tom Forcade, and journalist Hunter S. Thompson at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami. All of these counterculture figures smoked pot openly during the convention, and Stroup describes meeting Forcade beneath the People’s Pot Tree—a eucalyptus tree in Flamingo Park where people could hold up money and wait “for a bag to float down from the leaves.”
In that radical context, Stroup founded NORML as a buttoned-down, professional organization. Stroup had worked for Ralph Nader at the National Commission on Product Safety, and he “was inspired to use the consumer advocate model Nader had used so successfully for product safety to challenge marijuana prohibition.” To bolster NORML’s political legitimacy in those early years, Stroup argued in public that the government should still discourage the use of cannabis, just without criminal penalties on personal use.
Nevertheless, NORML’s biggest funders in the 1970s were the decidedly non-mainstream publications Playboy (through the Playboy Foundation) and High Times, which was in turn financed to a large degree by Forcade’s marijuana smuggling. Forcade used to joke that “There are only two kinds of pot dealers…those that need forklifts and those who don’t. I’m the kind who needs a forklift.” Stroup and Forcade once conspired to tell the press that a large contribution from Forcade came from The Confederation, a consortium of pot dealers. The Associated Press ran with the story, which Stroup notes would probably have ended with both Forcade and himself indicted if they had pulled it in today’s legal and political environment.
NORML’s big break came when Congress established the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. When the commission released its report in 1972, it advised both the federal government and the states to eliminate all penalties on personal possession and use of marijuana and on the not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of pot among adults. For the remainder of the decade, NORML used this report to push for decriminalization across the country, and it met with a great deal of success. Starting with Oregon in 1973 and ending with Nebraska in 1978, 11 states passed decriminalization measures during the decade. Then, suddenly, reform stopped dead in its tracks.
In part that was because the mood of the country was becoming more conservative, but it was also attributable to an extreme lapse in Stroup’s judgment. After Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, Stroup and NORML enjoyed access to the White House that the legalization lobby had never enjoyed before and never has since. Dr. Peter Bourne, the White House drug policy advisor, was sympathetic to the cause and even allowed Stroup to help draft some of Carter’s statements on marijuana.
In an incident that could only happen in the 1970s and has since become the stuff of legend in drug policy reform circles, Dr. Bourne showed up to NORML’s annual party in December 1977. Word reached Stroup that Bourne was interested in doing a line of cocaine. Stroup then escorted Bourne to a room upstairs where VIPs such as Hunter Thompson, Christie Hefner of Playboy, and Washington Post editor John Walsh were getting high. Bourne snorted his line.
The next few months passed without incident, but after the White House refused to expend any political capital on the cause of decriminalization—and secretly lobbied against a ban on using federal funds to spray the toxic herbicide paraquat on Mexican marijuana fields—bad blood developed between Stroup and Bourne. When the media started inquiring about rumors of the incident, Stroup said that he could “neither confirm nor deny the story,” effectively throwing Bourne to the wolves. In the ensuing media firestorm, Stroup resigned as executive director of NORML.
Stroup was invited back to NORML’s board of directors in 1994, but the world of marijuana law reform had changed dramatically in the intervening decade and a half. NORML was no longer the only or even the most important pro-reform group, and the second half of the book drags because of it. Stroup gets bogged down in discussions of the evidence for marijuana’s medical efficacy and the wonky details of California’s medical marijuana laws. This is important information, but anyone reading Keith Stroup’s autobiography is probably already well-informed on these topics.
Stroup’s writing at the end of the book also seems hurried. It’s not clear, for instance, when Stroup wrote the last chapter: He refers in the present tense to Ron Paul “running a spirited race for the Republican presidential nomination” just two pages after he described the legalization votes in Colorado and Washington, which of course happened several months after the Republican race ended.
Nevertheless, as we stand on the verge of consigning cannabis prohibition to the dustbin of history, Stroup has provided a compelling history of the early movement to legalize marijuana and the lessons of its successes and setbacks. We would do well to heed them.