Founder of NORML Talks to HIGH TIMES about Past, Present and Future

Michigan Pushes to Protect Medical Marijuana Dispensaries
Photo by Matthew Staver/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Keith Stroup said that under normal circumstances after an election that enabled eight states to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana, we should all be dancing in the streets.

Founder and legal counsel of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Stroup said that after five decades of working in the belly of the beast to affect change around marijuana policy, he is reasonably optimistic about the future of pot, although there are a few scenarios that concern him.

“It would be very difficult to re-criminalize marijuana in states where citizens voted to legalize it,” Stroup told HIGH TIMES. “However, president-elect Trump’s choice of certain politicians whose entire persona is based on being virulently anti-pot could cause problems for the commercial side of the industry, not necessarily for consumers. Throughout his campaign, Trump expressed support for the right of states to set medical marijuana policies.”

“What worries me are the likes of Rudy Giuliani, one of the biggest anti-marijuana zealots in the country under whose [mayoral] term in New York, pot convictions rose 10-fold,” Stroup continued.

Then there’s New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, possibly being tapped as Trump’s attorney general or commerce secretary. Christie has said he would like to see a crack down on states rights and enforcement of the federal ban on pot.

Stroup explained that legal action enacted under the Obama Administration in 2013 laid out an official policy of non-interference with state marijuana laws. This is called the Cole memo, named after then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

The hope is that the Trump government will not “revoke, revise or withdraw the Cole memo.” Such a move, Stroup believes, would be complicated.

This begs the question—despite the strident anti-weed and socially backward conservatives that will likely end up in Trump’s cabinet, why would the feds want to destroy a billion-dollar industry that has barely reached its full potential?

Furthermore, the feds cannot enforce federal law in legalized pot states without an injunction from each state. That is, the federal government can’t force a state to arrest someone for pot infractions.

“What are they going to do about it, send in the troops?” Stroup asked.  

What they can do, explained Stroup, would be to undercut the commercial and industrial aspects of the legal pot industry and drive it underground. The result would be similar to the current situation in Washington D.C., where it is legal to smok if you’re over 21, but there’s nowhere to buy weed. The illegal market still functions (without paying taxes, of course), and consumers grow and sell their own.

“If the Trump government tries to shut down the legal marijuana industry, we will see the rise of a thriving black market and organized crime,” Stroup said.

Despite the system of disconnected laws and policies around marijuana, Stroup stressed the magnitude of last week’s election.

“When NORML was founded in 1970, only 12 percent of the country supported marijuana,” he explained.

As a young lawyer in Washington D.C., Stroup worked with the National Commission on Product Safety. The concept of product safety and public interest appealed to him. Once the commission ended, Stroup went on to use his legal skills and, with several friends, founded NORML as a product-interest lobby for responsible marijuana smokers.

During the heady days of the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Stroup met Tom Forcade, founder of HIGH TIMES. Also a journalist and activist, Forcade kept a low profile, most likely because of his main job of “importing” weed from Mexico by the carload, truckload and planeload.

Stroup met Forcade at the 1972 DNC in Miami along with other counterculture icons like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Hunter S. Thompson, who would become one of NORML’s most popular and effective panelists.

“The police were keeping the protestors corralled into a park, which we called the People’s Park,” Stroup said. “We had our own People’s Pot Tree and Tom Forcade was in it! He would use a rope to lower a cup down with weed. You’d take the pot, put your money into the cup and he’d raise it back up.  I met him when he was in a tree selling pot.”

Forcade had a reputation for Robin Hood-style generosity. Stroup said that whenever NORML needed money, he’d ask Forcade.

“Once he told me to come to New York where he gave me a satchel with $10,000 in it,” Stroup explained. “His apartment was literally lined with bales of marijuana. You could barely move around in it.”

“About a year later, he called and said he’d leave money outside my door, but he wanted me to call the press and tell them it was a ‘gift from weed smugglers, dealers and growers to NORML,’” Stroup continued. “I called the Associated Press and Washington Post.”

Stroup laughed. “If that happened today, the feds would seize it immediately.”

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