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A Founder Looks at 50

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel June 5, 2020
    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the sixth in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    Attorney Gerry Goldstein and the Early Years: A Tour of the Texas Prisons, My Bust in Calgary, and “the Pierre Trudeau Defense”

    During the 1970s when I was first running NORML, in an effort to extend the impact NORML might have on public policy, I traveled from state to state, wherever and whenever someone was willing to form a new NORML state or local group. During these travels, I was frequently meeting other young lawyers (although we also had many non-lawyers representing NORML around the country), many of whom were also active in the anti-Vietnam War efforts, who shared the NORML position regarding marijuana policy. While  privately most of these volunteer supporters were also marijuana smokers, they had to be especially careful to conceal their use in order to avoid being targeted by local law enforcement who might find their pro-legalization advocacy threatening.

    In addition, during those years most state bar associations would investigate any allegations that a member of the bar was a marijuana smoker, and would frequently suspend any lawyer from the practice of law for several months or even longer for even a simple marijuana possession conviction. It was considered a moral offense that rendered the individual unqualified to practice law. It required a brave individual with a truly serious commitment to ending marijuana prohibition to assume the risks associated with speaking out as a NORML advocate during the 1970s.

    I was fortunate in that my bar license is with the District of Columbia, a progressive jurisdiction that long ago figured out they have more important responsibilities than to worry whether any of their lawyers are marijuana smokers. If one was convicted of a felony for selling marijuana, the DC bar would  get involved. But for my simple possession convictions, they have never even made an inquiry.

    NORML decided to begin to organize in Texas in the early years because that state seemed especially harsh in the manner in which they treated non-violent marijuana offenses. At the time, Texas sent more people to jail for longer periods of time for minor marijuana offenses than any other state in the nation. Our strategy during those years was to go to the heart of the monster and to focus as much public attention as possible on the victims of marijuana prohibition in an attempt to build public sympathy and to begin to overcome the negative stereotype most Americans then held of marijuana smokers.

    Gerry Goldstein

    Gerry Goldstein

    During our first year I became aware of this young San Antonio, TX criminal defense attorney by the name of Gerald H. Goldstein, who practiced in a firm with his father, and who was already doing some important ACLU work and representing anti-war activists in Texas. Gerry and I immediately became friends and he agreed to serve as the early State Coordinator for NORML in Texas, serving as our spokesperson with the media. And when we were approached by some members of the national media asking if we could arrange for them to interview some victims of marijuana prohibition, Gerry was able to arrange an opportunity for us to take the journalists, representing the Associated Press and The New York Times, inside the Texas prison system to meet privately with some hand-picked non-violent marijuana offenders who were currently serving decades-long prison terms.  George Beto, then the head of the Texas Department of Corrections, had become frustrated with the influx of young people, many of them students at the University of Texas at Austin, being regularly sent to prison for decades for minor marijuana charges and he thought shinning some light on what was occurring might force some changes in the sentencing practices applied to non-violent marijuana offenders.

    When Goldstein contacted Beto to indicate we had a couple of national journalists willing to come interview marijuana prisoners, the warden agreed to assemble a collection of a dozen or so non-violent marijuana offenders and to provide us the space to interview them within the prison. This was an extraordinary offer from the head of the Texas prison system and we knew it was a unique opportunity. In most states, the head of the prison system would likely not even bother returning our calls, and would certainly not help us identify the most attractive victims in the system or allow us to schedule an interview with the national media.

    When the date arrived, we found Mr. Beto had delivered on his offer. All of the prisoners were serving multi-year sentences (most multi-decade), and many had been arrested and convicted as young college students, often for selling an ounce or two of marijuana to their fellow college students, never fully understanding the serious risk of prison they were facing until it was too late. It was clear that none of these individuals presented a threat to the public, yet all were looking at a decade or longer in prison.

    That prison tour by journalists resulted in both a nationwide AP story that was very sympathetic to our position, and a subsequent New York Times Magazine cover story about NORML and our efforts to help the victims of marijuana prohibition. We were defining ourselves to the general public, and this national media attention helped introduce us as the good guys, working to save these non-violent marijuana offenders from the ravages of decades or longer in prison. And we were challenging the stereotype of marijuana smokers as bad people who needed to be jailed.

    As a result of this favorable media coverage, then Texas Governor Dolph Brisco, no friend of marijuana smokers, nonetheless felt the need to establish a commission to review the sentences of non-violent marijuana offenders. This resulted in the eventual early release of scores of non-violent offenders including most, if not all, of those we had interviewed in our prison visit.

    One of those young men who was released from prison was Frank Demolli, a former UT college student, who returned to complete his college degree and then became a tribal judge on a couple of Native American reservations in northern New Mexico. Frank, who subsequently became a NORML Lifetime Member, has stayed in touch over the years and recently sent me the following note on the occasion of our 50th anniversary.

    Keith, mucho congratulations on the 50th anniversary of your founding of NORML.

    In 1971, as Texas Department of Corrections Inmate #224552, and one of 800 Texas marijuana prisoners, we thought you were a god when you appeared on the cellblock with Playboy, ABC, NBC and the New York Times.   We couldn’t believe that a long-haired, plain talking, earnest, well-dressed, semi-sortta hippy could get away with changing the Texas marijuana laws which were two-to-life for even one seed.

    You did it.

    And our sentences were reduced and we can never thank NORML and you enough.  May all of you reap the benefits of your good deeds.  What has become more wondrous over the decades, is that your entire movement was peaceful.

    Love and Peace,
    Frank Demolli

    Busted in Calgary

    So it was only natural that I turned to my friend Gerry Goldstein for help when I was busted going into Canada to give a lecture in 1977.

    I did a lot of interstate travel during those years, and frequently I was traveling to a college to give a lecture, to raise funds for the organization and to expand our political network, always trying to leave behind a core group of activists willing to carry the fight forward in their area. And I would generally carry a joint in my coat pocket to share with the students when the lecture was over and the lights turned down for a showing of an edited version of Reefer Madness, which I regularly included as part of my presentation.

    But I had not at that time done any international travel and I thought flying to Calgary University in Alberta, Canada to deliver a lecture was the equivalent of going from one state to another; no special security required. As usual, I had a joint rolled in my pocket to share with the students after the lecture, and I was wearing a gold marijuana leaf lapel pin. It sounds terribly naïve now, but I was a true-believer and assumed the righteousness of our cause would somehow always protect us.

    And I almost made it through customs when the final officer saw my lapel pin and came back to search my sport coat more carefully, and found the joint. There were students from the university there to pick me up and take me to the lecture hall, and they had to use the lecture fee to bail me out so I could deliver the lecture later than evening. I was given a ticket by the customs officials and assigned a date to return to Calgary for the trial.

    I immediately called Gerry Goldstein to ask if he would represent me in Canada and he agreed. We both felt there was very little risk of my going to jail for such a small quantity, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity for a little street theater. We decided to use it as a show trial, at which we would raise the “Pierre Trudeau defense” to illustrate the need to end marijuana prohibition.

    Pierre Trudeau was the prime minister of Canada at the time. (His son, who was elected Prime Minister in 2015, enacted legislation legalizing the adult use of marijuana in 2018.) He had been quoted in the Washington Post as saying to young Americans who might want to come to Canada for a visit that they were welcome to bring along a couple of joints, and that they would not be hassled for personal use in Canada! Trudeau always seemed to enjoy contrasting his more progressive policies with the pro-war and anti-pot positions of the US government. He had also made it clear that draft-resisters were welcome to move to Canada

    I was never quite sure why Trudeau had made that statement. Perhaps he simply wanted to demonstrate he was not a hypocrite, since it had been widely reported that he and his wife had smoked weed with the Rolling Stones at some point. Regardless, it sure sounded like something that might be useful with my charges in Canada, and it would make good theater for the media.

    Gerry Goldstein & Keith Stroup

    Gerry Goldstein & Keith Stroup

    So, Gerry Goldstein and I returned to Canada for the trial and raised the Pierre Trudeau defense. I took the stand and acknowledged that I had entered the country with a marijuana joint in my coat pocket. We then introduced a copy of the Washington Post article including the Trudeau invitation into evidence, and I testified I had relied on that statement from the prime minister when I brought the joint into Canada.

    The judge clearly appreciated the creativity of our defense (and likely saw the humor in what we were doing), so he allowed us to put on our defense. Nonetheless, he ultimately convicted me (there was no jury), imposed a small fine, and sent me on my way home, none the worse for wear.

    It turned out we were searched again on the way out of the country, and the Canadian police this time found in a pocket in my shoulder bag (a bag with many little zippered pockets) an empty one-gram cocaine vial, with trace amounts on the sides of the container. Those were the years when cocaine use was relatively prevalent, at least among my circle of friends, but this was a screw-up, not something intentional. Goldstein had warned me to carefully search my bag before we entered Canada, but somehow I had overlooked this one pocket and I was arrested and thrown back in jail.

    Fortunately, I was able to stop Goldstein, who was walking a few feet ahead of me, from leaving customs, so he could work that evening to convince the prosecutor this was not intentional, the same one with whom we had just had such fun; and to accept a guilty plea the following morning before the same judge, permitting us to get the hell out of Canada! The judge was obviously angry to be dealing with another drug charge by the same foreign defendant for the second consecutive day, and he imposed another fine and ordered me to immediately leave the country (which, of course, I was only too happy to do). I was advised that I could never again enter the country of Canada, but in fact, after a few years I found those restrictions had been lifted and I have since been to Canada on several occasions without further trouble.

    I am well aware that because of my work with NORML and the network of talented criminal defense lawyers who have always worked closely with us, my experiences with the criminal justice system have not been typical. I have had the luxury of treating my two marijuana arrests (the second, at the Boston Freedom Rally in 2007, will be the topic for a subsequent blog) as an opportunity to publicize the unfairness of marijuana prohibition with little, if any, personal risk. The vast majority of individuals who are arrested on marijuana charges in this country (more than 650,000 just last year) still today pay a terrible price in terms of jail or prison time and life-long loss of employment and educational opportunities. For most who are arrested, it is an unfair burden they carry for life.

    Gerry Goldstein receives the NORML Michael J. Kennedy Award

    Gerry Goldstein receives the NORML Michael J. Kennedy Social Justice Award

    Goldstein and I have now spent nearly five decades as close friends and professional colleagues. He is a nationally known and highly respected civil rights and criminal defense attorney who has served as president of both the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (TCDLA). In addition to our work with NORML, we were law partners for a few years in the early 80s. He was an early recipient of the Al Horn Award (1999), given each year to an outstanding criminal defense lawyer in the NORML network; in 2016 he was the first recipient of the Michael J. Kennedy Social Justice Award; and he has been designated by the NORML Legal Committee (NLC) as the Co-Chair for Life (along with San Francisco lawyer Michael Stepanian) for his life-long commitment to ending marijuana prohibition. Those who have attended our annual NORML Aspen Legal Seminars are familiar with the benefit dinners we hold each year at the lovely home Gerry and his wife Christine Goldstein have in Aspen.

    Few people have had more impact shaping NORML policies and programs than Gerry Goldstein. He has been willing to speak truth to power his entire career, and he enjoys a little street theater.

     

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 29, 2020
    Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the fifth in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    Tom Forcade, Michael J. Kennedy and High Times Magazine

    I first met Tom Forcade on the first day of the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, Florida. At that time, I had no idea who he was, but I was about to find out.  He and his creation – High Times Magazine — would become incredibly important to NORML and to the movement to legalize marijuana.

    Tom Forcade (left) refuses to shake hands with Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman (right). Yippie Meyer Vishnu (center) tries to mediate an end to the Forcade-Meyer feud.

    Tom Forcade (left) refuses to shake hands with Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman (right). Yippie Meyer Vishnu (center) tries to mediate an end to the Forcade-Meyer feud. 1971

    The majority of dissident groups and anti-government protestors in Miami for the 1972 Democratic convention were bivouacked in Flamingo Park. which was re-dubbed The People’s Park by its many new residents. Forcade was there representing the Zippies (The Zeitgeist International Party), a splinter group he had recently organized as part of an internecine war going on between him and Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies (the Youth International Party). Tom and his fellow Zippies were selling ounces of marijuana out of a tree in People’s Park. I had no way of knowing at the time, but Tom and Abbie were in the midst of a bitter feud that began with a dispute over the publication rights to Hoffman’s Steal This Book. Their feud would ultimately end with Tom walking away from the spotlight of radical politics in favor of more discreet forms of social engineering.

    Rev. Tom Forcade

    Rev. Tom Forcade

    Forcade’s style of politics during his early political work was confrontational “street theater” and “in your face” tactics, literally. For example, appearing before the Senate Commission on Obscenity in 1970, the “Rev. Tom Forcade,” replete in black hat and a frock coat, denounced the “ancient myths of sterile blue laws” for several minutes in a stream-of-consciousness diatribe, finally concluding “So fuck off, and fuck censorship!”  He punctuated his penultimate point by throwing a cream pie in the commissioner’s face while shouting his coda, “The only obscenity is censorship!” That was certainly not the only example of Tom showing his dislike or disapproval by “pieing” government officials; it was a favorite tactic, guaranteed to assure media coverage.

    His real name was Gary Goodson, but back when he was a teenager in Arizona everyone called him Junior. Junior Goodson was a hotrod hell raiser who would regularly outrace the Utah State Highway Patrol just for fun in hundred-mile car chases on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Junior eventually turned his adolescent preoccupation with fast cars and adrenalin-fueled adventure into a successful career as a first-class marijuana smuggler. He changed his name to save his family embarrassment and quickly moved onto boats and planes as his mode of illicit expression.

    Tom Forcade completes his testimony before the Commission on Obscenity by throwing a cream pie in the face of one of the commissioners

    Tom Forcade completes his testimony before the Commission on Obscenity by throwing a cream pie in the face of one of the commissioners

    “There are only two kinds of pot dealers,” Tom Forcade used to say, “those that need fork lifts and those who don’t. I’m the kind who needs a fork lift.”

    Tom was much more than an uncommon drug smuggler, however. He was a writer, an editor, a publisher, and a movie producer. He founded the Underground Press Syndicate which served as sort of the Associated Press for the media underground. It linked, in style and content, many of the geographically disparate counterculture magazines and newspapers that were popping up around the country. As always, Forcade was focused on ways to bolster the counter culture and to advance the progressive, anti-government agenda. Most important to Tom was the issue of legalizing marijuana.

    Little did I know that he would in a few years become a regular funder, sometimes personally and sometimes via his magazine. And, of course, High Times, the pro-pot magazine he founded in 1974, consistently covered NORML’s work and celebrated our accomplishments both editorially and in their news coverage for many decades. It is fair to say that during the 1970s, most Americans who knew about NORML had read about our work in either Playboy or High Times magazine.

    The truth is that Tom Forcade, for whom the word visionary seemed tailor-made, accurately saw the potential of the legalization movement in Miami in 1972.

    1972 People's Pot Party

    The People’s Pot Party brought cannabis politics to Flamingo Park during the 1972 GOP convention. Photo via State Archives of Florida

    With so many protestors in Miami and so many progressive organizations trying to get their messages out, it was impossible for NORML or for any other social reform group to generate much media attention. The one exception, however, was the People’s Pot Party, another branding initiative by Tom, which was headquartered up off the ground inside an ancient eucalyptus tree near an entrance to Flamingo Park. If you wanted to score pot at the Miami Convention, you went to the eucalyptus tree in People’s Park, reached up with money in hand, and waited for a bag to float down from the leaves. It was the earliest version of a marijuana dispensary, and there was no age requirement or medical authorization required; just the courage to buy marijuana openly in front of hundreds of other protesters in the park. The People’s Pot Tree was audacious, illicit and, yeah, more than a little illegal. And the media ate it up. A picture of the eucalyptus tree even appeared in Newsweek.

    “When I saw that huge crowd under the eucalyptus tree,” Tom later recalled, “I saw the politics of the 70s.”

    Starting High Times Magazine

    Following the 1972 Convention, Tom largely withdrew from the guerilla theater and media manipulation that characterized his earliest efforts and returned to marijuana smuggling with a fresh resolve. Forcade never retreated entirely from dissent, he simply shifted the direction of his protest. NORML became the primary focus of his financial contributions, and he let us take the front lines of the legalization movement while he increasingly withdrew to the shadows.

    1975 NORML High Times ad

    1975 NORML ad in High Times

    Two years after our first meeting in Miami, Forcade put out the first issue of a national glossy magazine dedicated “to getting high… really high”. It was an instant success and doubled its circulation with each new issue until it sold almost a million copies a month. Tom Forcade did for marijuana what Hugh Hefner did for sex. He flouted his love of marijuana and getting high. High Times turned out to be his most enduring achievement and the publication of its first issue marked the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship with NORML that lasted for decades.

    In one of my favorite memories of Tom, I traveled to see him in New York City once when I really needed some cash to meet payroll or otherwise keep our heads above water at NORML. When I called him, Tom said, sure, he would help, but I would need to come to his place in the city. When I arrived, I was somewhat surprised to see the entire apartment filled from floor to ceiling with bales of marijuana. Tom and I did our business in the few feet available at the front of the apartment. He handed me a package with $10,000 in cash neatly wrapped, and I thanked him and left, just happy that no one had apparently noticed my brief visit, and we had not been busted. Tom clearly enjoyed pushing the limits, and watching his friends squirm.

    Another time, in 1976, I called Tom to ask for a contribution and he said he would leave me a gift, but he wanted me to tell the press about the contribution, but claim it was from The Confederation, an alliance of marijuana growers and distributors. He hoped that by his example, other smugglers would step forward and help fund NORML. One Sunday morning he (or more likely one of his friends) left the cash in a black bag in front of the NORML office on M Street with a typed note indicating The Confederation was making the gift, rang the doorbell (where I lived above the office), and fled.

    When I arrived, I brought the bag inside the office where I read the note and laughed out loud, since I knew it was from Forcade. Then, as promised, I called the Associate Press and the Washington Post and told them about this wonderful gift that had somehow mysteriously shown up at my door. And within hours an AP photo of the bag and the money, and a story about the gift appeared in newspapers all across America.

    That was clearly a more innocent time, and Tom and I enjoyed pulling their chain a bit. Today one would likely be indicted under some fraud or money laundering statute, and the money would be forfeited to the government as the profits from a criminal enterprise. But the 70s were a more innocent time.

    But over time Forcade began showing signs that his lifestyle and lack of discipline were starting to take their toll. He would frequently call the High Times office at all hours, stoned out of his mind on one drug or another, threatening to fire everyone; or on other occasions, promising bonuses to people whose work he thought was exceptional. The truth was that High Times had learned to get by with or without Forcade, as he would sometimes go on the road with one of the bands he liked for days on end, or disappear on another smuggling trip when he was similarly out of touch. He ran the magazine when he chose to, but he had put in place a team that published the magazine each month even when he was not in touch.

    Forcade was a mercurial individual, a classic manic depressive, whose incredible flashes of brilliance were countered by severe bouts of gloom. He was also someone who wanted to personally experience all illicit drugs, including heroin, which he sometimes did when he went on the road with the Sex Pistols, a favorite band of his.  And shortly before his death, Tom was also taking lots of Quaaludes, which can certainly cause depression. On November 16, 1978, on a complicated whim that resists dissection, Junior Goodson, a.k.a. Tom Forcade, in his New York apartment, put a pearl-handled .22 to his head and pulled the trigger. He was only 33 years old.

    At a private memorial service held at the top of the World Trade Center, a few of Forcade’s friends, including the core staff at High Times and myself, celebrated his life by telling our favorite Tom Forcade stories and sharing a few joints, each of which contained a small amount of Tom’s ashes, and laughing and crying. Somehow smoking his ashes in a joint on the top floor of the highest building in New York seemed like an appropriate manner to honor Forcade’s extraordinary life. I am certain he would have approved.

    High Times Following Forcade’s Death

    Bill Rittenberg, Gerry Goldstein, Michael Stepanian, Michael J. Kennedy, and Keith Stroup at a Cannabis Cup event in Denver, CO

    Bill Rittenberg, Gerry Goldstein, Michael Stepanian, Michael J. Kennedy, and Keith Stroup at a Cannabis Cup event in Denver, CO

    Forcade’s death had been a blow to all of us, if not a total surprise, and no one was certain initially if the magazine would even survive. But Forcade had assembled a good crew that kept the magazine coming out, including most importantly his long-time personal criminal attorney and High Times Legal Counsel (and chair of the High Times board of directors) Michael J. Kennedy. A nationally renowned, highly respected criminal defense and civil rights attorney, Kennedy was famous for representing some of the most radical anti-war activists and high-profile criminal and civil-rights cases in the second half of the 20th century. Kennedy’s clients over time included Chicago Eight co-defendant Rennie Davis, LSD guru Timothy Leary, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton, Native American protesters at Wounded Knee, and anti-war activist  Weathermen Bernardine Dohrn. He also represented other prominent Americans including Jean Harris, the private girl school headmistress charged with killing her lover, Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower and in his only divorce case, he represented Ivana Trump in her divorce and property settlement with Donald Trump.

    Hempilation I: Freedom is NORML

    Hempilation I: Freedom is NORML

    Kennedy remained in charge of the magazine until his death in January of 2016. During those years High Times always designated one of their senior editors as the “NORML person,” responsible for maintaining a cooperative and mutually beneficial  relationship with NORML. During the early years when Forcade was still alive,  that was A. Craig Copetas, a journalist who eventually left to become a writer based in Paris for such publications as Rolling Stone, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. Next, editor Steve Bloom became the “NORML guy” at the magazine, during which time he coordinated the production of two NORML benefit albums with Capricorn Records comprised of marijuana-related music, Hempilation I: Freedom is NORML, in 1995 and Hempilation 2: Free the Weed in 1997, raising more than $100,000 for the organization. Bloom eventually left to establish the marijuana news website CelebStoner, which he continues to run today. And more recently, associate publisher Rick Cusick was the designated NORML point person on the High Times staff until the magazine was sold and he and other staff were let go.  Because of his close involvement with NORML over a number of years, Cusick was elected a member of the NORML board of directors in 2013, where he continues to serve today.

    And during those decades following Forcade’s death, largely because of the support of Michael Kennedy, High Times became our largest source of funding, providing a free NORML ad in each issue, providing space each month for NORML to feature a leading grassroots activist from our NORML network around the country, and sending us a monthly check initially for $3,000 each month. These donations eventually increased to $5,000 each month and continued right up to the time the magazine was sold to a group of outside investors in 2017, when all funding to NORML stopped. These new investors were interested in monetizing the High Times brand and had no apparent interest in NORML or the marijuana legalization movement. For them, it was just another investment opportunity.

    Eleanora Kennedy, widow of Michael Kennedy, speaks at the 2019 NORML Conference

    Eleanora Kennedy, widow of Michael Kennedy, speaks at the 2019 NORML Conference

    Following Michael Kennedy’s death in 2016, NORML established an annual Michael J. Kennedy Social Justice Award to recognize those progressive individuals who are working to advance the cause of social justice in America.

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 22, 2020
    Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the fourth in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    The Crucial Early Support from Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Foundation

    When we were initially pulling NORML together, we were all volunteers who had other jobs and were doing this on the side. But we knew the first most crucial challenge would be to identify sources of funding that would allow NORML to hire a professional staff. Perhaps it was a bit idealistic, or simply youthful naivety, but I recall thinking that if we put an effective program forward explaining what we were trying to accomplish, and why, somehow the value of what we were doing would be recognized by some of the progressive foundations who would step up and provide that funding.

    And strangely, that is precisely what happened. (Sometimes luck is more important than skill!) Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Foundation ended up providing our initial funding in early 1971 and subsequently became our primary funder throughout the 1970s.

    I had drafted a generic request for funding indicating what I envisioned for NORML and what our political goals were, and I had sent a version of this proposal off to a few progressive foundations, primarily those that were supporting anti-Vietnam war efforts.  There was, even during these years, a stark cultural divide in the country between those who supported the Vietnam war and those who opposed it, and marijuana legalization had become a popular issue among the anti-war crowd.

    I was receiving either no response, or nice notes saying they were sorry to disappoint, but that my project did not fall within their funding guidelines. I was beginning to think the concept of legalizing marijuana was simply too radical to get mainstream funding. Then, one day while visiting with one of the early Nader’s Raiders with whom I had become friends, John Esposito, he asked if I had sent a funding proposal to the Playboy Foundation. I had never even heard of the Foundation, but it made sense to me, and I did subsequently find the address in Chicago, where Playboy was then based, and where Hefner lived his public and lavish lifestyle at the then-famous Playboy Mansion. I sent off my proposal.

    Within a few weeks I received a phone call from Margaret Standish, who served as executive director of the Playboy Foundation, asking for additional information, and suggesting we continue the discussion. Shortly thereafter I heard from Bob Gutwillig, a vice-president of Playboy, whom I had been advised was a personal friend of Hefner’s, asking if he could come visit me in Washington, DC. I met with Gutwilling, whose primary mission was to determine if I was a serious marijuana consumer advocate, or  a radical political activist who might embarrass Hefner or Playboy.

    Apparently, I passed the test. The next thing I knew I was invited to come to Chicago to meet with the foundation board, which was chaired by Hugh Hefner personally.

    Hugh Hefner with Eugene Schoenfeld and Keith Stroup during a NORML fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in LA

    Hugh Hefner with “Dr. Hip” Eugene Schoenfeld and Keith Stroup during a NORML fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in LA

    That meeting, held at the Playboy Mansion where Hef both lived and maintained a complex of offices for a few of his key executives (he seldom went to the corporate headquarters, the Playboy Building, a few blocks away), was at noon. That, I was told, was early for Hefner to schedule any meeting, so it suggested he was interested in this one. That sounded promising, but it also intimidated me a bit.

    I was slightly hung over, having gone out for drinks the night before with Burton Joseph, the legal counsel to the Playboy Foundation, and someone Hefner clearly relied on for advice in this area.  It was at this time that I first met Bobbie Arnstein, a woman who would become a close friend and a valuable NORML ally.

    Bobbie Arnstein was a beautiful lady from Chicago who had at one time been a lover of Hef’s, but who had since become his confidante and personal assistant, handling everything from his most important matters to his least significant matters. At some point Hef grew to depend on Bobbie so much that he asked her to move into her own apartment within the Playboy mansion, and she became a part of the family.

    Bobbie was hip, in an urban sort of way. When I first met her, she ended up taking me back to her apartment in the mansion while we were waiting for Hefner, where she had, proudly positioned, as I entered her two-room black-walled pleasure palace, a copy of Be Here Now by Baba Ram Das, the former Professor Richard Albert from Harvard.

    Bobbie was on top of the latest thinking on drugs and consciousness, and we ended up spending many evenings getting stoned and discussing our understanding of the universe. This woman was living the life most of us could only dream about. And she was, as it turns out, a real “head” who loved smoking marijuana, and a soul mate. We developed a special friendship that lasted until her death.

    Hef was a couple of hours late for the Playboy Foundation meeting, not unusual for him, and the meeting waited for Hef. We all relaxed around the mansion, uncertain when Hef would come out of his private quarters.

    Then suddenly he arrived, and Margaret Standish, the foundation executive director, called the meeting to order and immediately indicated the purpose of the meeting was primarily to meet me and to discuss the NORML proposal.

    Nick Clooney Keith Stroup and Hugh Hefner during a 1978 NORML fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion LA

    Broadcast journalist Nick Clooney, Keith Stroup and Hugh Hefner during a NORML fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in LA on November 16, 1978

    Bob Gutwillig gave a short summary of what he had learned with his site visit to DC, and it was generally favorable and positive. Margaret then introduced me and I made a short statement. I explained to them that I was a young lawyer, that I smoked marijuana, and I did not believe it should be a criminal offense. And that as I talked with more and more people, I found that they too felt this way.  I stressed my experience working around consumer advocate Ralph Nader at the National Commission on Product Safety, and the fact that former US Attorney General Ramsey Clarke was working with us, because I knew that Hefner admired Ramsey. (I had asked Ramsey in advance if I could make that representation, and he assured me it was fine.)

    I later learned that Ramsey Clark’s endorsement, underscored in a private communication between Clark and Hefner, would prove crucial in assuring our support by the Playboy Foundation.

    Hefner, as best I can recall nearly five decades later, was upbeat and positive, asked a few general questions, but managed to keep his cards close to his chest. He made a couple of references about marijuana fitting right in with sex, but ended the meeting at some point with an assurance I would soon hear back from the foundation with a decision. He did not announce whether we would get support, or perhaps more importantly, what level that support might be.

    I left the meeting feeling we would get the $20,000 I had requested in the initial grant proposal (a request that with hindsight seems relatively modest), and returned to DC. In a few days I received a call from Margaret Standish announcing they had voted to award NORML a $5,000 grant.

    Initially I was uncertain whether to accept it or not. I needed to support my young family, and clearly $5,000 would not last long. Privately I was wondering what I would do when that initial grant ran out.  Where would I find additional funding?

    But after being reassured by Standish that additional funding would likely be forthcoming from Playboy,  assuming they were satisfied with our work, I turned down a pending job offer, and began working full time on NORML, initially out of an office in the basement of my home in Dupont Circle.

    NORML Playboy ad 1977

    NORML ad in Playboy, 1977

    By the end of the first year, the Playboy Foundation had come back with several modest supplemental grants, and then they seemed to find a plateau where they were comfortable, funding us at the level of $100,000 per year for the next 7 or 8 years. In addition, Playboy would provide us two full-page NORML ads in the magazine each year during those years, which allowed us to raise tens of thousands of donations from each ad and to begin to develop a membership base of supporters, whom we could use to lobby elected officials and to form state and local NORML groups. Playboy Magazine at the time had more than six million subscribers and a monthly readership that exceeded twenty million people.

    And perhaps as important as was their financial support, Playboy magazine also began covering our work in flattering articles in The Forum, the news section near the front of the magazine. This prominent coverage introduced tens of millions of Americans to NORML and the work we were engaged in, which gave us almost instant credibility with the public and with elected officials.

    Of course, there were times when I would have preferred to have as my principal financial supporter be an individual not quite as controversial as Hefner. Occasionally a state elected official would complain, or would refuse to sponsor a bill for us because of the Playboy connection. But far more common were those who knew about NORML and respected the work we were doing because they had read about us in Playboy magazine. Without question, there was baggage associated with the Playboy support, but it was a good and valuable tradeoff for NORML during the 1970s.

    During one of my early visits with Ramsey Clark, when I was initially seeking to find funding for NORML, I asked Clark what he thought about NORML trying to get funding from the Playboy Foundation — whether he felt it undermined or otherwise cheapened our message by being associated with Playboy.

    Ramsey, who by then had published several highly acclaimed books, including Crime In America in 1970, in which he called for marijuana legalization, said he had recently had his interview published in Playboy, and wherever he traveled, more people came up to him and asked him a question, or wanted to say hello, because they had read his interview in Playboy and recognized him, than from any other source. Now this is a man who only a couple of years earlier had been the attorney general of the United States and was now a major anti-war and civil-rights advocate.  And he felt the ability to reach large numbers of individuals, many of them highly educated, through Playboy magazine was important enough that he could overlook the aspects of the magazine he did not really approve of.

    Keith Stroup interview in February 1977 issue of Playboy

    February 1977 Playboy interview of Keith Stroup

    So I followed Ramsey Clark’s lead and was pleased to accept  the Playboy Foundation money and enjoy their editorial support for the decade of the 70s. And because of Hefner’s personal support for NORML, I too was the subject of a Playboy interview in 1977, one of only a handful of non-celebrity interviews they have ever published. Hefner clearly wanted NORML to succeed.

    While Playboy magazine and the lifestyle of the late founder and publisher Hugh Hefner seem dated today, post the ‘Me Too Movement,’ in the early 1970s Playboy was enjoying a well-earned  reputation as an institution willing to challenge authority and prevailing sexual mores. Yes, the magazine featured nude models, but they also appeared to be fearless in celebrating hedonism and challenging the wisdom of criminalizing victimless crimes, including marijuana smoking. At the time they were working closely with ACLU and other groups concerned with protecting an individual’s right to privacy.

    Like all men of my age, I grew up with Playboy magazine as a cultural phenomenon. Beginning in 1953 Hugh Hefner had created and served as publisher of the men’s magazine that celebrated sexuality and told us all that it was okay to enjoy sex without guilt. During my teenage years, it was the only magazine readily available that had pictures of beautiful, sexy nude women, and many of us were caught by our parents at one time or another with a copy of the magazine under our mattresses.

    Most people think of Hugh Hefner and the Rat Pack generation he epitomized as more smoking jacket and scotch than tie-dye and pot, but the fact is that by 1970, Hefner had stopped drinking alcohol, and switched to drinking Pepsi Cola.

    His drug of choice at this point was actually Dexedrine, or amphetamine – uppers. Hef, as he preferred that his friends call him, was working hard building an empire, and the use of amphetamines, the drug that helped many of us through our exams as undergraduates, permitted him to work for 24 or 36 hours in a row, when he was in a groove and did not want to stop. It was Hef’s favorite drug for a few years in the early and mid-1970s.

    But he also enjoyed smoking marijuana, and he liked keeping a few pre-rolled joints in a container in his bedroom in the Playboy mansion. And it was my friend, Bobbie Arnstein, whose responsibility it was to keep that container refilled.

    And occasionally whenever Bobbie would call me to say Hef was going to be taking a break from work, and this might be a good time to come hang out with them, I would fly to Chicago and stay in Bobbie’s apartment, waiting for Hefner to finish one of his marathon working jags and be ready to relax. Then Bobbie and I would play pinball with Hef for hours (he had more than 30 of the best machines ever made), until he finally got sleepy and decided to crash. During some of those pinball games we had hours to discuss NORML and how we were doing, and how we might do better. It was the most valuable time I ever had with Hefner.

    Once, Bobbie arranged for me to come to Chicago to fly with Hefner on his famous black Playboy jet from Chicago to Los Angeles. When I arrived, Bobbie informed me that Warren Beatty and Shel Silverstein would also be on the flight. I was initially nervous, unsure I could hold my own in the conversation. I did my best to listen to their war stories (they really did start talking about all the women they had slept with during the flight!) and tried to keep quiet. Occasionally Hefner asked about NORML, so I didn’t feel totally left out of the discussion, but my role was miniscule. I had no war stories to contribute.

    Bobbie Arnstein’s story ends tragically with her suicide, following a bogus federal drug trial and conviction, the result of her taking a trip to Florida with her boyfriend, a cocaine dealer. Hefner had paid her high-powered defense lawyer, and had made certain that she had the best possible defense money could buy. But that was not enough to save her.

    On Jan 12, 1975, while she was awaiting sentencing, Bobbie checked herself into the Hotel Maryland just a couple of blocks from the Playboy mansion, where she took a lethal dose of prescription drugs.

    Bobbie was a dear friend, and I felt a terrible sense of loss that I still feel today when I think about those years. She was a soul mate whose friendship was important to me and crucial to NORML.

    Comedians David Steinberg and Flip Wilson with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and NFL great Jim Brown at a NORML fundraiser at th ePlayboy Mansion

    Comedians David Steinberg and Flip Wilson with Hugh Hefner and NFL great Jim Brown at a NORML fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in LA

    The Playboy Foundation support for NORML continued through the end of the decade, and Hef even opened up his LA Playboy Mansion for a couple of high-ticket NORML fundraisers during the late 70s. But my ability to maintain a close relationship with Hefner was never the same after Bobbie’s passing. Following the brouhaha that arose regarding President Jimmy Carter’s drug adviser, Peter Bourne, using cocaine at a NORML party, I was forced to step aside from NORML for several years. That led to an end to the Playboy Foundation’s funding of NORML.

    But they had made it possible for NORML to mount an effective reform effort during the 1970s. It’s fair to say that without the support of Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Foundation, NORML might never have advanced beyond the idea stage.

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 15, 2020
    Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the third in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    Hunter S. Thompson – a Natural Ally

    One of the true pleasures of being involved with NORML over these many decades has been the opportunity to meet a lot of fascinating and interesting folks – some famous, others infamous – that I would never have had the occasion to meet were I working at some more traditional job. People such as Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, High Times founder Tom Forcade, Willie Nelson, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Harvard Medical School Professor Lester Grinspoon, early prohibition victim and poet John Sinclair (founder of the White Panther Party), actor Woody Harrelson, actor Tommy Chong, comedian Bill Maher, travel writer and tour guide Rick Steves and many others (many of whom I hope to write about in subsequent blog posts.

    But without question, one of the most interesting of this cast of characters was the writer and cultural icon Hunter S. Thompson.

    The first time I met Hunter he was smoking a joint under the bleachers at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, FL. Along with Margaret Standish, the head of the Playboy Foundation (our initial source of funding) and a couple of others, we had driven my Volkswagen camper from Washington, D.C. to Miami to “attend” the Democratic convention. Of course, none of us were official delegates, and our real purpose was to try to use the national media attention that always accompanies a national political convention to publicize NORML and our mission of legalizing marijuana.

    The prior Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968 had attracted so many anti-Vietnam War protesters that riots resulted and large numbers of protestors were beaten and/or arrested by the heavy-handed Chicago police. So the Democratic Party leadership decided to take a more permissive approach to protestors four years later. They basically welcomed all who wanted to come to Miami to bring their peaceful protests, so long as they stayed about three blocks away from the convention itself in a carefully fended-in park that was quickly nicknamed the “People’s Park.”

    There were scores of groups in “People’s Park” protesting and advocating all sorts of issues and doing their best to stand-out from the crowd, which was no easy task. But so long as they remained in the park, the police left everyone alone, including the “People’s Pot Tree,” a tree where then smuggler and soon-to-be founder of High Times Magazine, Tom Forcade, sold baggies of marijuana to anyone who wanted it.  More on Tom Forcade and the People’s Pot Tree in a future NORML blog.

    It was opening night of the 72 convention and I had managed to get visitor tickets that allowed me to get inside the convention hall and listen to the proceedings. I was sitting in the stands listening to the speeches when, quite suddenly — and without any question in my mind — I smelled marijuana, and quickly realized it was coming up from down below. I looked below the bleachers and what I saw was a fairly big guy smoking a fairly fat joint. He was trying to be discreet, but it wasn’t working very well. I could see him hunkering in the shadows — tall and lanky, flailing his arms and oddly familiar. Jesus Christ, I suddenly realized, that’s Hunter S. Thompson!

    Screw the speeches. I quickly found my way under the bleachers and approached as politely as possible.

    “Hu-uh – What the fuck?!! Who’re you?!”

    “Hey, Hunter. Keith Stroup from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. We’re a new smoker’s lobby.”  Easy enough.

    “Oh. Oh, yeah! Yeah! Here,” Hunter held out his herb, “You want some?”

    We finished that joint and began a friendship that lasted for thirty-three years.

    Like every other young stoner in America I had read “Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas” as it was serialized eight months earlier in Rolling Stone. Hunter would soon gather great fame for himself, the kind of fame from which one can never look back. The following summer in 1973  “the Vegas book” – as he invariably called his signature work – would be released to extraordinary acclaim and Thompson would blaze into 20th Century Letters; but on the night I met him his star was still ascending. With his mass audience still in the very near future and his notoriety still at the fringe, he was in Miami working on his next book, Fear & Loathing On The Campaign Trail ‘72 and he was enjoying access to campaign managers, strategists, planners and candidates, the likes of which he would never see again.

    His relative anonymity at that moment in the world of national politics allowed him to move freely and professionally inside the convention hall. Once Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 came out with its gonzo allusions to splitting a tab of acid with NBC Nightly News host John Chancellor and its blunt evocations of presidential candidate Maine governor Edmund Muskie on methadone, Hunter would never again opt for insider status. George McGovern’s Campaign Director Frank Mankiewicz  would later recall the book to be “the most accurate and least factual” account of the campaign.

    You see, Hunter, who referred to himself as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, based on a mail order diploma he had obtained as a joke, was a self-described political junkie and so am I, and that was the basis of our long friendship  — that and a mutual predilection for fine drugs. Hunter was most stimulating and the most fun when he was debating politics. By the time I met him in Miami, Hunter had managed a campaign for the mayor of Aspen and had run for sheriff the following year. He lost by a handful of votes.

    Keith Stroup & Hunter S. Thompson at an early NORML conference

    Founder Keith Stroup & Hunter S. Thompson at an early NORML conference

    Hunter attended several of the early NORML conferences in the 1970s in Washington, DC, where he was a celebrity speaker whose name on the program assured a surge in attendance, and where he regularly invited most of the attendees up to his private room to get high, a thrill that made it all worthwhile. I was sometimes left with having to pay the hotel damages for what Hunter had done to the room when he got a bit carried away and slammed room service carts into the wall, but that was just the price of including Thompson, and it was a price I was quite willing to pay.

    On one of my first visits to Aspen, in the mid-1970s, Hunter and his wife at the time, Sandy, invited me to join them at singer Jimmy Buffett’s wedding. It was at the home of Glen Fry, lead singer of the Eagles and a neighbor of Buffett’s. I was staying at the Jerome Hotel right in the heart of town, long before it was remodeled and made into the fancy hotel it is today. At that time it looked like a bordello, with fuzzy red covered sofas and old wooden stand-alone armoires that seemed right out of the 1890s. I loved staying at the Jerome; it felt like where one might have stayed during the silver rush a century earlier.

    Hunter and Sandy came to pick me up at the Jerome, and the three of us took acid so we could fully appreciate the wedding. I can recall arriving at a beautiful home, with Buffett and his soon-to-be wife Jane looking like two Aspen celebrities, and the Eagles performing after the wedding from a balcony. It was truly a wonderful, unique experience, but I have to take that on faith, as I was tripping my ass off and don’t have much memory of the details.

    For years, I would periodically find an excuse to visit Aspen, and spend a couple of nights hanging out with Hunter, recharging my batteries late at night, stoned to the back of my eyeballs, a little too drunk for driving but not for talking politics.

    Hunter lived at this lovely small farm named Owl Farm, off a small country road about a mile or so from Woody Creek, home of the famous Woody Creek Tavern, about 7 miles outside of Aspen. Hunter frequently hung out at the Woody Creek Tavern, and because he was a local boy, they would save a table for him on the nights he generally came in for dinner, and perhaps more important, should they see anyone strange heading up the road towards Owl Farm — and they could see every vehicle that went by — they would call Hunter to warn him, in case he might need the advance warning.

    Hunter S. Thompson at Owl Farm

    Hunter S. Thompson at Owl Farm

    An evening at Hunter’s place was a special experience. Because of staying up most of the night, he was usually sleeping late during the day, and then it took him a few hours to get up and get dressed, have breakfast and read the papers, and get set for the day, which by then was usually night. So I would not arrive until 10 or 11:00pm, when he was ready to see friends or work on his various writing projects, or sometimes both.

    Hunter would be sitting in the kitchen, at the breakfast bar, which he used as his desk and base of operations, with a typewriter and fax machine within easy reach (he refused to use personal computers), and the remote control to his television set (the largest home screens available at the time) dangling from the ceiling on a cord, so he could always find it even in the most confusing times. 

    And there were literally scores, perhaps hundreds, of notes and faxes and letters and pictures, most with some scribbles from Hunter, either editing his original typing, or commenting on what someone else had said, and these items, along with many other objects de art, all stuck on the walls and the refrigerator and the kitchen cabinets and the lamp shades with scotch tape, or a tack or a paper clip. It looked as if he had saved every note he had ever written to anyone, or received from anyone, and wanted each and every one of them to be handy, in case he wanted to refer back to them quickly. It was his version of a filing system. On more than one occasion I would visit Hunter and see one of my own faxes stuck on the wall or a lampshade, so I knew he did sometimes move these around, or at least he added new layers.

    Those private evenings with Hunter were truly some of the most enjoyable and stimulating times I have had the pleasure of experiencing in my life. We would sit and intellectually spar for hours on end, all the while smoking great weed (I would always bring some good marijuana to share with Hunter), drinking whiskey, and snorting Hunter’s cocaine. This would go on until either I decided I was about to drop, and I would announce my need to depart to get back to my hotel, or Hunter would decide it was time to start writing, and I would take the clue and say goodnight and make my way back to town.

    In February of 2005 word came that Hunter had killed himself. He was sitting at his usual place, his command chair in the kitchen, and had put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger. Hunter was dead by his own hand at the age of 67. His health had been failing him in the last couple of years, and he had had a hip replacement and was finding it difficult to walk, largely confined to a wheelchair. Whatever the reason for his taking his life at this particular time, it was not a total surprise to anyone who had known Hunter over the years.

    He was generally a fun loving guy who would go to great lengths to play a practical joke on friends or to get a laugh. But he also had his dark times when he found the world a challenging place to survive, as most of us do at times, and he would sometimes talk of suicide. “Doomed” was one of his favorite words.

    His last written words were: “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

    Along with 150 of his friends and family, including his celebrity friends Bill Murray, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, John Cusick, and Sean Penn, and his artist/partner in crime, Ralph Steadman, on March 5th I attended Hunter’s memorial service at the Jerome Hotel in Aspen, an emotional but sometimes light-hearted six hour tribute with lots of alcohol and weed. 

    In 2007 the NORML Board of Directors awarded (posthumously) a Special Appreciation Award to Hunter, reflecting his life-long commitment to legalizing marijuana.

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 8, 2020
    Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the second in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse

    As one reviews the modern history of marijuana policy in this country, beginning with the adoption of federal marijuana prohibition in 1937 (i.e., the Marijuana Tax Act) and continuing to where we are today with 33 states having legalized the medical use of marijuana and 11 states and the District of Columbia having legalized adult recreational use, perhaps the single most important step along the way was the report issued in 1972 by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.

    Other extraordinary breakthroughs in the movement to end prohibition and legalize marijuana include the adoption of legal medical use by California in 1996, the first state to take that step; and the adoption of legal recreational use in Colorado and Washington in 2012, the first two states to adopt a legal regulated market.

    But none of that would have likely been possible without the enormously powerful report, entitled Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, issued by the so-called Marijuana Commission (or sometimes the Shafer Commission, after the commission’s chair, former Republican PA governor Raymond Shafer). At the time, Gallup polling found only 12% of the country supported legalizing marijuana; 88% of the public opposed legal marijuana. Decades of government Reefer Madness propaganda had been effective and had left the great majority of the public with an exaggerated fear of the dangers of smoking marijuana. With that level of misinformation, legal reform was simply not possible.

    And with that history of government anti-marijuana hysteria, initially most observers did not expect much better from this new federal commission. It is worth noting that this commission was created while anti-marijuana zealot Richard Nixon was president, and 9 of the 13 commissioners were appointed by President Nixon, with the remaining four being selected from among the sitting members of Congress. So, there was real fear the commissioners would not treat this study of marijuana policy seriously, but that they would simply recommend what they all knew Nixon wanted; more Reefer Madness. 

    But after a year of study and public and private hearings, in a totally unexpected move, on March 22, 1972, the congressionally-created commission took the extraordinary step of telling the truth about marijuana!

     Here is the crux of their findings: 

    “[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use,” concluded the Commission, which included several conservative appointees of then-President Richard Nixon. “It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.

    “… Therefore, the Commission recommends … [that the] possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense.”

    While the Marijuana Commission did not have the political courage to propose full legalization with a regulated market, they nonetheless recognized the essential fact that there was no justification for treating marijuana smokers as criminals. And even without a legally regulated market, their recommendations, something we subsequently learned to call “decriminalization,” sought to end criminal penalties and arrests for the overwhelming majority of marijuana consumers. if implemented would eliminate approximately 90% of all marijuana arrests, a step well-worth supporting. 

    Ironically, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse came about as part of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, an otherwise harsh anti-drug law that remains the federal law even today, and includes marijuana, along with drugs such as heroin, in Schedule I, the federal classification for the most dangerous drugs, and defines marijuana as having no accepted medical use!

    The prior federal anti-drug law had been declared unconstitutional in a high-profile case involving Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor famous for urging people to “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out.” Leary had been busted by the feds coming back into the country from Mexico with a significant quantity of marijuana in 1969 and given a 30-year prison sentence, and on appeal his lawyers argued the Marijuana Tax Act required him to violate his 5th Amendment protections against self-incrimination. The federal courts eventually agreed and threw the law out, leaving the federal government without any anti-drug act for a few months before enacting the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

    Congressman Ed Koch, a Democrat from New York City whose district included Greenwich Village (and who would later become its mayor) managed to get a provision added to the proposed anti-drug act to establish the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse as one small section in the new act. The commission was directed to conduct a two-year study, the first year focused on needed changes in the country’s marijuana policy and the second year to report on changes needed for other illegal drugs. 

    When the final language of the proposed new federal bill was being debated, Koch agreed, as a concession to get more conservative support for his commission proposal, that marijuana would be temporarily listed in Schedule I, pending the recommendations from the commission’s first year report on marijuana. The commission’s subsequent report made it clear that marijuana was not a serious health risk, and should certainly not be kept in Schedule I. However, as we all know, the Congress ended up ignoring the Marijuana Commission’s recommendations and marijuana remains on Schedule I still today, both exaggerating its danger to the user and prohibiting its medical use under federal law.

    But Congress had a strong incentive to pass a new federal law that could pass Constitutional scrutiny, and Nixon had little choice but to sign the bill, even with the Marijuana Commission provisions. And in late 1970 (about the same time we were starting NORML), the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon. 

    And while Congress largely ignored the recommendations of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, the commission’s determination that marijuana smoking was not a serious threat to the health of the user or to society as a whole was the most important and credible argument for ending marijuana prohibition we had ever had at our disposal. It allowed NORML to take the decriminalization proposal to state legislatures all across the country, resulting in 11 states adopting decriminalization provisions for minor marijuana offenses between 1973 and 1978. (After 1978, the mood of the country turned more conservative.) 

    In fact, the Marijuana Commission’s recommendations still today stand as the most sensible plan for dealing with marijuana to ever come out of the federal government.

     

     

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