High Times Greats: Keith Stroup

Back in 1976, the founder of NORML was hailed as the ‘great weed hope.’
High Times Greats: Keith Stroup
Keith Stroup by Carrie Boretz

For the June, 1976 issue of High Times, A. Craig Copetas and Michael Foldes profiled the founder of NORML, Keith Stroup. On the occasion of Stroup’s birthday December 27, we’re republishing the interview below.

He was once a Washington curiosity, invited to cocktail parties because of his controversial brand of politics. Now, with eight states, 40 million-plus marijuana smokers and a parade of presidential hopefuls supporting the decriminalization of Cannabis sativa, the toothy grin of 32-year-old Keith Stroup has become the outrage of the nation’s capital.

Stroup is a farm boy from Dix, Illinois (population 200). He heeded the call of the activist Sixties and became a public-interest lawyer on graduation from Georgetown Law School in 1968. But then Keith Stroup got really stoned. Gathering together law school friends and concerned colleagues, he founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and began his assault on the U.S. Congress as a registered lobbyist for the marijuana consumer.

Stroup speaks quickly and with the assurance of a veteran power broker. He is sure that the marijuana lobby must first persuade judges that present grass laws divert police power from the job of hunting real criminals, and also that these laws are not only unconstitutional, but a hindrance to police officers and law courts with more important chores to perform. He lets vote-conscious politicians know that 13 million citizens are regular pot smokers, and that the federal government is blowing its chance to tax over $4 billion worth of legal marijuana every year. Stroup can weave words into blazing orations, and he also knows the issues that affect everyone who’s ever smoked a joint. However, most people don’t know about Stroup’s constant lack of funds and NORML’s dependence on grants and ad space donated by the Playboy Foundation and High Times.

Keith Stroup and his seven-year-old daughter, Lindsay, live in spartan quarters on the third floor of NORML’s storefront headquarters in northwest Washington. From there he orchestrates the eventual legalization of marijuana, churning out NORML newsletters, T-shirts, frisbees, gold marijuana-leaf pins and tiny green buttons that proclaim, “I Support NORML.”

Stroup makes frequent trips around the country to educate legislators, judges, police and rural townfolk to the dangers of America’s archaic marijuana laws. In the five years since he began NORML, the young liberal has evolved into a political tactician. He has constructed a sophisticated network of advisors that includes, among others, New York Senator Jacob Javits, Xerox magnate Max Palevsky and General Motors heir Stewart Mott. Stroup knows the moment any politician starts thinking marijuana.

During his interview at the Washington NORML office, Stroup summed up his motivations for High Times news editors Michael Foldes and A. Craig Copetas. “The marijuana smoker gets a bum deal,” declared Stroup, “and I want to change that.

High Times: When did you first get stoned?

Keith Stroup: I first turned on in 1967. A few friends and I had gone on a ski weekend to Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, and one guy brought some grass along. We tried the whole weekend to get high. Well, either the dealer had sold him rat shit or we just didn’t know how to smoke it, but we never got high. So it was really disappointing the first time. But a few months after that I really got stoned and scared the shit out of myself.

High Times: How many years elapsed between the time you first got stoned and when you started NORML?

Keith Stroup: Three. When I got out of Georgetown Law School I went to work for the National Product Safety Commission, which was a presidential commission. Smoking was not a very big part of my life then. The other lawyers and I would get together on the weekend and smoke.

High Times: Did that have to do with the germination of NORML?

Keith Stroup: Oh yeah. I had my grass consciousness raised when a good friend of mine got busted—the guy who turned me on, in fact. My office was in this old CIA building across from the Russian embassy in Washington, and he used to really get off going down to the Product Safety Commission to sell me weed. In any event, some time later he got busted and wanted me to help him out. It was clearly a case of harassment, so I got the charges dropped. In the process, I noticed that there was nobody doing a fucking thing about the grass issue. That’s where NORML came from.

High Times: What were your initial resources?

Keith Stroup: A $5,000 grant from the Playboy Foundation in January 1971. I had contacted the New World Foundation, the Stern Family Fund and the Philip Stern Fund, but they all turned me down. Then Ted Jacobs, Nader’s administrative assistant, turned me on to the fact that there was the Playboy Foundation—I’d never heard of it. We went through some negotiations and they ended up flying me out to Chicago to meet Hugh Hefner. So I was frankly expecting that if we got the money, we were going to get big money. We really had our sights set high. Then they offered me $5,000. Can you imagine? I was making $18,000 a year at the Product Safety Commission. I was married. I had a kid. I had just bought a house. “Five thousand dollars.” I said, “you must be crazy.” But Playboy said. “We don’t mean that’s all you’ll get. We just mean that we’ll give you $5,000 now, and then play it by ear!” So I quit my job and started NORML.

High Times: In what state did NORML first become an effective voice for the marijuana smoker?

Keith Stroup: Texas. Of course, we got slaughtered a few times. I took three different press tours through the Texas prison system in 1971. Nobody could believe it. Decent young kids in jail for nine and a half years for simple possession of marijuana. Every time we got slaughtered, the newspapers were reporting that there were 700 people locked up for smoking grass. The more they kept repeating that, the more people were going, Whew, hold it!

High Times: Did NORML have any stronghold in 1971?

Keith Stroup: Besides our Austin office, we had little groups in Phoenix, New York City and Washington, D. C.

At first we didn’t know how the hell to go about getting equal rights for the marijuana smoker. We had so few resources, it was sort of a big country and they were all against us. The battles came when the Amorphia people started in California, about the same time we did.

They were trying to do a very similar program, but perhaps aimed slightly more at the counterculture. We were all friends at first: we got together and discussed the possibilities of a freak lobby on the left and a straight lobby on the right. Of course, NORML would be the straight lobby and Amorphia the freak. But there was a period of a year or so when it was anything but friendly. It became deadly competitive, and finally it got to the point where not only did we not work together, but we used to try to do each other in.

High Times: What were the disagreements between your group and the other legalization groups?

Keith Stroup: I used to publicly chastise the Amorphia people for practicing too much street theater. It seemed to me that they were reinforcing the very image NORML was trying to do away with—that of the crazy freak in the street. But I realize Amorphia had every right to do this. Now, with some hindsight, I see our conflicts as an inevitable fight for limited resources.

High Times: Has NORML attempted to form an alliance of the various groups?

Keith Stroup: Most of the people who now work for NORML represent factions of various organizations that have dropped by the wayside. Our California contingent used to be Amorphia. Our New York group was the Lawyers’ Committee to Legalize Marijuana. What we have gradually done is incorporate into NORML all the groups from around the country that were doing serious work on the marijuana issue.

Although all the early marijuana reform groups talked about consolidating forces, no one was really willing to give up the turf. We all agreed there might be an advantage in having a countercultural lobby and a straight lobby. We figured it might sell better. But we became competitive because there wasn’t much money available—you couldn’t keep the organization going unless you got credit for accomplishments, so we all took a lot of credit for the slightest little achievement. Everyone was stepping on each other’s egos.

High Times: NORML now functions as a collective of 50 “distinguished” individuals, including the national advisory board. Isn’t there a danger that with so many people in policy-making positions, diverse viewpoints could politically cripple NORML?

Keith Stroup: At the early stages I had some honest concerns about that happening. But now I’m quite satisfied with NORML’s overall make-up. I prefer it this way because it makes sense to have many people involved. The collective structure is no longer a stumbling block. It’s to our benefit to have a broader perspective.

High Times: Was it your idea to set up NORML as a collective?

Keith Stroup: As NORML got rolling, I got to know a group of young lawyers in New York and California. We became a coalition out of necessity and simple strategy. There were Guy Arcter and Frank Fioramonti in New York and Gordon Brownell on the West Coast.

High Times: Why were young lawyers getting involved with the marijuana issue?

Keith Stroup: It was an era when law school graduates were inclined to do public interest-type work, but by the time I got out of law school there was a tendency to look around for new minor issues. No one had stumbled onto grass. In different parts of the country a number of us got the same idea at the same time. We never felt that we were “bright young men.”

High Times: How much do you make?

Keith Stroup: As director, I’m the highest-paid person in the organization and I now make $13,500 a year.

High Times: Do you have an expense account?

Keith Stroup: No expense account. When I travel it is almost always paid for by a school as a lecture fee. If not, if it’s business travel, NORML picks it up. But I can’t take people out to dinner.

High Times: Who receives the fees?

Keith Stroup: All the lecture fees go to NORML. My gross income for the year is $13,500. I was making $18,000, but we all took 25-percent pay cuts a few months ago when we really were in a bind. The lowest-paid worker in the organization makes $8,000. We didn’t make the low people adjust. We cut back on the people making above ten grand, and so everything was squashed down.

High Times: What was your founding date?

Keith Stroup: We say October 1970. But that’s because the earliest stationery we could dig up in the files was 1970. We didn’t have real letterhead then, so we typed NORML on the top of blank paper. We didn’t file actual corporate papers until February or March of 1971. Shit, there was no need to. I mean, why spend the 30 bucks or whatever? After I was handling a few thousand bucks I thought I’d better incorporate.

High Times: How does NORML go about selecting members for the national advisory board?

Keith Stroup: We select nominees from all ranks of people interested in the marijuana issue. This year we added 13 members and we’ll probably continue to add them, because I don’t see any reason not to.

High Times: How does the national advisory board function ?

Keith Stroup: It’s kind of like the ankle and the shinbone song. Ultimate policy is made by the board of directors. The directors delegate authority to the national policy committee. That is made up of five people, including myself, who sit simultaneously on the board of directors, the 33-member national advisory board and the 13-member executive committee. The executive committee is made up of our most active regional coordinators. The result is that the 50 people most active in the marijuana issue end up deciding who is added or subtracted from the national advisory board.

High Times: Does NORML have ambitions to form a Marijuana Party Congress?

Keith Stroup: That would really be fine with us. No, that’s not true. We couldn’t go too much farther. We do get rid of people for inactivity. There’s a revolving process. But what is important is that the national advisory board establishes our policy.

High Times: What is NORML’s policy on cocaine?

Keith Stroup: It doesn’t have one. I personally feel all drugs should be decriminalized, and this includes cocaine. But NORML doesn’t deal with other drugs. From what I’ve read, cocaine seems to be a reasonably safe drug. It may be habituating, but very few people can afford to have enough coke around for them to become habituated. The medical, physiological evidence doesn’t show much danger other than a minor irritation to your nose. Birth control pills are more dangerous than that.

High Times: Is NORML financially solvent at the moment?

Keith Stroup: Well, we’re not about to close down. But we’re also riding out a six-month temporary support period. Both High Times and Playboy will soon be looking over their own financial situations to see if they can continue to give us money. Right now, with full-time offices working in California, New York and Washington, our national budget is between $17,000 and $18,000 a month.

High Times: Have you received favorable responses to your ads in High Times and Playboy?

Keith Stroup: We’ve never paid one cent for advertising since we’ve been in business; it’s all always been given to us. It’s a big country and NORML could use ten times more advertising and money. But if we did lose our Playboy Foundation money and the free ad space in High Times, we’d still exist as a lobby in Washington, but about all we would do is send literature out.

High Times: What kind of work does the national office do?

Keith Stroup: My legal counsel, Peter Meyers, works full time coordinating our constitutional challenges, our DEA action in D.C.

We’ve also got suits in California and Illinois. Larry Schott does the newsletter, all the publications, any kind of communications, and he edits my stuff. Then there’s Frank Fioramonti in New York and Gordon Brownell on the West Coast, both of whom work full time.

High Times: What is the nature of NORML’s federal court battles, and how are you faring?

Keith Stroup: We have a challenge currently pending in the D.C. circuit. We’re trying to get the Alaskan privacy decision—involving the public’s right to possess marijuana—adopted at the federal level. Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson, was originally our chief counsel on this case, but now he’s running for Jim Buckley’s Senate seat in New York. When we got held up by a stay order, he left the case. The stay order has recently been lifted, so we are proceeding. If the D.C. circuit, which is probably the most liberal in the country, denies us a favorable ruling, we will take our appeal to the Supreme Court.

In our DEA action we are trying to get the courts to force the agency to reclassify marijuana so it can be used and prescribed by doctors.

High Times: When will NORML be obsolete?

Keith Stroup: Not until the marijuana question —and I don’t just mean decriminalization—has been settled to the satisfaction of the consumer. I think that the industry will take care of itself. Certainly the cigarette industry has hundreds of millions of dollars available to invest. Once decriminalization is over, they will get in on the act.

High Times: What are the Washington tobacco lobbies doing about the coming decriminalization of grass?

Keith Stroup: Whatever they’re doing, they’re being very careful and very private about it. I’ll bet that some of the last holdouts to approve any kind of legal marijuana will be those senators and representatives from the tobacco states. The companies will hold us back as long as possible, and when they see they can’t hold us back any further, they’ll jump in and try to get their corner of the market. I hope High Times is going to be there to represent another aspect of that industry. And the government will certainly be involved. The one faction with no one around to speak for it is the consumer. I think NORML has a really strong obligation to continue work on this issue until we make sure that some kind of regulated market is set up to protect the interests of the consumer.

High Times: Is there any chance legalization may not happen at all?

Keith Stroup: I don’t rule it out as a theoretical possibility, since the smoking public’s attitudes might turn sour toward the prospect of commercialism. I think you know I am very much against the idea of commercializing the marijuana market. If consumer demands for a low-key commercial exploitation aren’t heeded, they might stop at decriminalization and say, “The hell with you, I’ll grow my own,” or “I’ll buy it on the black market; I don’t want to deal with you.” But I think that’s unlikely. I think the more likely route will be some kind of legalized marijuana.

High Times: Will there be governmental controls if you are successful?

Keith Stroup: Well, the only way you’re going to get pot legalization is with some governmental control. Personally I would favor no controls, an absolutely open market with no age controls, no street controls. That way we could avoid a lot of bureaucratic horseshit. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a real political body, and the government will eventually control the market.

But I am most concerned about protective devices. Instead of putting its resources into arresting people who smoke, I want to see the government put them into protecting people who smoke by providing grass that is pure, telling us how strong it is and giving us a choice of grass from different places. There are numerous things they can do to help us. They don’t have to put energy into fucking us. The American government is now moving at an incredible rate for a government. Terribly slow for what we want, but there has been more progress in the last six months than in the previous six years. I think that is going to continue.

High Times: If NORML does continue to function, and legalization or decriminalization does come into effect, what do you foresee as your problems?

Keith Stroup: Mostly trying to avoid commercial exploitation.

High Times: How will NORML combat the commercialization of marijuana?

Keith Stroup: To the extent that I have any say in it, I would like to see NORML become the consumer lobby for the grass issue. Coming into this as a consumer product safety lawyer, I saw the marijuana issue as a consumer question, and I still see it that way. The consumers in this issue are the smokers, but we can’t deal with their problems as long as we are in danger of being locked up. We are only now reaching the starting point. We’re taking care of the gross inequity—that the government arrests us. After legalization, I want to see a good market. I’d like to have marijuana blends from a lot of countries. I’d like to have the same choice wine drinkers do. I’d like to have it pure. I’m sure High Times has developed some sort of scenario on its own.

High Times: You spoke about commercialization of grass before. Do you think NORML is contributing to this by selling T-shirts and frisbees?

Keith Stroup: We would probably appear more serious, perhaps more effective, if we did not sell T-shirts. We sell them out of sheer necessity. We have stayed away from selling any marijuana-related paraphernalia because it could cost us most of our serious political support. We do feel, however, that NORML’s logo on a T-shirt is a form of political expression.

High Times: Will NORML have anything to say about future government controls?

Keith Stroup: Absolutely. We will have spent so many years organizing the smoking constituency that it would be absolutely absurd for us then to let them just walk away with it. The moment decriminalization is appreciably accomplished, we will redirect as much of the coalition as we can maintain. Some people are going to drop off, because some of them don’t want to go farther. The ones that stay together, we should redirect toward setting up a system of legal marijuana that the consumer can live with. It’s not going to be perfect for us; there will be some taxation, some controls. I don’t think NORML members would be hostile to the neighborhood dealer system, because we’re principally smokers. But I don’t think it’s NORML’s battle to fight, any more than it is to fight the tobacco industry battle.

High Times: If big tobacco went into marijuana full power, would you advise them?

Keith Stroup: We would not take money from the tobacco or alcohol industries. We want to be the marijuana smokers’ consumer lobby. With that in mind, we’ve been fairly and openly hostile to those industries. Neither has shown very high social consciousness, and I’m not anxious to hand a $4 billion-a-year industry over to them. We want to get grass to where we have a decent choice, an available market, and a fairly reasonable price. It has to be at least as low as the black market price at the time it’s set up. If not, another black market will continue to thrive.

High Times: What problems do you foresee for legalization on the international level?

Keith Stroup: It won’t be simple, because you have to motivate the international law enforcement machinery to forget about marijuana. And man, that is complicated. Those fuckers move slower than our home-grown politicians.

High Times: Is there really an international law enforcement conspiracy?

Keith Stroup: I think the international law enforcement conspiracy is frightening and incredibly sinister. It’s the biggest threat going. Right now NORML is fighting Congress on the Psychoactive Drug Convention. It is designed to fill the gaps that the Single Convention Treaty of 1961 doesn’t already fill—things like hallucinogens. If adopted, it would preclude decriminalization. What we’re left with is a vestige of old-time international law enforcement that’s several years behind and totally irrelevant to our own domestic law enforcement in terms of politics. There’s one rule in this country that seems to be solid—never allow domestic politics to be thwarted for very long by international rules. Never. We’ve done it all through history, and I’m sure we will do it with marijuana.

High Times: What is NORML’s position on America’s own narcs, the DEA?

Keith Stroup: I have a personal grudge against the DEA. The DEA recently concluded a year-and-a-half’s worth of incredible harassment of Hugh Hefner. Now, I don’t fight Hefner’s battles: he’s a big guy, and he’s got teams of lawyers to fight for him. But Bobbie Orenstein, his personal secretary, was my good friend. She was really an exceptionally fine woman. 34 years old, never arrested, and not in any sense an enemy of the state. And the DEA, after a year and a half of harassment, millions of dollars wasted and my friend’s suicide, announces that they can’t find any evidence of hard drug use or sale in the Playboy empire. Well, I could have told them that to begin with.

High Times: As you said, that’s very personal. How about the DEA’s general operations in law enforcement?

Keith Stroup: I think the DEA is the dirtiest, most despicable government agency ever. There’s no way that anyone who knows anything about the DEA could have anything but a very strong sense of hostility to them. All the CIA furor that’s gone down, yet people still don’t realize that 670,000 citizens were arrested in this country last year by the domestic version of the CIA. That’s the DEA and their state cronies. And nobody makes a sound.

High Times: Isn’t the figure closer to 450,000 marijuana arrests?

Keith Stroup: That’s marijuana alone. The 670,000 figure is for total drug arrests, and as far as I’m concerned, the state has no interest in making drug arrests, period. No constitutional validity: the individual’s right to privacy should cover all drugs.

High Times: Have you had any contact with the new DEA chief, Peter Bensinger ?

Keith Stroup: Bensinger is a long-time friend of Senator Charles Percy. Percy has had a lot of influence in the whole DEA field because of his minority position on the government operations subcommittee. I just talked to Percy’s staff man about Bensinger, and he considers Bensinger much more progressive than the previous directors. It could be that Bensinger is an honest, progressive law enforcement man, and if he is, then he should realize that the marijuana laws are a huge drag on law enforcement.

High Times: Are the nation’s ongoing problems with the DEA to be laid to the DEA or the House on the Hill?

Keith Stroup: Blame the DEA. Any opposition to decriminalization from DEA is coming because of their own law enforcement interests. There are a lot of people in key positions on the Hill who would be most anxious to have the DEA director endorse decriminalization. Nevertheless, the DEA remains strongly opposed to it.

High Times: How will the upcoming presidential election affect NORML’s goal?

Keith Stroup: In 1976, no politician is going to challenge the DEA’s mission to cut off the supply of all illicit drugs. So, with the election coming up, we’re finding out how effective NORML really is—what politicians are lending real support, what politicians are still sitting on the fence.

High Times: How does Gerald Ford fit into the marijuana picture?

Keith Stroup: Ford is really on the fence, and you can see why. He’s had Reagan trying to take advantage of his family’s honesty. Yet the president can’t be too hostile to our position. Son Jack says he’s a smoker, which obviously helps us. Wife Betty says if she were younger, she’d probably try it. The White House Domestic Task Force Report says the federal government should de-emphasize marijuana law enforcement. He’s had every reason in the world to go our way, except for Ronnie Reagan.

High Times: Has NORML been able to use Jack Ford’s confession that he has smoked dope in the White House?

Keith Stroup: I’ve been trying to figure out how to take that a step farther. I don’t want to see 2,600 more blacks arrested in D.C. next year while Jack Ford sits stoned in the White House. And I don’t mean anything personal against Jack. I’ll be goddamned if we’re going to sit here and let President Ford jerk us off while his fucking son smokes dope. I say, arrest his son first. I’m more than willing to do a little street theater.

High Times: Can a political candidate now win on a marijuana-reform platform?

Keith Stroup: Well, it seems to me there’s no political candidate who needs to be hurt by endorsing marijuana decriminalization.

High Times: Whom is NORML going to endorse for president?

Keith Stroup: Because of our IRS classification, we’re a “501C4’’ and not permitted to technically endorse a candidate. If we did, we would lose our tax-exempt status.

High Times: Do you feel your age is relevant to your audience?

Keith Stroup: Well, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m no longer a kid. But millions of marijuana smokers have grown up.

High Times: Is there interest in marijuana rights among college students?

Keith Stroup: My overall appraisal of the college campus situation today is that the students seem to be internalized. I think the marijuana issue is one of the few issues that does have the potential to offer the frustrated college students of the Seventies some way to participate in policy making. And I hope a lot of them pick up on that.

High Times: When will you be running for Congress?

Keith Stroup: You sly bastard—I have no interest in running for office. I like politics, but I like the public-interest sphere of politics better because it’s the only sphere where the person does not have to sell out. I’ve seen politics up close enough that it’s not attractive to me in terms of running for office. Participating in the policy-making decision from the outside on projects like NORML is the only thing I really enjoy doing.

High Times: Before becoming marijuana’s chief lobbyist, had you had any experience working with Congress?

Keith Stroup: I used to sign Senator Everett Dirksen’s name to letters. My title was “staff member”; senators and congressmen always use a lot of law students to do that kind of thing. The sophisticated letters that required a real policy decision were sorted out and sent to somebody higher up on the staff. I only answered the simple letters and ran the franking machine.

High Times: Rumor has it that you’re as good a poker player as Richard Nixon.

Keith Stroup: I’ve heard those rumors too. A group of lawyers and I get together once a week or so to get stoned and play poker. With all the dope, it’s not a very competitive game.

High Times: Will success spoil Keith Stroup?

Keith Stroup: Not as long as they still define success as they do now. We sleep on mattresses on the floor of our office, and it’s hard to get very spoiled when one is in that position. You know, I came from a poor family on a farm in southern Illinois, and I’m still poor.

High Times: When the battle is over and we’re all able to buy quality grass at a reasonable price, will NORML stay solely concerned with marijuana?

Keith Stroup: Our immediate target for the organization for the next five years or so will probably remain marijuana, but I think you’ll see us protecting the individual’s right to privacy. Our interest is in public-policy change. We do not think that drug use generally should be considered a criminal matter. I think that, politically, NORML is probably most effective when we aim at marijuana and assume the principles will apply themselves.

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