The Hidden History of the Pot Lobby

An early activist for marijuana legalization writes a compelling memoir.


It's NORML to Smoke Pot: The 40-Year Fight for Marijuana Smokers' Rights, by Keith Stroup, High Times Books, 250 pages, $14.99.

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.

NEXT: Shikha Dalmia in The Wall Street Journal On Why India Needs To Jettison Its Prudery

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  1. “the heady days of the ’70s.”
    I see what you did there.

    1. That these drug-promoting monsters remained free is proof of how underfunded the drug war was and is. MORE MONEY FOR PROHIBITION. IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO SAVE THE CHILDREN.

      1. It would be cheaper (and easier) to prevent children.

        1. I childproofed my house, but they keep getting back in.

          1. Charlotte. I just agree… Chris`s report is neat, I just got a brand new Mini Cooper after having earned $7723 this – 4 weeks past and would you believe, ten grand last munth. it’s by-far the most financially rewarding Ive ever done. I began this 3 months ago and pretty much immediately started bringing in minimum $70, per/hr. I use the details on this website…
            (Go to site and open “Home” for details)

      2. Baptists and Bootleggers are in agreement:


        1. Human pot-smokers are unspeakably EVIL, so we must not interact with them in ANY way whatsoever, except to put them in jail, and at take their possessions, and their children, away from them! Thus Spake the Government Almighty! Who are WE to question why?!?! Ours is just to OBEY!!! ? On the other hand, though, if we should want to buy some “pot” for our RELIGIOUS EFFIGIES to smoke in religious rituals, THAT, we should be allowed! Just like Scientologists are allowed to market “E-meters” w/o FDA blessings, despite court orders, see!?!?! ? All of this will be revealed to you for FREE if you will only come and WORSHIP Government Almgthy with us Scienfoologists at the Church of Scienfoology! See ?

          1. You can lose some of the CAPS and !!! and still get it across. No one here is gonna gripe.

    2. my friend’s step-aunt makes $71 every hour on the laptop. She has been fired for 8 months but last month her check was $12547 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more here… http://WWW.UP444.COM

  2. Keith is a living icon of libertarian efforts to end neo-prohibition loonyness. We grew up 8 miles apart in Southern Illinois, near the buckle of the Bible Belt. He was a son of conservative Republicans–proof you can both take the boy out of the country and the country out of the boy, though he also joined pot smoker Willie Nelson in support of small farmers. As well as a great memoir, his book is a practical political science text on citizen organizing to end the tyranny of government. Madison didn’t have the drug war in mind, but his admonition that war is the greatest threat to liberty is 100% applicable to reefer madness. There’s an excellent interview with Keith done by when he spoke to my Politics & Journalism semester students a few years ago. (Posting this on my iPad and don’t have the link but it’s on YouTube.)

    1. Here ya go.…..der-of-the

  3. Here’s the link to the interview with Keith.

  4. 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.

    I’ve heard that pot smoking damages your memory. Is this true?

    1. I’m sorry; what did you say?

    2. Huh?

  5. 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.

    The phrases “must read” and “read the whole thing” are over-used. Not the case of the true story of Jimmy Carter’s Drug Czar:

    Dr. Thomas Szasz on Dr Peter Bourne

    (half the thing anyways, I couldn’t find “Part II”)

    1. half the thing anyways, I couldn’t find “Part II”

      Part 2 is here.

      1. Thanks Jesse!

        You probably own the original vinyl but someone else might be interested in an MP3 rip of Dan Smoot: “The Fearless American

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  7. Living to see gay marriage and the recreational use of marijuana legalized is like my grandparents being born in the days of horse and buggy and living to fly to Hong Kong on a commercial airplane.

    When I was fourteen years old, I never thought I’d see marijuana legalized, and I never thought I’d live to see the USSR collapse.

    So when people tell me that we’ll never get rid of Medicare, Social Security, or the income tax, I always think to myself, “Never say never”. Good things like that don’t happen by accident, but stranger things than getting rid of the income tax have happened.

    1. “When I was fourteen years old, I never thought I’d see marijuana legalized, and I never thought I’d live to see the USSR collapse.”

      Several years ago, Mr and Ms Sevo took a cruise down the Yangtze.
      Never thought I’d see the day.

    2. Funny, but when I was 14 YO (1968) lots of people thought marijuana would be legal long before now, and by the time I was 21 it was a foregone conclusion. That we did not see it was unexpected.

      Strangely enough, if you’re much younger than me I can understand your sentiment.

      1. I guess I am somewhere in the middle. I recall what you do about the late 60s (I was 7 at the close of 1968). Maybe that is why I am surprised now with all of these “legalizations” that are nothing more than regulated in a different manner.

        Does not matter if it is travel, ingesting intoxicants, or relationships, the “legalization” in most cases requires a license or a prescription. I thought it would look more like Colorado, rather than Colorado being an exception.

    3. Having grown up outside affluent liberal America (where no white kid ever goes to jail over pot), I never expected to see it legalized. Out in the hinterland it was taken for granted that bad things were supposed to be illegal, and pot was one of those bad things. Once people started to get the sense that pot might be legalized, they clamped down HARD on it.

      On the other hand we always expected to see the return of the gold standard and the continuation of legal firearms.

  8. So when they make pot legal will people hold joints like cigarettes?

    Or will the still hold them like joints?

  9. Does anyone know what time Arrested Development drops on Netflix?

    1. I only have American clocks, so I couldn’t tell you.

      1. There are 58 US Minutes an a Canadian Hour.

        1. Then it should be any minute now.

    2. 12AM on the West Coast, I believe. 3AM EST.



      2. 4:30 in Newfoundland.

        1. There have been people there for almost 400 years, isn’t about time we start calling it Oldfoundland, or at least Foundland?

          1. Newfoundland.

            You can keep ’em

            1. You posted that last night. I am sooo over the chicken stuff.

              1. That wasn’t what I meant to post at all.

                  1. If you lived in Newfoundland and had a bunch of guns, are there even any cops to care?

                    An empty place known for drinking would suit me fine. Once you get so far from civilization, it’s essentially anarchy as there is no one to enforce the law.

                    1. your ideas intrigue me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

                      There’s always Michigan’s upper peninsula. Although I suppose there are some cops and feds (forest service) there.

                    2. There’s a lot of places where you could, essentially, live a stateless existence, but you better be a hearty motherfucker.

                      I mean, check out these people.

                    3. I never saw the first movie, but just reading about it made me want to kick the kid’s ask. That said, i’ll admit to liking the Eddie Vedder song from it. Go ahead and pile on.

                      The second, I’ve seen parts of it on Proletariat Broadcasting, and it’s awesome. Him carrying stones from the river, and then cutting a hole for a chimney were pretty awesome.

                    4. Dick Proenneke is fucking awesome. We should each strive to be so freakin’ awesome.

                    5. Except Alexander Supertramp is fucing DEEEEED! (Because he was stupid.)

                    6. Maybe in Dildo

                    7. I lol’d, but I’m bummed the sign doesn’t have the french version of it, too.

          2. Greenland is about the closest thing to anarchy that you’re going to find. It’s still basically part of Eurotardia, but it’s so remote and harsh, they can’t nanny state it.

            From what I’ve read, it’s strange, nearly lawless, and the main pastime seems to consist of getting drunk and beating the crap out of each other in the streets.

            1. Not to mention the fact that roads outside of the major cities are virtually non-existent. So if you’re really the adventurous type, you can sit up a homestead in a remote area. The chance of deputy dawg showing up at your door to see if you’ve got any drugz or gunz is essentially zero.

              1. Is it pretty much national park type things, aside from already owned property? ie, is there any place to set up a homestead and then claim the area?

                1. They do a lot of gold and gem prospecting there, so I think the opportunity to homestead there is definitely a possibility.

                  Greenland is huge and mostly uninhabited. The challenge would be getting a visa for residency from Denmark. Unless you are Danish, or from one of the Nordic countries.

                  Oh, and the winter is about 10 months long.

  10. NR, of course, but if Reason hasn’t heard this story yet, I think it’s Reason worthy.

    An in your face example of the corruption and cronyism that is the direct result of the progressives big government agenda. There’s a whole lot of crazy in this story.

    I drive by that place every time I leave from my office in Balmer, and you can just smell the damn corruption coming from that draconian shithole.

    I’ve probably had some of the indicted walk in front of my car when stopped in traffic, glaring at all the motorists with their crappy looking air of entitlement.

    Corruption in the dungeon, hon

    1. I always have heard that “hon” is a B-more thing, but people say that in pittsburgh a lot, especially ladies that work in retail. As in, “Is this all, Hon?”, or, “You have a good day, hon.

      1. They lack the proper accent, so it doesn’t count. It’s not just a Balmer thing, downey ocean they say it even more, and with more accent.

        1. Listen to how she says, “How about those O’s, hon?”

          That shit sounds like someone from pittsburgh. You have missing syllables, and what I like to call, the lazy tongue. It’s basically saying words with as little articulation as possible, with the tongue lazing in the bottom of the mouth. Here’s a p-burgh accent that isn’t someone acting.

          I’d argue that it’s similar, or “simlahr”.

          1. She doesn’t have a Balmer accent.

            I used to work with a guy from Dundalk, and that dude had the accent. It’s unmistakable and does not sound like anything else I have ever heard.

      2. It’s very common in non-Manhattan NYC too – especially in diners.

      3. Pittsburgh & Baltimore have a lot of speech similarities. At first I thought that was just an artifact of my skewed sample: my relatives who moved from the former to the latter. Visiting relatives in both was my reason for being there.

    2. Pro-tip: Links should go to the first page of a piece, if there are multiple pages.

      The story is a good illustration of the problem with using statistics in government. If the stats don’t actually measure the relevant things, but they are represented as doing so, they become less than worthless; they can be used to actively fool the public into thinking everything is fine, even though it isn’t. When officials act like the stats describe everything relevant, and that no issues with the numbers means no issues period, government employees are given a blank check for misdeeds and corruption.

      1. There were 3 pages, I didn’t realize that I didn’t post the link to the first page.

        1. It’s not a big deal, but sometimes it’s confusing to see the tail end of an article and think that’s the whole thing.

  11. People are idiots. Film at 11.

      1. Think of it as people marching for starvation.

        If people aren’t starving, well, that’s one less thing to feel guilty about. And what good is not feeling guilty?

      2. You’re having problems with the links today. I propose when someone posts something, and it’s a different link than they intended we say that they “Pantsed it”.

        inre Monsanto….

        I don’t really care about GMOs, but them suing farmers whose crop inadvertently gets pollinated with their spawn pisses me off. It’d be like Sony suing someone because they can hear their neighbor’s stereo playing one of their artists.

        1. From what I’ve read, it’s not over inadvertent pollination, it’s over deliberate cultivation of the GMO plants that result.

        2. they “Pantsed it

          Here here. I vote yeah. 2 votes for pantsed it when accidental or irrelevant link. Always SF’d for bad link.

          1. shit.

          2. I’ll add my vote to that. I’m not sure I’ve ever Pantsed a link, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually.

            1. I’ve done it before, but not with the prolificacy of our friend from up north.

              It has happened when I post something, then a bit later want to post something else, go to the second page and never copy the link. When I make the second post I copy the first link not realizing it’s the old one.

              1. I am not a meme, I am a free man!

                1. I am not a man, I am a free meme!


  12. Dude totally knows whats going on over on that side of town. Wow.

  13. Mmm hops, ba duba dop
    Ba du bop, ba duba dop
    Ba du bop, ba duba dop
    Ba du

    1. No.

  14. They’re petulant as princesses, demanding as despots and know their way around the Clarins counter considerably better than they do any B&Q. Needy and vain, their egos are on a permanent slow puncture and must be reinflated with flattery and obeisance.
    Welcome to modern men ? the metrosexual monsters we have created.

    1. without commenting on the article, what’s a B&Q?

      anyone know? can someone who has studied limeys more help us out?

      1. It’s like a Home Depot.

        1. ah, fair enough, then.

          Does Canadian Home Depot stock wood in meters, or by board foot?

          I have a second cousin in Toronto that does construction and sells the mayor crack, I should just ask him.

          1. I think you can choose!

    2. I used to work with a guy that shaved his forearms, but he wasn’t that hairy at all.

    3. It’s late. I read “Clarins” as “Clarinex”, “B&Q” as “BBQ”, and “egos” as “negros”.

  15. OT, here as well as anywhere:
    Turns out that Grover Norquist spoke at the SF Commonwealth Club. I’m not familiar with the current pres, but the last one was a limo-lefty and pushed the club that direction to the point that Mr and Ms Sevo quit the club.
    For some reason we got a current issue of the rag, and it posits that Norquist is “the most powerful man in America?”.
    Here’s a link: and you’ll notice the club chooses to go through Kos for a transcript; pathetic. I don’t know any other organization that simply passes the reporting function to a site with such obvious political bias.
    Perhaps it’s not surprising; the husband of the last pres is (or was; maybe embarrassment is possible) a supporter of Moonbeam’s choo-choo.

    1. For some reason we got a current issue of the rag, and it posits that Norquist is “the most powerful man in America?”.

      Common leftist meme. Considering how many congresscritters who’ve signed his pledge and then violated it, he clearly isn’t that powerful or influential.

      But he opposes the progtard fantasy, so he must be influential.

      Seriously, why is it that leftists feel the need to claim that their ideological opponents are “powerful?” Is it that whole “speaking truth to power” horseshit, or some psychological hang-up.

      1. Last sentence was meant to end with a “?,” but it was mostly rhetorical anyway.

  16. Anyone seen Sloop lately? Did he fall off the edge of the earth or did he finally get arrested?

    1. I saw an update from him this week. He didn’t dissappear into rural greenland, just in temporary hiding in socal/LA area.

      Now, as for the European Surgean, Dr. groove, no idea where the fuck he is. Somewhere in the Ukraine.

      1. He hasn’t been around since BVB Dortmund beat FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
        I hope it’s not related.

      2. I’m guessing the Doc either got married or he pissed off her father and is currently buried in a Ukrainian landfill.

        1. I’m trying to figure out which is worst.

          1. toss up.

          2. Depends on what sort of attention he’d be getting from his wife.

  17. On that note, did you watch the CL final today?

    1. Was meant to be a reply to the Archduke above.

      I’ll slink away now.

      1. I did. Good match. Reffing was even.

        1. Pretty happy with the referee despite being a Dortmund supporter. I like it when the game is allowed to be physical.

  18. like Christopher implied I’m alarmed that anybody can earn $7398 in a few weeks on the computer. did you see this site link…

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