In the long dark night of American politics, there are still rock’n’roll splashes of life, a burning vibe where victories are won and the cool, pungent smell of liberty fills the air. Over the last four decades, Keith Stroup, founder of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), has joined with Hunter S. Thompson, Hugh Hefner, Willie Nelson, and many more good folks in fighting the good fight. He’s got a new memoir out called It’s NORML to Smoke Pot: The 40 Year Fight for Marijuana Smokers’ Rights. Let the dead go tuxedo shopping for the establishment, or vice versa—either way, we ride. —JFW
Jason Flores-Williams (Rail): You and Hunter S. Thompson smoked weed under the bleachers at the Democratic National Convention in Miami in ’72. Tell us about anti-establishment principles and the birth of NORML in America.
Keith Stroup: Many young men of my generation (I say men, because women were not subject to the draft) were radicalized by the war in Vietnam, and the anti-Vietnam War movement that was reaching its peak in 1968, when I was graduating from law school. That was before the draft lottery was instituted, and all able-bodied men who reached the age of 18 were subject to the draft, unless we were registered as full-time students. The very real threat of being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam, and possibly being sent home in a pine box or with disabling injuries—for a war that none of us understood the need for—was sufficient to convert many otherwise apolitical young people into defiant, anti-government radicals, challenging the government’s right to send us to our death. I was among those who were radicalized politically by the war.
I considered saying I was gay, which, at that time, was sufficient to keep one out of the military, and some volunteer lawyers with the National Lawyers Guild had offered to put me in touch with some psychiatrists who would support my claim. But my wife at the time was uncomfortable with my claiming to be gay. Next, they offered to put me in touch with friendly people in Canada who would help me resettle, if I decided to flee the country. But there was no guarantee that draft evaders would ever be allowed back into the country, which seemed like a high price to pay. Finally, they helped me prepare a request to my local draft board seeking a critical skills deferment, which would permit me to continue working at my new job at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a Congressionally created study group, in lieu of joining the Army. Amazingly, that tactic worked (I received my deferment only two weeks before the date I had been ordered to appear for induction into the Army), and I ended up spending my next two years working on K Street in Washington, D.C. instead of getting my ass shot off in the war.
And it was the experience of working around consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who had largely been responsible for the establishment of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, that introduced me to public-interest law, without which I would never had considered founding NORML. By the end of the commission, I was 29 years old, and too old for the draft, so I decided to try my hand at public-interest law and I founded NORML.
Rail: What gave rise to your consciousness? Why didn’t you end up being just another well-adjusted, sell out lawyer?
Stroup: It was entirely the war and the anti-war movement. I became so disillusioned with the war, and the direction of the country in a lot of other areas, that I began to follow my conscience and oppose government policy in a lot of other areas. The anti-war movement was enormous in size and even larger in its cultural impact. It created a community of millions of Americans who no longer trusted our government to be honest with the people, and who had the feeling we could fight the government and win. In fact, at the time there developed a sense that one had a moral obligation to become active in changing government policy in a number of areas—women’s rights, gay rights, and smoking marijuana, in addition to ending the Vietnam War.
But for the anti-war movement, I expect I would have graduated law school and returned to Southern Illinois to live an ordinary life and get rich practicing law. That was the only model for a lawyer to follow I had ever known, until I met and became familiar with Ralph Nader.
In addition, I had become a big fan of former attorney general Ramsey Clark because of his anti-war work, who had himself, in his 1970 book Crime in America, written that he felt the country should legalize marijuana. So when I began to seriously plan to start a marijuana legalization lobby, I went to see Ramsey, who further emboldened me to follow a different path in life. Again, but for the Vietnam War, I would never have had the opportunity to benefit from his guidance and encouragement.
Rail: We’ve gone from getting 20 years for smoking a joint in ’69 to serving weed with chardonnay at dinner parties in Venice Beach today. How did you beat the bastards? How do you change mainstream consciousness in this country?
Stroup: We did so little by little, over a long, four-decade period. In 1969, the year before we founded NORML, the Gallup polling organization had done their first ever question asking Americans whether they favored legalizing marijuana. At the time we only enjoyed the support of 12 percent of the American public. Today, after decades of reeducating the American public about marijuana, the latest Gallup poll indicates 50 percent of the public now side with us, while 46 percent still oppose legalization. And we have several other national polls (Angus Reid, Zogby, Public Policy Polling, and others) that have, over the last year, found a clear majority of the public now supports the full legalization of marijuana.
We have finally won the hearts and minds of a majority of the American public, and for this to occur, we had to bring marijuana smoking and marijuana smokers out of the closet, so non-smokers could see we are just average Americans who prefer to smoke marijuana when we relax in the evening, just as tens of millions of Americans enjoy a beer or a glass of wine when they relax. It was a slow process, but, similar to the experience of the gay rights issue, it was the only strategy that would get us where we needed to go.
Rail: Hugh Hefner is a chronically misunderstood figure, talk to us about the role of Hef and Playboy in the early days of NORML.
Stroup: Hefner was our first funder, and he and the Playboy Foundation were our largest donors during the first decade of our work. Hef, as he likes to be called, had given up alcohol himself, and preferred an occasional joint when he was relaxing. So his personal familiarity with marijuana undoubtedly played a role in the foundation’s decision to fund NORML. But it was more than just his personal interest.
Hef had become a major national supporter of several liberal issues and there was nothing he enjoyed more than sticking it to the man. Whenever NORML would succeed in getting some poor marijuana victim out of prison in the early years, Playboy would feature our successes in the Forum section of the magazine, which at that time had a circulation of more than 6 million subscribers. It gave us a national platform from which we could spread the marijuana gospel far and wide, and we benefited enormously from that.
And, of course, the $100,000 per year cash contribution and the two full-page NORML ads they gave us each year comprised the great majority of our budget during those years. So it is fair to say that NORML would likely never have made it beyond an idea in my mind without the incredible support of Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Foundation during that first decade.
Rail: It’s the ’70s and NORML is on the move, then the ’80s arrive with the Reagan nightmare and the evil absurdity of Nancy and her “Just Say No” campaign. Expound on how you fought through times of darkness with your back against the wall.
Stroup: As an organization, and as a movement, we largely survived the ’80s by keeping our heads low, below the firing line, and fighting to retain the legislative progress we had made during the ’70s. In fact, from 1977, when the last of eleven states adopted a version of marijuana decriminalization, until 1996, when California adopted the medical use of marijuana by voter initiative, we did not win a single statewide political victory. The mood of the country had turned far more conservative, the Parents Movement and Nancy Reagan were riding high on the Just Say No bandwagon, and we simply did not enjoy sufficient political support to move forward with legalization. That began to change in the early ’90s, and the polling shows that the trend has moved in our direction ever since, permitting us to stop arresting smokers in 15 states, legalizing medical use in 18 states and the District of Columbia, and fully legalizing and regulating marijuana in two states: Colorado and Washington.
Rail: You and your amigo Willie Nelson, who wrote the forward to your book, have been getting high and strategizing together for close to four decades—talking about personal freedom, civil rights, and the lost art of fighting for justice and having a good time.
Stroup: Willie and I have had a shared political interest in two principal areas: legalizing marijuana and saving family farmers. I was raised on a family farm in southern Illinois, and I worked for a few years as a lobbyist for the American Agriculture Movement (AAM), the group that on a couple of occasions brought a tractorcade to Washington, D.C. to temporarily shut down the major thoroughfares around the city, as a way to get Congress’s attention. Willie has always been a friend of family farmers, and someone who wanted to avoid handing over the food production in our country to the major corporations. And he long ago figured out that if we legalized marijuana in this country, including industrial hemp, it would provide a badly needed new cash crop for the farmers. So the two issues complement each other in Willie’s mind.
Because of Willie’s willingness to publicly acknowledge his own marijuana smoking (he stopped drinking alcohol many decades ago), I made a special effort to get to know him early on. During the Jimmy Carter administration we became good friends and smoking buddies, and we have remained so for all these many years. Willie, who is beloved by Americans of all political persuasions, has been a wonderful spokesperson for NORML and for legalizing marijuana.
Rail: As an attorney, what is your theory of the U.S. Constitution? Is it a vital tool that can still be used to bring life to the soul of this country, or has it shriveled up and died?
Stroup: I may be a bit naïve, but I still believe the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure and the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and privacy, even if it is sometimes unpopular, are the principal Constitutional provisions that protect us as individual citizens against the awesome power of the state. I am painfully aware that those protections are not as comprehensive today as they once were, and I recognize the courts are less willing than in an earlier period to step in and declare a search to be illegal, or a law to be unconstitutional.
Nonetheless, it is our Constitution that generally sets us apart from other countries, and assures us the right to challenge governmental authority or policy without the fear of arrest or prosecution. I wish the courts were more willing to push the government back when they overstep their authority, but thank God we at least have the right to make the good fight as individuals.
Rail: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” That’s what Michael Bloomberg said about pot in the ’90s, and NORML called him out with a guerilla ad campaign about his pot smoking. Still, his administration continues to harass and arrest people in New York City for possessing small amounts of marijuana. How do you account for this hypocrisy that has done damage to so many lives?
Stroup: Mayor Bloomberg on one hand was more honest about his marijuana smoking when he was first running for mayor of New York City than almost any elected official in America, yet during his time in office the numbers of individuals in New York arrested on minor marijuana charges more than doubled over his predecessor. Bloomberg bought into the foolish criminal justice theory of “broken windows” which holds that the authorities must strictly enforce even the most trivial offenses, or else the entire society will fall apart. So he permitted the police in New York to pat down suspicious citizens (meaning black and Latino males) on the street, and when they were ordered to empty their pockets, any marijuana that turned up was considered marijuana possessed in public, and therefore an arrestable misdemeanor, whereas private possession of less than an ounce resulted in a $100 civil fine, with no arrest. It was only after an analysis of New York City arrests by CUNY Professor Harry Levine which underscored the reality that blacks and Latinos were being arrested roughly three times as often as whites for marijuana offenses in New York, that Mayor Bloomberg finally, along with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, called for an end to the practice of arresting individuals for minor marijuana offenses.
Bloomberg was officially not as anti-marijuana as his predecessors, but because of his unwillingness to acknowledge the incredible damage these laws were doing to large numbers of minority citizens, far more people were arrested and jailed on minor marijuana offenses under his tenure than in any prior period.
Rail: Just like ice cream will continue to remain delicious, everyone is against injustice. But to stand up and speak out on controversial subjects in difficult times takes courage. Talk to us about the courage you’ve seen during your 40-year fight as the leader of NORML.
Stroup: My attitudes and experiences have been shaped by my training as a lawyer, and my association over these several decades with committed criminal defense attorneys around the country who are willing to provide the best legal representation possible to anyone charged with a crime, even if the crime was horrific or offensive. Our legal system only works if both the prosecutor and the defense have the resources and the freedom to make their strongest case. So I would have to say many of the bravest and strongest advocates I have seen over the years have been the attorneys who see so many of these cases of injustice that eventually it becomes a cause for them; it’s not about merely representing the individual defendant.
Of course I have had the sad occasion to meet all too many victims of these laws who have shown great courage in the face of long prison sentences, and that too is sometimes empowering. They were not willing victims, but rather they just got caught and have little choice but to fight for their freedom. I still receive calls and emails nearly every day from victims who say they want to stand up for what is right, and to fight the bastards to the death. Unfortunately, in most cases, if one loses the motion to suppress the evidence, going to trial is suicidal and results only in a longer prison sentence than if they had worked out a plea bargain with the prosecutor.
Rail: In the end, you say that marijuana is just part of the greater fight for liberty and personal freedom. Where are the next front lines in America and how do we fight these battles?
Stroup: In the short run, the gay and lesbian issue seems to have morphed into a question of whether states will permit gays to marry, and the public support for this has skyrocketed over the last decade. It is clearly an issue in which the public change is forcing elected officials to reconsider their positions, and over the coming five to ten years, I expect gays and lesbians will enjoy full equality in this country.
The legalization of marijuana is enjoying a similar resurgence in public support. And while I do not think we are quite yet where gays and lesbians are in terms of approaching total victory, I do believe several additional states will fully legalize marijuana over the coming five to ten years, and all states will stop arresting people for private use. So we too should have an exciting next few years.
It is difficult to know where the fight for personal freedom will next break through the public consciousness, but it may well involve the militarization of domestic law enforcement—including the use of unmanned drones to gather intelligence on our own citizens by local and state officials who are not worried about terrorism, but are rather seeking a new tool to use to enforce existing criminal laws, those against personal drug use. Will the courts require a search warrant before permitting an individual’s privacy to be invaded by a spy drone domestically, capable of peeking inside one’s bedroom without the victim even knowing his privacy has been invaded, or will this Orwellian concept be accepted as a step forward for law enforcement, because we have the technology?
We will fight these battles the way we have fought earlier battles over personal freedom—through courageous people standing up to the power of big government and saying “Stop. I won’t take it anymore.” And the added quiver in our arsenal today is the Internet and social networking sites, which permit an organization or an issue to gain national and international awareness and support far more quickly than before, and at almost no cost. If the idea is valid, and the messaging is effective, one can reach millions of people almost overnight through Facebook and YouTube and Twitter.
We have the potential to educate the public, and to gather significant political support, for issues of personal freedom more effectively than proponents for change have ever had in the past, so the progress of change should similarly accelerate.