• 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.



  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 1, 2020
    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    On NORML’s 50th anniversary, NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the first in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    Starting NORML

    At the time I was preparing to graduate from Georgetown Law School in 1968, my major focus was finding a way to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in the Vietnam war. Back then, any male who turned 18 years old was subject to the draft unless he was a full time student, a fact that caused many in my generation to stay in school as long as possible. Many of us did not understand why we were fighting an unpopular war in southeast Asia, nor did we feel it was a noble undertaking that would justify the loss of so many young American lives. (More than 58,000 Americans died in that war.)

    But I was only 24 when I graduated law school and remained eligible for the draft until I turned 27, so I was desperate to find a way to avoid it. I had contacted some volunteer lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a fine organization that had stepped up to provide legal advice to the large numbers of young men who were actively seeking to stay out of Vietnam.

    One option they offered was to put me in touch with people who could help me relocate to Canada to avoid the draft. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men who had fled to Canada by then, and a supportive community in Canada who could help these people get reestablished in their new country. The principal downside to this option was that there was no assurance the US government would ever permit these draft dodgers, as the government loved calling us, to come home. One might never again be permitted to enter the United States. This seemed too extreme for my tastes. There had to be a better option out there.

    And with the help of these NLG lawyers I found it. I applied for what was called a “critical skills deferment”. During the existence of the military draft, the government had always recognized that there are a few people whose jobs at home are so important to the war effort, or to keeping the country running smoothly so the war could be pursued, that they should not be drafted but instead should be permitted to continue their important civilian work.

    I had been offered a job on the legal staff of a newly created Congressional commission called the National Commission on Product Safety, an outgrowth of the trailblazing work of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Importantly for my purpose was the opening paragraph of the legislation establishing the commission, declaring it was “important to the health, safety and welfare of the nation.” That language would prove useful in my application for a critical skills deferment. Just a few days before I was supposed to report for active military duty, my draft board granted me the deferment and I was allowed to work in downtown DC for the next two years, instead of going to Vietnam.

    The two years working at the commission were wonderful years. I was working as a lawyer at a prestigious Congressional commission on K Street in downtown Washington, DC instead of fighting in Vietnam. And I was learning the basic skills needed to be an effective consumer advocate from the master, Ralph Nader, whose skillful use of the media and his willingness, even eagerness, to take on major corporations, had turned him into a folk hero.

    It was the experience of working around Nader at the product safety commission that convinced me to consider using my legal training to work for the interests of American consumers. I had first started smoking marijuana when I was a first-year law student and by the time the commission came to an end, ending marijuana prohibition had become an important cause for me. I knew there was no justification for treating smokers as criminals and since I was then too old to be drafted, I decided to use my new freedom to found NORML as a consumer lobby to represent the interests of responsible marijuana smokers. I wanted to use the consumer advocate model Nader had used so successfully for product safety to challenge marijuana prohibition.

    And, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” Fifty years and counting as we continue to fight for a world in which marijuana smokers are treated fairly in all aspects of their lives.