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Keith Stroup

50 Years NORML

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In the cannabis community, Keith Stroup is a legend. He is the founder of the longest standing consumer advocacy group in the nation, NORML – the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In 2020, NORML celebrates 50 years as an organization. Stroup’s long hair is reminiscent of his past, present, and future. Now, at age 75, he has fought for the freedom of cannabis longer than many staking claims in this industry have been alive. GRAM sat down with Stroup to hear how it all started, the struggles of legalization, his personal journey with the plant, and where he thinks cannabis laws are headed in the future. 

In his third year of law school at Georgetown University, Stroup was offered a job serving on the National Commission for Product Safety. Two years went by and Stroup worked alongside Ralph Nader. He recalls, “It was at this time, I really began to learn about public interest law. In the process of working at the commission, I became enamored of the concept of using your law degree to make an impact on public policy.” 

Two people greatly shaped and influenced Keith Stroup in 1970. First Ralph Nader, “He didn’t smoke marijuana, all the young aids that worked for him, known as ‘Nader’s Raiders’ all consumed like I did. Ralph was a straight guy, but I was influenced by him using his law degree to directly affect public policy. Secondly, I read a book about that time by Ramsey Clark called “Crime in America.” He had recently retired as the US Attorney General, and I greatly admired him. He was here in Washington and he proposed legalizing marijuana and in time he became an antiwar activist. I admired Ramsey enormously from a distance,” Stroup explains. 

Stroup’s personal opinion of politics had become somewhat radicalized due to the antiwar movement during the Vietnam war. He tells us, “I don’t think I would have ever had any interest in starting a public interest group to support marijuana, but the antiwar movement showed me that marijuana was seen as a symbol of resistance—it was a way to say, not only do we not like your war in Vietnam, there are a lot of other things in current policy that we don’t agree with.” By now Stroup was 27 and past the drafting age. He knew he wanted to do something in public interest law. He began to wonder if he wanted to use his law degree to develop a program to legalize marijuana. He sat down with a few friends and began to create the concept for an organization that could accomplish such a task. In late 1970, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was formed. 

Stroup began contacting mutual friends in an effort to contact Ramsey. Stroup tells us, “I was nervous I was making a damaging career decision by starting NORML. I finally had my opportunity to sit down with him, and he told me two things: ‘Do it, it’s important, someone has to do it so don’t hesitate, just move forward. Second, do it now when you are young so if it doesn’t work out, you can pick yourself up and start over, you can still have a fulfilled life.’ We ended up forming a tight relationship, and Ramsey served on the Board of Directors for NORML for the first decade we were in operation.”

In late 1970, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was formed.

One of the other ways Ramsey would influence Stroup was by the connections and introductions that he would receive. Stroup was asked if he had reached out to the Playboy Foundation to try and receive funding. Stroup exclaims, “Now I knew what Playboy was. Any young man my age hid that magazine under their mattress but I had never heard of this foundation.” Before Stroup reached out to the foundation, he was very nervous about taking money from them, so he asked Ramsey his opinion about using their funding. His answer helped Stroup make the right decision. “Ramsey explained to me that when he traveled around the country speaking and giving lectures, ‘almost never does someone ask me a question based on a book I have written, but almost every time someone asks questions to me because of the interview I did in Playboy magazine.’” Stroup knew what he needed to do.

Playboy ended up being the primary source of funding for NORML during the 1970’s. The first donation was the modest amount of five thousand dollars. Stroup could tell they really believed in what they were trying to do. The foundation told Stroup to take the money and show them what he could do. Within a year, the foundation committed to $100,000 a year and two full page ads for the organization to seek public support. 

NORML’s goal has always been the same, marijuana smokers should be treated fairly in all aspects of their lives. The 70’s were highly influenced by the marijuana commission established as a provision for the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. In the words of Stroup, “This was a terrible act and is to this day.” 

The latter half of the 70’s was spent traveling around the country providing expert testimony in decriminalization cases. “In 1973, Oregon was the first to adopt, and then by 1978, we had a total of 11 states that had decriminalized marijuana. At that point, we thought we were well on our way to nationwide decriminalization. We underestimated the reality that public opinion sometimes changes direction,” said Stroup. According to Gallup during their first poll in 1969, 88% of the public were opposed to marijuana policy. “I think we may have made it to 24% approval by 1977, and then it started to go down again just a point or two a year.”

Without question, I roll and smoke joints.

The 80’s brought the Reagans and the Just Say No program. Stroup tell us, “The focus became ‘what will happen to the children?’ And, that if it’s not good for children, then it is certainly not good for adults. Now if you think about that, it’s absurd. There are things that are appropriate for adults that are not appropriate for children.”

For 18 years, no laws were changed—not a single statewide victory. The next big moment for marijuana policy came in 1996. That victory was the medical use of cannabis in California. During those 18 years of inactivity, the public came out of the fog about the medical possibilities of marijuana. “Part of this was due to the AIDS epidemic. People were becoming more vocal that marijuana was helping them, then the focus became the medical side. Once California did this voter initiative, we were able to start picking up other states. The 90’s finally showed the uptick in support, and it has only continued,” said Stroup.

“All of our early progress was by voters. By the 2000’s, we began seeing a change legislatively as well. Citizens can draft what you feel to be a perfect bill. When you are dealing with the legislature you can create something unique. However, 26 states do not offer voter initiatives. Those states still do policy the old fashioned way.”

Things really started moving in 2012. Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21. Policies went into effect by January 1, 2014. Stroup said, “As we near the end of this decade, we now have enough public support that we are starting to pass laws through legislature in places like Vermont and Illinois, and we are close in New Jersey and New York. This decade is when we finally reached, 5 national polls where 65-68% of Americans now want to fully legalize cannabis. We now enjoy the support of 2 out of 3 Americans. 50% have smoked at some point in their lives, but only about 14% are actual users. We are winning this not because of the marijuana smokers but because we have won the hearts and minds of nonconsumers as well.”

In the fifty year history of the organization the ideals of NORML have not changed. 

Stroup tells us, “We were founded as a consumer lobby. What has changed is the consumer side of the issue. For example, making sure products are tested; we have always wanted to make sure the products were safe and secure to use. Years ago, before it was no longer a crime, the idea of testing was outlandish. Criminal prohibition needed to change first. Now, the need for social clubs is a thing. We also want to protect workers’ rights and child custody issues and DUI laws are now an issue too.” 

Stroup continues, “I believe that we are still working through reefer madness, the repercussions of 80 years of government propaganda and exaggerations. My contemporaries and I were taught it was an evil drug. We were taught the gateway concept. Although there is less and less of that every year, there will still be members of the legislature that continue to oppose initiatives, and their reasons are still antiquated. 

The re-education is necessary. It’s not that we have better arguments, we have better data, and we have now outlived our opponents.”

Stroup’s personal journey with cannabis is a budding fifty plus year relationship. As the aging process comes into play, his use of the plant continues day to day. In addition to the recreational desire to consume, it has also provided Stroup alleviation from an epileptic condition for many years. “I had my first seizure at the age of 65, one of the things that cannabis has always been known for is an anti-seizure medicine. So I called my friend and colleague, Dr. Greenspoon, at Harvard and said, ‘I can’t figure out what is happening.’ He said to me, ‘You would have been having seizures all of your life, but you’ve been taking the strongest anti-seizure medicine known to man.’”

This decade is when we finally reached, 5 national polls where 65-68% of Americans now want to fully legalize cannabis.

“As you get older you have more aches and pains, and anyone can imagine how comforting the casual use of marijuana can be if you are an older person. If you have a doctor trying to make you take 5 or 6 pills a day and all of the pills have different side effects. Then there is a plant that can help so much, without the side effects. But even more so, it can take an ordinary experience like walking the dog or playing a round of golf and turn it into an extraordinary experience. It’s no longer just ordinary. It enhances the quality of life and makes the free time of retirement far more enriching and rewarding than it would otherwise be.” 

Everyone has a preferred method of consumption and for Stroup it has always been joints. He tells us, “Without question, I roll and smoke joints, I don’t use a pipe, vape, or shatter, or anything like that, and that is my own personal preference. I love cleaning the marijuana by hand. I still roll torpedo shaped joints like my friend Willy Nelson. I like the feel of it on my lips. For me, flower is the way to use marijuana. For me, it is the healthiest way to just roll the joints. I will use topicals too. If I scratch my arm or something, that is what I reach for in my medicine cabinet.”

Stroup leaves us with his advice to future cannabis consumers, advocates, and activists,

“It is terribly important we understand our place in the universe and that we understand what this fight is all about. It is really only about personal freedom. All people who are active in this journey, keep that in mind. Prohibition has been ingrained in our lives; it’s not just a matter of do we consider marijuana consumers criminals. Now, it’s whether or not we treat them fairly in all aspects of their lives. Most individuals do not want the government deciding. Without question, the most fortunate thing I ever did was to get caught up in the antiwar movement and become radicalized so that my mind was open to the concept of trying to legalize marijuana.”

We are winning this
not because of the marijuana smokers but because we have won the hearts and minds of nonconsumers as well.

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