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The New NORML: Looking Back at 40-Year Crusade to End Marijuana Prohibition

As long as any government can arbitrarily decide which drugs are legal and which aren't, then anyone behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense is a political prisoner.

In 1972, two years after Keith Stroup founded NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) with the aid of a $5,000 grant from the Playboy Foundation, he met, at the Democratic National Counter-Convention in Miami, a trio of countercultural icons: Hunter Thompson, Abbie Hoffman and Tom Forcade.

Thompson became an active supporter of NORML. When Hoffman, co-founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party) was on the lam for a drug bust, he hid out for a little while at Thompson’s home. Forcade went on to launch High Times as what he thought would be a one-issue parody of Playboy, featuring a colorful centerfold of naked marijuana plants. Eventually, High Times displaced Playboy as NORML’s largest contributor.

My favorite High Times moment occurred with a questionnaire in the magazine. One of the questions was, “Is it possible to smoke too much pot?” A reader responded, “I don’t understand the question.” Now High Times has published Stroup’s memoir, It’s NORML to Smoke Pot: The 40-Year Fight For Marijuana Smokers’ Rights. I asked him if there was anything he wished he had included but was too late to get into the book.

“Obviously,” he replied, “I would have enjoyed discussing the enormous impact of the two new state legalization laws adopted by voters in November, but had to complete the manuscript before the outcome was known. The fact that two states have now ignored the federal prohibition of marijuana and moved ahead with their own marijuana legalization policies, as New York and a handful of other states did at the end of alcohol prohibition, is truly momentous, and has changed the political climate like no other development since marijuana was first made illegal in 1937.

“It is truly the beginning of the end, and I am thrilled to have lived long enough to experience this. We now have members of Congress who formerly would not even take our phone calls now calling our office to ask for our help drafting marijuana bills, and the positive reaction on the state level is even more pronounced. What seemed politically impossible to elected officials only a few months ago now seems quite achievable.”

I told Stroup, “As pleased as I am that Colorado and Washington have legalized pot, I’m dismayed by the lack of amnesty for all those serving time for possession or use or growing or selling.”

“Now that they have legalized marijuana moving forward,” he said, “it is our responsibility to go back to the legislature to assure that those currently in jail for these same offenses that are now legal are released, and those who have a criminal record for offenses which are no longer a crime have their records cleared. A bill is pending in Washington state currently to do that. Hopefully we will have a similar bill introduced in Colorado shortly. Our state affiliates in those two states are involved now in the efforts to develop regulations by their state agencies to actually implement the new laws.”

In December 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s drug policy advisor, Peter Bourne, attended a NORML party where he joined a group in a private room upstairs and snorted a couple of lines of cocaine. It became an open secret, and in July 1978, a syndicated columnist informed Stroup that he was going to run with the story without Stroup verifying what had occurred, but nonetheless pleaded with him to “Please, just tell me if the story is accurate."

“Off the record,” Stroup replied, “it’s accurate.” But the next day, he was besieged with calls from many papers, and this time his response was, “I can neither confirm nor deny the story” -- in effect, confirming the story. Those damning words were quoted widely, including on the front page of the Washington Post.

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