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Keith Stroup Interview

NORML's Keith Stroup tells of the trials and tribulations that accompany the fight to decriminalize the marijuana industry.

By Izzy ErlichPublished 8 years ago 28 min read

In the later part of the 20th century, the young lawyer Keith Stroup, a key member of NORML, succeeded in influencing ten states to ease their marijuana laws. He hasn't stopped working on the other forty, where every day you smoke, you are threatened with jail. At a NORML conference, there was plenty of smoke. Hash, grass, pipes, joints, and a lot of proud homegrown, was brazenly passed in every direction, over lunch, over dinner, at the plenary sessions, in the corridors, in the public rooms, even to the hotel help.

As Willie Brown, the pro-dope 1970’s California state assemblyman from San Francisco pointed out during his keynote address, the law's consciousness started changing when legislators found themselves busting their own children. Legislators are usually lawyers. Do they have to be that out of touch with the public consciousness? The people who ran NORML are lawyer types. They are the Ralph Nader of pot smokers of America. NORML stands for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and dope was on everybody's minds or they wouldn't have been there. If you're thinking about dope, there's nothing more conducive to the enhancement of thinking than dope itself, and everybody had his stash. Marijuana remains a federal rap, where a bill to decriminalize has been vetoed for decades. In this vintage interview with Gallery Magazine circa late 1970s Stroup offered a perspective that is as current today as it was nearly back in the beginning of the marijuana legalization movement.

Gallery: Can you tell us some of the drama of decriminalization, how you got the process started after you founded NORML?

Stroup: The actual distinction between decriminalization and legalization is not one that we originally made. When we started NORML, we were thinking in terms of a marijuana smokers lobby, a consumers lobby, which we are, and our actual goals were not decided. We knew we didn't want to be subject to arrest, but there was no real consensus about whether we should go for an alcohol system, go for something better than that, maybe not even go for legalization, just go for something halfway. In any event, we just knew the direction we were headed in, so our first brochures do make some reference to an alcohol-model system, which is kind of funny, because NORML in fact, does not support that now at all. But that was 1970.

The Marijuana Commission came out with its first report in March of 1972. At that time, we had to make a quick decision. Are we going to maintain our posture as the marijuana smokers lobby outside the system and try to affect it by throwing brickbats? Because up to that point, that's all we could do. We had no real access and we were mainly ignored, but occasionally we’d get some coverage in Jack Anderson's column, and it was always attacking the Commission for being unfair, not listening to the consumers. Well, the Commission recommended decriminalization. It was an attempt by the Commission to go as far as they thought they could go, take the user out of the criminal justice system, but not frighten the politicians totally by saying legalization, because that word had such a bad connotation at that time.

Photo via of University of Massachusetts

We decided that it no longer made any sense for us to fight the strongest recommendation that'd ever been made, even though it didn't go as far as we wanted. It had a lot of clout if we were willing to support it, instead of attack it. We kicked it around. Lester Grinspoon, one of our advisers at Harvard, wrote a critique of the Marijuana Commission Report, which we published at the time, entitled Half A Loaf Is Worse Than No Loaf At All. He was saying if that's as far as you're going to go, the hell with it. But over a period of a few weeks, all of our main advisers agreed that, no, let's take it and go as far as we can, and at that point we'll begin to work further we have never felt that decriminalization was an end goal.

It was always a transitional phase for us. It still is. We're fairly frank about that, even when we testify. And legislators say, "Well, aren't you really trying to legalize marijuana?" I say, “Not now, but eventually, yeah. I think we need to regulate the market for good reasons." So decriminalization is a cease-fire and that's all it is. It's not a solution to the drug problem. It doesn't even address the problems of the black market, so clearly it's not going to take care of the major problems. But it eliminates some 300,000 needless arrests a year that pertained only to minor marijuana offenses.

Everybody agrees that these people aren't criminals, even though we don't yet have a consensus that says people who sell marijuana, for example, should be decriminalized. Most people still think sellers should be treated like violent criminals. We're going to do our best in the next two or three years to get people to understand that people who sell marijuana are no different from people who sell alcohol, and we consider them good businessmen who are on the corner with their liquor stores. Whether or not we ever have a kind of alcohol system, we surely must go through a phase of downgrading the seriousness with which we consider marijuana-selling crimes.

How did you begin, state by state?

I think one of the first states that I jumped out in was Texas. In about 71, I went down there. We were young enough that we hadn't developed the sense of our own self that we could plan a strategy and say, "Let's take these six and go." But what we did was this. We figured to win a social issue in this country, you have to have pretty good access to the media. That's crucial. I don't care how much money you have. You still have to have enormous relationships with media in different areas, because you're trying to communicate with 220 million people.

We immediately tried to open up a California office, a New York office, and of course, we had our main office in D.C. And it was our belief that even if the work was sporadic and hit-and-miss on the state level—because you wouldn’t have full-time offices—in some of the states we were doing good work, in others we weren't doing anything—as long as we covered ourselves and were good and professional and could show some progress in the media areas, like L.A., New York, and D.C., we would begin to have a much bigger impact than our numbers might otherwise indicate. That was part of our overall strategy, and it has gradually proven to be correct. The way we chose our states that we began to work in had to do with where people were getting fucked around. The numerous reports were coming out back in 70 and 71 of long prison sentences, and probably 90 percent of them were out of Texas.

Was that the system in which the jury decides the sentence?

Actually, the judge decided it. But it was two years to life, for possession of one joint or anything else, so obviously, if you were a white, middle-class kid and the judge liked you, you might get two years. If you were black, you were gonna get 20 or 30. And in some cases, they were giving away 50, 60 year sentences, life sentences.

Candy Barr, the stripper, was a famous marijuana case in Texas back in the early 60s.

That's right. And Leotus Johnson, a black activist who got 40 years. And of course, Candy got a pretty good sentence herself. I forget how much time she served in jail.

For two joints.

When we went down there to work, it was because Playboy magazine would occasionally publish something about our existence, and I began to get mail, mostly from Texas. So, uninvited, actually, I went down there and started agitating a bit. I got to know the legislators who were sympathetic.

We found out there were over 700 people locked up for marijuana offenses alone, possession offenses, and the average length of the sentence was nine and a half years. Now you gotta be kidding! You could murder someone in most jurisdictions today, and you'd probably get about a seven-year sentence, a five-year sentence. What I knew that the journalists hadn't yet come to grips with was that marijuana offenders generally are not very scary characters. In fact, most of them are us. They're the kid next door. An awful lot of college students were being popped in Austin, Texas and sent down to the prison system.

I began to arrange media trips through the prisons, and the prison director at that time, George Bido, was a very progressive man who actually issued a statement to the legislature saying, "Please don't send these college students down here for smoking grass, man! I don't want them in here with these real criminals!" With that kind of cooperation I was able to pick out the most attractive marijuana victims, and they began to get some national exposure. As a result of that, Texas became one of the first victories we picked up.

Photo via The Marijuana Times

How did you get it through the legislature?

It took a series of traditional steps. We found a senator who was sympathetic already. He began to hold some hearings, and he had a staff guy, Griffin Smith, who's now a speechwriter for President Carter. Griffin was an Austin attorney at that time, and he took a keen interest in it. They began to set up hearings. I'd go down and testify.

Were all of these straight people? Did any of them smoke?

If they smoked at the time, we were not let in on it. We were seen with some caution by politicians. But as we began to give them good information and provide good witnesses like John Findlater, the former number-two man at the Bureau of Narcotics, who by that time had resigned, endorsed NORML and joined our board.

Was he a head, too?

No, John's in his sixties, never smoked in his life. He has now, because we tried a joint together. But he's not a head. In 1971, you could not come to Texas with long haired liberal college professors and expect to have any influence. So we came down with people like Dorothy Whipple, who's a seventy-six-year-old pediatrician, and John Find later and gave them a basis so that if they were willing to change the law, it didn't look like they were really crazy. We went through several hearing procedures. It was not a one-year process. It took two or three years. Every time we'd testify, we'd also make a tour of the major cities in Texas. We'd hit the media programs and interview shows.

The legislators that you were dealing with, did they turn out to be heads later on? Did you turn them on? Or had they been closet heads?

I recall only one legislator we used to smoke with in Texas, from Houston. I’m sure some of those other legislators were smoking grass, but again, at that point, we didn't have the record behind us for them to trust us. In some of our states, now especially, many of our bills are introduced and sponsored by marijuana smokers, some of whom admit quite openly that they smoke marijuana. I would say now that we do get a lot of support from marijuana smokers in the legislatures and probably it's almost crucial. It helps for someone to carry a marijuana bill who is simply a libertarian or an ACLU type. It helps to have them as cosponsors. It always helps to have an older law-and-order-type guy as a cosponsor. But their commitment is still not personal. It is symbolic. And when the heat comes down and the boys are threatening trade-offs on other bills, if your only interest in marijuana decrim is philosophical, you may lay it on the shelf and say, "Well, this is not too important." If you're a smoker and you've been busted or your friends have, let me tell you, you're not going to trade that legislation away. So we have gotten to the point now where we actually like to have out-front marijuana smokers—or if not out front, at least people we know are smokers—actively involved as sponsors of our bills because we know that they will not talk about marijuana smokers in the third person. It's not those people that smoke, it's us!

What are the penalties in D.C.?

The maximum penalty right now under either federal or D.C. law—and they have a choice; they can bust you under either one—is a year in jail and, under D.C. law, a maximum fine of $1,000. Under federal law it's $5,000. Now, what would really happen to you is different from that. If you were busted in this country on a minor offense like that, you’d probably get a $100 to $500 fine.

Tell us about yourself.

I'm basically a hillbilly by origin. I was raised in Southern Illinois on a farm. My parents still live there. They were and are adamant, active, participating Southern Baptists. To a great extent, I come from the same culture that Jimmy Carter does. I have now come to respect it a lot. And I think that certain elements of it, like the honesty and the hard-work ethic, Jimmy Carter shares.

The Rural Ethic?

That's right. It is a rural ethic. That's what I came out of. I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

Had you started smoking pot yet?

No, I didn't start smoking pot until I was in law school.

When did you decide you were going to become a lawyer?

I had always wanted to become a lawyer. I was one of those typical lower-class achievement kids. From my family's perspective, and mine, for a kid of our social status to rise above normal was doctor- or lawyer-type stuff, pretty traditional. My primary instinct was to go to Washington, see what's happening in the government. It was during law school that I began to see some role models of something, other than the traditional lawyer who just practices privately and makes money. Ralph Nader was a tremendous influence about that era in the city and obviously we all began to admire what he was able to do.

He's done a lot of things I don't agree with, but he may have more influence as an out-of-government individual than anyone in the last century. Nonetheless, there was an announcement of jobs for this newly created National Commission on Product Safety. So as I got out of law school, I had a chance to work for this Nader group, although it wasn't officially a Nader group. I got a chance to see a public interest commission setup that had no direct enforcement authority, but, because of our influence and our credibility with the media, we could, by using those Nader-esque techniques, have a lot of influence. We ended up getting the Toy Safety Act passed in 1970.

How did you come to establish NORML?

Well, when the Commission on Product Safety was coming to an end—it was a two-year statutory commission, so we knew ahead of time it was coming to an end—the last six months naturally a lot of our work involved looking around to see what kind of jobs were available, what we should do next. I weighed a lot of possibilities of going with government agencies, because that's a form of graduate school in this city. People go with the FCC and then they go with an FCC law firm. But by that point I'd been smitten by the public interest thing. I was totally turned on by the impact you could have in the public interest world as an individual versus your almost meaningless existence if you got caught in the corporate structure or even a law firm structure. I focused most of my attention on public interest projects, and NORML came about because a friend got busted.

That simply increased my awareness of the fact that while I was smoking dope and working in my nice little upper-middle class job, nobody was going to hassle me. But a lot of people were getting hassled. There were still a lot of long hairs being pulled over. I had short hair at the time and I wore a coat and tie, so I didn't get hassled at all. But if you got out of that norm, man, you did get hassled, much more than is true today. So it seemed to me that there was an honest need for a public interest project in this area, particularly a consumer project. We wanted to represent the marijuana consumer instead of the buyer of ironing boards. We didn't know how to get from that idea to NORML, but we began to play with it. We'd get together evenings and on weekends with friends, and we'd get high and talk about it. I came up with the name NORML.


I was looking at other organizations that had acronyms. NOW was one. We were in an era when if you were any kind of group, you had an acronym. I had come up with NORML; it stood for National Organization to Repeal the Marijuana Laws. In the process of looking for helpers, I read a number of books, including Ramsey Clark's Crime in America. I wanted to talk to him. I didn't know him, but I finally got through to see him. He was then practicing law in this city. He was very encouraging. He told me to soften the name by using Reform instead of Repeal. I could keep my acronym and not scare everybody away. I was still at a point where I was working at the Commission, finishing up, and thinking about starting NORML, and it was hard. I had a wife and a kid and I'd just bought a house. My life was too precarious financially to start NORML. I didn't know where I was going to get money. Ramsey said, "Do it, man! It's an idea that has to be done, and if you wait around until things are secure and guaranteed, it's not going to happen. That isn't the way it works in politics." More than any other single factor, it was Ramsey's encouragement that gave me the sense that it was okay.

Photo via Marijuana.com

Weren't you saying before that it was time for NORML as an organization and for the marijuana culture to come out of the closet?

The culture is going to continue to grow, if you define the culture as those who smoke marijuana, because you're going to have an expanding circle of marijuana smokers for a long time to come, regardless of any legal change. My guess is that the rate of increase will probably accelerate somewhat under a total decriminalization system.

Isn't there a continued acceleration even without decriminalization?

Definitely. Even if you leave the penalties, there will be a certain increase of 1 to 2 to 3 percent a year.

I find it hard to believe that the rate of increase of marijuana smokers is only 1 to 3 percent a year, even with the penalties.

That's been the estimated rate of increase the last three years. Before that it was much greater. Drug-use patterns in this country are anything but linear. They shoot up for a while, then they come down, and then they go up again. I think marijuana will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. I think it will be at least 20 years before you see a flattening of the curve, but not increase at the rate it did during the late 60s, early 70s. Say, from 70 to 74, the increase was something like 500 percent. It's incredible! It goes from a mere 6 percent in 1970 to 24 percent of the people who've now tried marijuana. Obviously, you can't continue to have increases of 400 percent.

When was the last poll?

That's the point. From 74 to 76, there was only a 2 percent increase, about 1 percent a year.

Who did the poll?

There have been numerous polls. The most complete were done under the auspices of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but they were actually done by the Trenton Group, Opinion Research. There are also some recent Gallup polls. I want to underscore that I'm not suggesting that the increase has ended. It's simply that the rate of increase has slowed down. But it is going to continue to increase, without any doubt, on the simple principle that you've got a hundred million alcohol drinkers and a certain percentage of those, a third, a half, are older Americans who do not think of alcohol as a drug. They think of themselves as drinking alcohol but not as drug users.

As decriminalization takes effect, people begin to equate the two drugs more and more in terms of social use. Obviously, some of those people are going to be willing to experiment with grass because they no longer feel a cultural aversion. Right now it's still symbolic for some of them. It still means breaking the law. It still means thumbing your nose at society. Less, but there is still that factor. I think that guarantees that marijuana will become more popular and alcohol less popular over the next 20 years.

It seems to me the rate of acceptance is enormous now. Every month there is a new major event. I'll give you an example. President Carter, several months ago, endorsed decrim. Well that's a major event, national news. Then the AMA-ABA came out with a joint statement endorsing decrim, and that's national news. It's like that, year-round. It'll keep up, partly because of our project, and partly because the culture really is beginning to incorporate the Marijuana Commission recommendations.

Can you see where repeal of the marijuana laws will become a major domestic issue just as the repeal of Prohibition was?

I think it may even come easier this time around. The repeal of Prohibition did become a major national issue. Presidential candidates had to put a lot of time into it. Marijuana decriminalization, because it's being spread out over a number of years, may happen without quite that much painful throes. It seems to me that they're going to incorporate marijuana decriminalization without quite the battle that they had with alcohol. Now I could be wrong.

As the director of NORML, I think of it as a major issue, and it is. It's one of the five or six social issues that the country deals with and has for the last few years–gun control, abortion, marijuana, gay rights; there are a few more. But decrim is recognized on that level. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean a President has to focus too much time on it. I'd say that if President Carter spends two hours this year working on marijuana decriminalization, that's probably about all we're going to get. So that's not exactly what I consider a major issue. I'm not sure it's ever going to get more than that. The system may change without its having to get more than that.

Don't you think it's about time that marijuana smokers are numerous enough to demand to stay out of jail?

We are almost flipping it over now, but I'm not sure it's gonna happen at one big moment. I'm not sure that we'll ever get everybody active at the same time. If we did, we'd have enormous political power. You're dealing with 15 million regular users right now. That's the government estimate, which is undoubtedly somewhat low. But can you imagine? If you can get 15 million people that cared enough about reforming the marijuana laws?

Well, why wouldn't they care about reforming the laws? Every day that they smoke, they face jail.

I think they do care about it, but I think it's a question of priorities. Some marijuana smokers are simply apolitical. If you're apolitical, to have a group like NORML say, "Write your congressman," it just doesn't turn you on. You say, "Aw, fuck off. I smoke marijuana. Nobody bothers me out here in the mountains in Washington State.”

Well do you think it's important for them to write their congressmen?

Damn right!

How do you get them to do it?

Partly we're faced with what, I think, is the second consideration there anyway. The thing that hurts us a lot is this, even among marijuana smokers, marijuana smoking or marijuana decriminalization or marijuana legalization may not be the marijuana smoker's most important issue. They may be more concerned about abortions, for example, if they're women. Or they may be more concerned about racism if they're black. So what do you do if you've got two candidates running? One of them's black and opposes decrim and one of them's white and favors decrim. If your primary issue is race, you're probably going to vote for the black. So we lose a certain amount of potential support because there are other issues that may be more important than the candidates who are running.

Why do you think it's not important to these people to vote themselves out of jail?

It's because, on one hand, we have been successful—and I don’t mean NORML, I mean as a culture—in minimizing law enforcement efforts. Not to where nobody's in jail, but where to the consumer himself, it's a minimal risk. If you're willing to use your drugs privately, truly privately, not when you're driving a car, not when you're in a park, not when you're in a theater, but simply in a private home, the chances of your being arrested if you're in a major city today, even in the country, are minimal. The statistics here in the District of Columbia show that 86,000 people are regular marijuana smokers, 15.1 percent of the adult population. And yet our mayor vetoed the bill. Clearly, the mayor does not yet recognize those 86,000 people as being a legitimate constituency. Or we haven't made enough noise or something. Because he was willing to ignore 15.1 percent of the population. Can you imagine? That's too large a group to totally ignore.

How do you overcome this problem?

They gotta vote and/or write letters in between elections. I think it gets down to this. As we learn to communicate more effectively with the constituency, we probably do get better at activating them. On the other hand, part of it's money. Even now, we've been in business starting on our eighth year, and we've been pretty visible, it seems to me. Yet we only raised $450,000 last year. To try to fight dope repression in the entire country, that's crazy. The government probably spent $200 million. Nationwide, just the estimates on marijuana, they probably spent $500 million, but on total dope enforcement they would have spent God knows how much. They spent a half a billion dollars chasing us and arresting us and prosecuting us, and we only spent a half a million trying to stop them. So part of it is the lack of money. If we had a $2 million budget instead of half a million, then we'd buy national advertising. Time magazine would have NORML ads in it. You'd see billboards out there.

Well how do you get your money now?

It's a matter of us being creative. It's all by us putting out our hands. We have to convince the constituents that the work we're doing is important enough for them to support. When we do that effectively, they support us. We get a little money from big donors. We get a little money from the Playboy Foundation.

How about dealers?

There are problems to getting money from dealers. The necessary political process is one of inching yourself ahead. You really cannot take great leaps forward, not if you're going to work within the political system. So we find ourselves having, for political reasons, to support laws that only decriminalize possession and not-for-profit transfer of an ounce or less. Now that is such a minimal first step that it embarrasses me at times. The reason we do it is because we have seen that, in fact the laws are enforced in a much more liberal fashion and once we win that valid point, believe me, we don't stop. We comeback. We go for cultivation. We go for larger amounts. And eventually, we will get to sellers. But it's hard. Because if we went right out at it the first time and started talking about decriminalizing marijuana sellers, they wouldn't let us back in the office. A lot of dealers don't understand that process, and when they hear us defending laws that talk about one ounce of marijuana, they say to me, "What the hell does that have to do with me? I still face a 10 year felony." If they're politically sophisticated, they can understand what we're up to. If they're not, and a lot of them are not, they tend to see us as irrelevant.

What I say to those people is, “Hell, even if you don't understand that the process that we're really nudging forward is one that is eventually going to benefit you, at least you ought to realize that we're the nearest thing you have to Madison Avenue. You can't advertise that dope is okay. But what NORML does is a comprehensive, nationwide effort to convince people of just that." Not that dope's good for people, but that it's okay. It's not particularly bad. That's what the alcohol companies spend millions of dollars a year on. So I would say to the dealers, even the ones that don't understand the political process, "Your own self-interest dictates you support NORML." But very few of them do. And only one large contribution that we've ever gotten that I'm aware of was that $10,000 cash contribution we got here in my own office. The guy left it with me. I'm sure we have gotten other dealer money. People come up to me and say, “Hey, I put a hundred in the can. I'm from the business." But it's rare. I would have guessed over a period of a year it accounts for a couple of thousand dollars at the most. I’m sure they will start giving us more money as they begin to understand the process. But we've got to demonstrate to them that we're not stopping at one ounce.

I think eventually dealers will have their own lobby. We're a consumer lobby, and we want to stay that way. And for this period of the legal reform, I think it makes sense for dealers to support us because we've got a common interest in nudging this process along. But there will be a point at which they will have gotten all the good they can get out of NORML, because we would then—at the point of decriminalization—continue to fight for the consumer. The dealers are going to be the industry. They're going to say, “Wait a minute. We want to charge you anything we want. What do you mean price controls?" We're gonna say, "We want quality control." They're gonna say, "Fuck your quality control. We wanna sell our marijuana."

Also NORML doesn’t like advertising. It's always been something that I personally have had an aversion to, and in terms of drug distribution I think it's wrong, just as in alcohol and tobacco. I think it's kind of senseless to do it with marijuana. We can get the word around. The world knows marijuana's good. Those who want to smoke it seem to find that out. I don’t think we really gain anything from the perspective of the consumer to allow Madison Avenue to jump in on marijuana. But that's not necessarily how dealers are going to feel. At that point they gotta have their own lobby. But if they had their own lobby now, I'll tell you what they'd get, they'd get busted. We're the nearest thing they have to a dealer's lobby.

Photo via Marijuana Times

What about cocaine?

Where I would make my distinction would be that I would not legalize drugs that I think are either addictive or of significant harm. Right now, I would oppose legalizing cocaine until we know a little more about it. I don't believe what the government says right now, because the only report they've done on cocaine is clearly exaggerated. It reminds me of the early marijuana reports. For example, they made a statement that there are documented deaths from snorting cocaine. Well that's just bullshit. There are lots of deaths from shooting cocaine.

There are numerous things you can do. Cocaine is not a harmless drug, I think. Maybe even used in moderation will turn out to have some harmful effects, although I doubt it, of any significance. But one expert was saying you'd have to snort from four to five grams in one 20 minute period in order to possibly have a toxic death from an overdose of cocaine. And I don't think you can do that. I doubt that anybody in the world has ever done it. In any event, my overall appraisal of cocaine is that it is probably more hazardous than marijuana. So I'm not sure that I would legalize it, because I think if you did legalize it and ended up allowing it to be sold and regulated, there would undoubtedly be a fairly large number of people effectively habituated to it. It would be a drain on them in terms of their performance. I'd like to know more about cocaine before going that second step. But I certainly would decriminalize it.

PCP, I think, is a dangerous drug. I don't think PCP does anything good, and I think it's goddamn dangerous. I have seen people who have fucked up their lives pretty bad by using PCP, so I have no sympathy with its use. But I would still decriminalize it. It's not a criminal justice problem. It just doesn't matter about the drug. There's even one step further I think you could go. This is not strategically the way we should go, but I think it is an option the next lobby group like NORML should consider.

It may be that instead of dealing with private drug use, we should begin to decriminalize prostitution and gambling and all the victimless crimes you can think of. Because essentially what you're saying is that this may be offensive conduct, conduct that we want to discourage, but it is not criminal in a traditional sense. Because you don't have a victim. Nobody's being hurt. There's no complaining witness. It's the fucking police who complain. The guy who's buying the cocaine is not complaining, unless it's not good enough quality. When you try to apply an overlay of law enforcement to a non victim area, you end up with no complainant other than law enforcement. And so you get a very corrupt system. It's oppressive as hell. If I thought we could do it and be effective, I would love to lock arms and work with people like Margo St. James to decriminalize all victimless crimes, including private drug use, prostitution, gambling, gay rights. I'm afraid we would simply cause each other's defeat. Instead of us having 52 percent of the public favoring decriminalization, a fairly high percentage of people would say, "Well, I can go along with drugs, but I don't want prostitutes, and I don't like gays." And so we'd be back down there on the 35 percent level. And you can't win with that.

What continues to excite you about NORML?

The most exciting area is where we are headed in the next five years. The first five have been fairly obvious. We're going to get our ass off the line. Decriminalization does that. Those of us who are primarily users and not sellers, not commercial traffickers, will no longer be in significant jeopardy. Then there's a lot of options. It's by no means settled. We are going to play a role, and I think what some people don't understand is that the consumers have to play a role. We want a better system. We want to make sure that the consumer needs are met, as well as the industry and government needs. I think they can all be met. We may lose a few points. They may lose a few points.

You're sounding Nader-esque now.

I guess the reason I do that is this: I think for this pre-policy-making phase, it's important for people to understand conceptually the parties that are involved. It's not important yet to determine who has to give in on what points. But it is important to understand that consumers are a legitimate part of the decision-making process, and we have to be. If we're not, the system will not work. Because if it doesn’t meet our needs, we will go right back to the black market. And their system will fail. So they gotta make a system that meets our minimum demands, as well as industry and government demands. I don't think we enter that policymaking formula with a dominant hand, but neither do we enter with a weak hand, because we're the only ones that have a real constituency. The industry just represents money. And the government represents whoever's in charge at the time.

We represent several million people. I really feel that our position, in some ways, is stronger than theirs. Economically, of course, we're weak. The industry could spend hundreds of millions of dollars to influence legislators. We have to work basically by presenting the merits of the argument, and obviously, with some legislators. that's not very strong. But ultimately, the elected officials understand that we represent the real constituency, and the other interests don’t.

Well, that's never made any difference in Washington.

Well, not unless we can activate our constituency, but I suppose that's our challenge.

I think that will be NORML's challenge. Dope is going to become a chief domestic political issue.

It has to, because the country has to go through the same kind of catharsis it did with alcohol. Whether they like it or not, they're eventually going to have to legalize it and regulate it and control it and tax it and all those things. That doesn't necessarily mean a system that we abhor. If it's done the wrong way, it's repressive. But if it's done the right way, there are certain consumer aims.

What I mean is that we're going to elect or defeat congressmen solely on the dope issue.

That's right.

And that is going to be the major work of NORML, and your work really hasn't begun yet.

I think you're right. We've got a few more years. We're right at the phase now where we're basically ready to cash in on the political support that exists, but we haven't been able to exercise that authority yet, because our constituency has been asleep.

I think there's some heavy, dangerous campaigning to be done.

I hope they don't get back into the 60s, where they lock up the activists.

Stroup was invited in 1994 to return to NORML’s board of directors when then Richard Cowan, then executive director stepped aside. Stroup worked there for the next 10 years. Until the turn of the century, Stroup was one of the most outspoken voices for marijuana smokers in America. He retired in 2005 to make way of a new group of activists he was proud to see succeed him. His manifesto It's NORML to Smoke Pot: the 40-year Fight for Marijuana Smokers' Rights is a must read on the history of the most progressive fight of the 21st century.

Written by NORML founder and lawyer, Keith Stroup, It's NORML to Smoke Pot retells the first 40 years of the organization's fight to legalize marijuana. You will meet the integral characters who put their time and effort from the 70s to the 90s to help decriminalize the pot industry.


About the Creator

Izzy Erlich

Upstate New Yorker, who loves to travel to Colorado and Vancouver. Certified Yoga instructor.

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    Izzy ErlichWritten by Izzy Erlich

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