A two-headed Martian recently dropped in on us and challenged me: “Folks back home love to ask what’s the wackiest thing about planets we visit. What should we say about this one?”
Of course I told them that Marijuana is illegal. Thirty million Americans have smoked it, including Obama. He got reelected. Most pot-head voters supported him, even as he goes on making pot arrests.
“America is the craziest place in the universe! This will be hard for Martians to believe!” So I told them that Keith Stroup’s book It’s NORML to Smoke Pot will convince readers that smoker-voters have only one head and many rarely use it.
Stroup, now 69, first smoked pot as a 1965 law school freshman while beating the Vietnam war draft. He founded NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 1970. His early notions re building a marijuana legalization movement were developed while observing Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, anti-war pothead cofounders of the Youth International Party, better known as the Yippies.
In 1967 they organized a march on the Pentagon. Hundreds of protesters were jailed and beaten when soldiers cleared them off the Pentagon steps, but the demo got enormous media attention. In 1968 Yippies were beaten in a demo at the Democratic National Convention. The two were convicted of inciting to riot, but their convictions were overturned on appeal.
Stroup’s original name for his movement was the National Organization to Repeal Marijuana Laws, but we don’t get the details re this transition from him. I found them in an internet posting of Patrick Anderson’s 1981 book High in America: The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana.
Anderson tells us that Stroup quit Repeal for Reform after a discussion with Ramsey Clark, Lyndon Johnson’s Attorney General, 1967-1969. Clark, now a leading anti-war figure, was still a Democrat when Stroup encountered him.
‘’’Repeal’ was a scare word, Clark cautioned, but there was a long and honorable tradition of political reform in the United States.”
We see here that Stroup’s initial gurus worked in opposite directions, the Yippies directly confronted the powers that be while Clark was still playing by the establishment’s rules of their game.
The 70s were a golden age of pot reformism. In 1970, Congressman Ed Koch (later New York’s Mayor) added an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act, calling for a National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. Nixon signed the Act, but announced that he would ignore the Commission if it called for decriminalization, which it did in 1972. According to Stroup, its report “called for the elimination of all state and federal penalties for the personal possession and use of Marijuana… among adults.”
Going from repeal to penalty reduction reform and utilizing the report after Nixon’s downfall made NORML into a prime actor in getting “eleven states… to stop arresting pot smokers.” Things looked even better when Jimmy Carter became President in 1977.
Carter endorsed decriminalization “in a statement to Congress which I helped draft….Dr. Peter Bourne, the president’s drug policy advisor, was opposed to treating marijuana smokers as criminals…. Also important was my relationship with Chip Carter, the president’s son, who was a marijuana smoker.”
But then he then got “mixed up in a scandal involving the president’s drug advisor.” Stroup wanted Chip to testify “in support of… decriminalization bills pending in several states,” but Carter’s advisors forbid it. “So I planted a story in the press that the Carter administration apparently wasn’t willing to put any real effort behind their rhetoric.”
Stroup fought Bourne over “the US government spraying the deadly herbicide paraquat on Mexican marijuana.” He was convinced that it poisoned American smokers. “Bourne said he would look into it,” but while NORML got a Senator to demand a ban on “spending any federal funds to spray paraquat…. Bourne and the Carter administration were secretly lobbying against it. And then, a totally unexpected event brought the world crashing down around my feet.”
A Bourne aide was arrested in 1978, trying to get Quaaludes with a prescription from him. “To protect her privacy, he had written it in a fictitious name.” Some reporters tried to tie Bourne to NORML.
In December 1977, NORML hosted a party. Bourne was among the celebrants and a mutual friend told Stroup that “Peter says he might enjoy doing a line” of cocaine. Stroup took Carter’s drug advisor to a “private VIP room we had set aside for just such occasions…. I introduced Bourne and said ‘Let me remind everyone that this event is private and strictly off the record,’ intending the comment especially for the journalists who were present…. Some guests with cocaine laid out lines on a mirror and passed the offering around with a straw. It reached Bourne, who snorted a couple of lines….
When the press learned about Bourne writing a questionable prescription… a couple of them — one of whom was in the upstairs room with us — called to ask if they could write about Bourne’s use of cocaine…. Their editors would never let them publish such a damaging story without at least one credible witness, and I wouldn’t play that role.”
But Stroup was still raging on about paraquat when Bourne’s assistant sent him a letter on White House stationary, complaining that Stroup had given a Yippie money to buy a pie to throw it at an anti-pot lawyer who had been invited to be on a panel at a NORML conference. Stroup now admits that the screws in his head were loose in 1978 when he organized the pieing.
“I had made myself vulnerable to this type of challenge because of my appreciation for lefty politics, especially what I saw as harmless street theater. I’ve always admired my contemporaries who have the courage to challenge the establishment in creative ways, though I myself have generally tried to stay within more acceptable boundaries.”
Stroup insisted that Bourne send him “a second letter thanking me for all for all the good work that I had done. He did, but he sent it to me on his personal stationary, not the White House letterhead.” This somehow convinced Stroup that Bourne was part of a plot to get him ousted from his position as NORML’s executive director.
Then a journalist told him that he had written an article about Bourne’s snorting cocaine. “‘Just tell me if the story is accurate.’ In a moment that I would live to regret, I told Cohn, ‘Off the record, its accurate.’” Other journalists called. He thought he “could avoid being seen as a snitch by insisting on the line ‘I can neither confirm nor deny the story.’”
Bourne “was unwilling to stop spraying paraquat, or help us decriminalize marijuana across the country, he was on his own. That was my immediate ethical justification for throwing Bourne overboard…. But my actions were clearly wrong. I knew it.”
He resigned from NORML, but “little did I imagine that sixteen years later… I would be invited back on the NORML board, and then would be asked to serve another decade as executive director.”
Stroup must be given full credit for detailing his shameful behavior regarding Bourne. But his account automatically raised questions which his book didn’t answer. That being so, after reading all he had to say about Bourne, I questioned him further while writing this review:
Were Americans poisoned by Paraquat?
“No, we never found any cases of poisoning…. With Bourne I convinced myself that we were protecting smokers from being poisoned by the government (with paraquat), and that allowed me to justify any possible tactic, including failing to protect his private conduct. This is a mistake that all of us in the business of trying to effect social change must guard against. Occasionally we need to step back and take the long view, to be sure we have made the right decision.”
Have you had any dealings with Bourne since the Carter administration days?
“I encountered him on a couple of occasions. We were civil with each other, but nothing further developed. He’s English and he lives in Britain now.”
The paraquat spraying took place in Mexico. Does NORML now deal with the international aspects of outlawing marijuana?
“Groups have sprung up in about 10 or 15 countries who asked to use NORML as their ‘brand name.’ We say OK, but we don’t work with them in a coordinated way.”
You and Bourne snorted cocaine at a NORML event and you wrote about your use of LSD, mescaline and other drugs. Do you still use cocaine or any other drug?
“Not since the 70s.”
Since you have used other drugs and the ban on recreational pot is part of the larger ‘war on drugs,’ what is NORML’s relationship with Ethan Nadelmann’s Drug Policy Alliance which deals with the whole drug war?
“We frequently work with them, especially at the state level, and Ethan speaks at our conferences.”
From beginning to end, Its NORML To Smoke Pot is documentary intertwined with autobiography and this is particularly true of Chapter 4: The In-Between Years, wherein Stroup discusses the period between his resignation from NORML and its invitation to rejoin it. Frankly, given that most people who will read the book will do so because their concern is legalizing pot, this chapter will give some of them a reason to stop reading further.
He reinvented himself as a defense attorney for drug dealers. One was busted with over a hundred pounds of marijuana and she faced 20 years in prison. Stroup convinced the prosecutor to accept a guilty plea whereby she would only serve two and a half years. She agreed to the deal but then hung herself. Naturally he was upset. Then he tells us that he has “nothing against suicide… I honesty expect to determine my own time of death as well.”
That a woman killed herself rather than do 30 months in prison for something as innocent as selling an intoxicant that should be sold in the store on your corner is important. But I didn’t get the book to find out if he intends to kill himself or to learn anything about his wives. If he writes more about marijuana – and I hope he does – he must stick to the subject.
Fortunately I read on and he definitely had more important things to say. He stepped down from his executive director post in 2005 because he wanted younger activists to run the show. That’s always a good idea. But he’s still a major figure in the legalization movement.
NORML is critical of the medical marijuana movement. California’s successful Proposition 215 declared that a doctor could prescribe marijuana for “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”
He correctly says “that last phrase… created a loophole big enough to drive truck through…. there developed a cadre of what have become known as ‘pot docs’ — physicians who will recommend marijuana to anyone willing to pay a healthy fee.”
As a result, many Americans saw the pro-pot movement as just another bunch of political fraudsters. But today such hustles are unnecessary. He told me that “the single most focused thing we have done at NORML…. is to come out of the closet ourselves, and to encourage other smokers to do the same.”
Now most Americans understand that smoking pot is indeed normal. Recreational pot is now legal in Colorado and Washington and polls show ever growing numbers favoring federal legalization.
Stroup wrote his book before the two state victories and only added one text line to it, hailing the triumphs. But even before those November successes he saw which way things things were going and took a principled stand:
“What all marijuana smokers could and should do, is take the pledge that they will never again vote for a candidate for public office who wants to treat responsible smokers like criminals. It is the single most important thing we can do to force a change in policy, and if the thirty million Americans who smoked marijuana just in the last year were to take that pledge, we would end marijuana prohibition and the arrest of responsible smokers within a couple of election cycles.”
He sees some problems that would entail:
“We have that political power, but it will require discipline to exercise, because today in many races there is no candidate backing our position, and thus no one to support. It would require the tens of millions of us who smoke to sit on our hands for an election or two, or find a third party candidate with the courage to support our position. But if we really believe that this is an important issue, and it is our top priority, we should be willing to make this modest sacrifice for a short time to achieve our goals.”
Stroup has correctly abandoned decrim reform for repeal, but he hasn’t thought pro-pot voting through. Be certain that some Democrats will propose legalization in other states. They read pro-legalization polls in their states and want those pro-legalization votes.
Should we vote for such state-level repealers if Obama’s Attorney General goes on authorizing federal pot arrests in Colorado and Washington and those repealers stay loyal to Obama’s Democratic Party?
Let’s go further. Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO) and Earl Bluemenauer (D-OR) have introduced federal bills permitting regulated production and sales of cannabis to adults in states that legalize consumption. But 48 states haven’t legalized pot. Their bills say nothing about federal arrests in those states. Should pot heads still vote for them?
Let’s go the whole route. In 2010 Obama authorized the biggest weapons sale in US history, $60 billion worth of boom-sticks to Saudi Arabia, the only government in the universe that doesn’t allow women to drive cars. Suppose a Democrat comes up with a perfect bill repealing the federal pot ban throughout all of America, but does nothing to cancel that Saudi deal. Should pot head gals vote for that Democrat? Should Stroup or you, dear reader?
I asked that two-headed Martian those questions. “Now you say that Democrats who arrest people for pot also arm the only government in the universe that doesn’t allow women to drive. We’re jumping into our rocket and getting out of here! Voting Democrat is a terribly communicable disease. If we stay, we might catch it. Want to come with us?”
I thanked them for their offer, but I’m sticking around. Maybe I can convince Stroup and other pot heads to think things through. Anyone who votes for a candidate who arrests people for using or selling pot is a dunce. However voting for somebody who is for legalization but silent about bi-partisan Washington’s alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel would be just as stupid and unprincipled.
Stroup worries that we might have to “sit on our hands for an election or two, or find a third party candidate with the courage to support our position.” Full legalization is now his be-all issue, but I can’t imagine millions of pot heads not voting because there isn’t a pro-legalization candidate. They voted for their jailer because they want other things besides legalization and they are right to want other things. The solution to the problem is “a third party,” specifically the Green Party. Its for legalization and against the Saudi alliance.
It is to be hoped that readers understand my defining arguments. Legal marijuana is an increasingly popular demand, but we must use our heads while fighting for it. We must not try to get it by voting for new-born pro-pot politicians opposed to other human rights that we must also strive to attain.
Some readers will object: ‘The GP isn’t about to win important elections. Voting for it isn’t going to get us legalization.’ But if a significant number of pot heads move towards the GP, be certain that many Democratic office holders will suddenly become legalizers because they know they will be defeated by Republicans if more of their present pot head supporters vote Green.
Legalization may well be enacted before the GP wins many elections, but it will have won out only because Green pot head pressure forced the Democratic Party to do what it never would have done on its own.
Lenni Brenner can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com