The New NORML: Looking Back at 40-Year Crusade to End Marijuana Prohibition
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.
“While I hadn’t exactly snitched on Bourne,” Stroup admits, “my failure to protect him was a violation of the basic principle that most marijuana smokers live by, and that NORML had adopted as policy years earlier. It is never acceptable to rat on someone else, even to avoid a conviction or a jail term. The NORML Legal Committee had even adopted a policy not to represent anyone who wanted to get off by snitching – by testifying against another person.”
The story became a national scandal, and Stroup realized that the time had come for him to resign from NORML. He could never have predicted that in 1994 he would be invited to serve another decade as executive director.
Flash forward to February 2013. At NORML’s annual meeting, the board of directors elected Norm Kent as their new chairperson. He joined NORML as a college senior in 1971, and is now a criminal defense attorney based in Ft. Lauderdale, handling First Amendment, constitutional rights and media law cases. A pioneer in medical-necessity defenses for marijuana users, he has represented patients, growers and buyer's clubs throughout Florida for over 30 years. Author of The Pot Warriors Manifesto, he is a cancer survivor who credits marijuana with ameliorating the harsh nature of chemotherapy treatments.
In 1982, he sued the state of Florida to stop the deadly herbicide paraquat from being sprayed on marijuana fields. We were living in a society where children were being taught that it was wrong to put cyanide in Extra-Strength Tylenol, yet acceptable to spray paraquat on marijuana crops.
My position is that as long as any government can arbitrarily decide which drugs are legal and which are illegal, then anyone behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense is a political prisoner. Personally, I owe my longevity to never taking any legal drugs. (Although, I did take an aspirin last month. I didn’t have a headache or anything; I was just at a party, and the host was passing around a plate full of aspirins. It was a kind of social ingestion. You know, peer pressure.)
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America was originally founded and funded by the pharmaceutical, tobacco and alcohol industries. They produced classic “public service” TV commercials such as the one with a young woman frying a pair of eggs, sunny-side up, with the message, “This is your brain on drugs.” Of course, I perceived that imagery as merely a fine example of having the good old post-tokey munchies.
That hypocritical anti-marijuana campaign originally inspired my anthology, Pot Stories For the Soul: An Updated Edition for a Stoned America (available at paulkrassner.com), to counteract the negative propaganda with a variety of true tales. When it was first published in 1995, lawyers for the Chicken Soup For the Soul franchise demanded that my publisher “cease and desist” the use of my title. Apparently, although theologians and scientists agree that the soul cannot be located, it can be copyrighted.