High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
During the first week of 1978, Stroup was in New York for three
days of fun and fund-raising at the drug-paraphernalia industry's
annual boutique show. He had got to know many of the industry
people through Tom Forcade. By some estimates, paraphernalia was
close to being a billion-dollar-a-year business, and Stroup hoped
that some of its leaders could be persuaded to support NORML.
In his travels Stroup had sought out local head-shop proprietors
and often persuaded them to sell NORML T-shirts, distribute its
literature, and even put DONATE-TO-NORML jars on their counters.
He found most head shop operators to be politically naïve,
but he hoped that would change as they took more and more political
heat. Local officials and legislators who could not otherwise
discourage marijuana-smoking were trying to do so by passing laws
against head shops and the paraphernalia they sold. The laws they
passed were often struck down by the courts as unconstitutional
and they did little to stop drug use, but they made the politicians
look boldly anti-drug, and they caused people in the business
some inconvenienceenough, Stroup hoped, to make them organize
and be more politically active.
In addition to thousands of generally unsophisticated head-shop
operators the industry had created six or eight tycoons, marijuana
millionaires, and Stroup had found some of them to be more politically
aware. Two examples were Don Levin and Burt Rubin. Levin had been
a General Motors management trainee in the late 1960s when he
saw the potential in the paraphernalia business. He opened a head
shop and in time started Adams Apple, Inc., which became the largest
distributor of rolling papers in the U.S. Burt Rubin, who had
been a trader in precious metals, noticed how many smokers would
stick two standard-sized cigarette papers together so they could
roll a good, fat joint. He had the inspiration to market a double-sized
paper with a punny name, E-Z Wider and thereby parlayed a $6500
investment into a $9-million business.
Stroup had become friendly with Levin and Rubin, and both had
begun contributing $5000 or $10,000 a year to NORML. It was Stroup's
hope that as he cultivated others in the industry, many more would
be moved to do the same. During the January boutique show a rolling-paper
distributor named Ralph Kaplan gave a benefit reception for NORML.
There was an art auction featuring originals of High Times
covers, and by prearrangement some of Stroup's friends pushed
up the bidding, challenging others to support NORML, and pledges
of $40,000 were made. It was for Stroup a good night's work, a
step toward what he hoped could be an important new source of
funding for NORML.
On January 25 Peter Bourne wrote an unusual "To Whom It May
Concern" letter to the provincial court in Calgary, Canada.
He began by saying he was writing on behalf of Keith Stroup, who
was facing criminal marijuana charges in Canada. "I have
known Mr. Stroup in a professional capacity for several years,
and I can attest to the seriousness of his work," he said.
"I have always found his conduct to meet the highest standards
of professionalism." He suggested that "Mr. Stroup be
accorded whatever diversion programs" might be available
so that "he not have his career needlessly blemished by a
Peter Bourne had not wanted to write this letter. He knew that
it was a tricky, potentially explosive act for an assistant to
the president of the United States to give even the appearance
of meddling in the judicial affairs of another nation. It was
always possible that the judge or the prosecutor might protest
the intrusion. International incidents had erupted from less.
To minimize that risk, Bourne wrote his letter on his personal
stationery and signed himself simply "Peter G. Bourne, M.D."
There was no mention of his official role. Still, he disliked
writing the letter, and he resented Stroup's requesting it.
That summer, when reports of Bourne's cocaine use at the NORML
party were published, columnist Michael Novak charged that Stroup
had, in effect, acquired blackmail power over Bournethat Bourne
had, for example, no choice but to write the letter Stroup wanted.
Stroup resented the suggestion. As he saw it, when his lawyer
suggested that character references might help with the Canadian
court, he'd naturally turned to Peter Bourne and Stuart Statler,
two men who were both his friends and his professional associates.
Still, the potential for blackmail was there, and before another
month had passed, Stroup would wield it like a bludgeon against
his friend Peter Bourne.
On January 26, the day after Peter Bourne wrote his letter, Stroup
sent a "Dear Sirs" letter to Cyrus Vance, the secretary
of state, and Peter Bensinger, the head of the Drug Enforcement
Administration, a letter that was NORML'S declaration of war on
the paraquat-spraying program in Mexico.
Stroup's letter was, in legal terms, a "demand letter."
It demanded that the State Department file an environmental-impact
statement on the spraying program and that it halt all U.S. participation
in the program until that statement was completed. As all parties
involved understood, the demand letter was only a formality, a
prelude to a lawsuit. And although the letter was signed by Stroup
and was largely written by Peter Meyers, the prime mover of NORML'S
anti-paraquat campaign was a twenty-three-year-old law student
named George Farnham, who was having the time of his life.
George Farnham, unlike Stroup and Schott and most of NORML'S senior
staff, did not come from a middle-class or working-class background.
His father, a conservative Republican, was a senior partner in
a leading New York law firm, and Farnham grew up in very comfortable
circumstances in Scarsdale, New York. After graduating from Scarsdale
High, he went off to Washington University, in St. Louis, to study
political science, and it was there that he became a marijuana
smoker and a great fan of Hunter Thompson's writings. He wrote
a three-hundred-page term paper that argued that Thompson's was
by far the best coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign. Later,
when he attended the 1976 Democratic convention, Farnham persuaded
one delegate, a friend of his, to cast her vote for Thompson for
Farnham decided to attend law school at George Washington University,
in Washington, D.C., and when he learned he could receive credit
for working as an intern for some public-interest program, he
quickly made his way to NORML. He chose NORML in part because
Hunter Thompson was on its advisory board and in part because
he had been impressed with what he'd heard about Stroup. Farnham
began working as an aide to Meyers in July of 1977 and was immediately
assigned to the paraquat issue. At that point not much had happened,
except that Peter Bourne, in response to Stroup's and Senator
Percy's inquiries, had ordered DEA and NIDA to investigate the
matter. That fall, Farnham filed Freedom of Information Act requests
with State, DEA, and NIDA asking for information on their roles
in the spraying program in Mexico. He was spurred in part by rumors
that the government planned to expand the program to Colombia
and other countries. The DEA never turned over any information,
but in January of 1978 the State Department did surrender some
150 pages of material. Most of it was quite innocuousit had
obviously been carefully editedbut there were references to
memoranda written by John Ford, who'd set up the spraying program
for the Mexicans in the fall of 1975. It seemed to Farnham and
Meyers that if they could get Ford's reports, they might get at
the truth about U.S. involvement in the spraying program. Officials
at State refused to hand over the Ford memos, but NORML was given
copies by a friend on Capitol Hill, and after that the pot lobby
was no longer working in the dark on the paraquat issue.
What the Ford memos did was to document the full extent of U.S.
involvement in the program and thus contradict the government's
claims that it was entirely a Mexican program over which the U.
S. had no control. The memos showed, among other things, that
Ford had personally set up the program; that the stress from the
first was on spraying marijuana fields, not poppy fields; and
that contrary to official claims, DEA was deeply involved in the
With this information in hand, Farnham began to meet with State
Department officials. First he talked to an environmental specialist
who laughed aloud when Farnham suggested State should file an
environmental-impact statement on the spraying program. The National
Environmental Policy Act, the official explained, applied only
to domestic programs, not to the overseas activities of the State
Department. When Farnham suggested that the spraying program was
poisoning marijuana smokers, the official laughed again and said
that maybe all the marijuana smokers would die, and then the problem
would be solved.
Another meeting, the next day, made it clear that State would
release no more data on the spraying program, would concede no
U.S. control over the program, and had no intention of filing
an environmental-impact statement. The State Department was completely
committed to the paraquat program, and there was nothing left
to do but to sue.
It happened that NORML could make a good legal case for the government's
obligation to file an impact statement on the program. The 1969
Environmental Policy Act required impact statements on "major
federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human
environment," and the courts had liberally interpreted this
requirement. Stroup's letter to Vance and Bensinger noted, for
example, that the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration had
been required to file an impact statement when it made a $3000
grant to spray herbicides on marijuana plants in Indiana in 1972.
As for State's argument that no impact statement was required,
because the spraying program was outside the United States, the
NORML letter cited two precedents. In one, the Agency for International
Development (AID), when sued by an environmentalist group, agreed
to file an impact statement on its pesticide-spraying programs.
In another, after the Sierra Club brought suit, a U.S. district
court held that an impact statement was required for the construction
of a highway through Panama and Colombia.
In short, NORML was about to bring a lawsuit that had a good chance
of forcing the Department of State to stop a program that it did
not wish to stop. NORML had ceased to be a mildly amusing bunch
of crazies and had become a major annoyance, a problem to be dealt
with. All this was a prelude to the remarkable letter that Stroup
received from the White House on February 4, just nine days after
his letter to the secretary of state.
On the first of February, Gordon Brownell called Stroup with a
puzzling report: He had heard that Stroup was about to receive
a "stinging" letter of rebuke from the White House on
the pie incident. Brownell had heard this from Roger Roffman,
the University of Washington professor who was NORML's Washington
State coordinator, who in turn had heard it from Wes Pomeroy,
a former California law-enforcement official who had joined Peter
Bourne's staff in the White House.
Stroup didn't know what the stinging rebuke might prove to be,
but he did know that the two-month-old pie incident was far from
dead. Joe Nellis had sent word to the Playboy Foundation that
he was displeased that it would support an organization that allowed
pies to be thrown at its conference guests. More important, Stroup
continued to get reports that Marc Kurzman was calling NORML's
state coordinators, saying that Stroup had to go and apparently
offering himself as successor. Stroup had decided to fire Kurzman
as his Midwest coordinator. He was not going to pay someone to
organize a coup against him.
The White House letter arrived. It was on White House stationery
and was signed by Robert Angarola, general counsel for the Office
of Drug Abuse Policy. It was a very curious document, one that
makes sense, if at all, only in the hothouse of high-level Washington
politics. It was headed "Dear Keith," and began by noting
that Angarola was a panelist at the NORML conference when "the
unfortunate pie incident" occurred. Angarola said he had
considered the matter closed until he was sent a copy of Stroup's
memo on it to the NORML staff, which caused him and others to
be concerned about his "apparent absence of regret regarding
this incident." Angarola then praised NORML'S work and Stroup's
"patient and able leadership," but added, "I was
therefore upset to learn that its National Director condoned,
and in a sense encouraged, such an irresponsible act against one
of the organization's invitees. This can only prove counterproductive
to your and NORML's most worthwhile efforts. It also must call
into question the advisability of participating in future conferences
which you sponsor." He said he had discussed the matter with
Peter Bourne, Marc Kurzman, and others, all of whom shared his
concerns. He concluded: "Although it will inevitably have
a negative impact, I sincerely hope that it will not seriously
affect your future activities and that NORML will be able to maintain
support and continue the fine work it has done in the past."
The letter, signed "Bob," noted at the bottom that copies
were going to Bourne, Bonnie, Kurzman, Nellis, and Pomeroy.
It was not exactly a stinging letter, but it was one Stroup read
with mounting outrage. He was not interested in Angarola's compliments,
only in certain negative phrases: "call into question the
advisability of participating in future conferences," "inevitably
have a negative impact," and most of all the question of
whether "NORML will be able to maintain support."
As Stroup saw it, this letter was nothing less than an effort
to destroy him.
He assumed, first, that the real purpose of the letter was not
for a minor White House functionary to express concern over a
two-month-old pie-throwing. He assumed, second, that Angarola
would not have written the letter without Peter Bourne's approval.
No, Stroup thought that now that NORML had challenged the State
Department over paraquat, the White House was looking for a way
to oust him and encourage more docile leadership at NORML.
He took the letter to be a threat that the White House would not
work with NORML so long as he remained its director. He thought,
by way of analogy, that if the president's top energy adviser
had sent word to Exxon that he no longer wished to deal with its
senior Washington lobbyist, Exxon would have rather quickly replaced
that lobbyist, and the White House was gambling that the dope
lobby would do the same. Stroup feared the letter might put him
on the defensive, and he might even lose control of the organization
he had created.
Whether Stroup's analysis of the Angarola letter reflected paranoia
or political realism is debatable but not relevant. Another, more
secure man might have shrugged it off as an ambiguous letter from
a minor official, but Stroup, attuned to the Byzantine ways of
Washington, took it as a deliberate attempt by Peter Bourne to
destroy him. He responded in kind.
He called Bourne but could not reach him. He talked instead to
Wes Pomeroy, an aide to Bourne who was a respected and quite remarkable
law-enforcement officer. After serving as undersheriff in California
for many years, Pomeroy had been a special assistant to Ramsey
Clark at the Justice Department in 1968 and then was chief of
security for the Woodstock rock festival in 1969. Stroup had met
him when Pomeroy was a fellow at the Drug Abuse Council in the
early 1970s. Stroup respected the older man, but now he shouted
his outrage over the Angarola letter, and Pomeroy protested that
it was intended only as constructive criticism.
"Bullshit!" Stroup raged. "Listen, Peter is crazy.
What does he think he's doing? You guys are all vulnerable as
hell. Do you want to play hardball?"
"You can't threaten me," Pomeroy shot back.
Stroup hung up.
To make sure his message got through, Stroup next called two people
who were both his friends and Bourne's, Bob Carr at the Drug Abuse
Council and Mathea Falco at the State Department. He gave both
the same message: "My constituents know I use drugs. Do Peter's
know he uses drugs? You tell Dr. Bourne he'd better repudiate
Bob Carr, who understood the threat and was shaken by it, quickly
talked to his boss, Tom Bryant, who in turn talked to his friend
Peter Bourne. Still, days passed and Stroup heard nothing
from Bourne. When he tried to call him, he could only reach Ellen
Metsky, who asked what he wanted. "I want that letter repudiated,"
Stroup said. Metsky said Bourne was extremely busy, and asked
if it would wait a few days. Stroup assumed that Bourne simply
wanted time to decide what to do. He told Metsky that it would
wait only until the next Monday.
Then, as if to prove his resolve, Stroup took what proved to be
a fateful step: He called Gary Cohn, a friend of his who was a
writer on Jack Anderson's staff.
Gary Cohn was twenty-six years old, an ambitious and aggressive
young reporter. One day in 1976, when he needed a story, he'd
noticed a NORML poster on the wall over another reporter's desk.
On impulse he called Stroup, and came away with a nice item about
an expensive government study that had proved only that marijuana
makes monkeys hungry. After that, Cohn dropped by Stroup's office
from time to time to smoke a joint and poke around for news.
Cohn attended the 1977 NORML party, heard the rumors of Bourne's
cocaine use there, and had several times asked Stroup to confirm
them. Each time, however, Stroup brushed his questions aside.
Now, however, the situation had changed. Stroup asked Cohn to
come by his office. Cohn arrived and found him furious. Stroup
told Cohn about Bourne's cocaine use at the party and gave him
the names of two other witnesses. He stressed, however, that the
information was off the record. He said that if Bourne sent him
the letter of apology he wanted, it would stay off the record;
if not, Cohn could go with the story.
On Monday, February 11, eight days after Angarola sent his letter,
Bourne called Stroup and asked what the problem was.
"The problem is that you fuckers are trying to blow me out
of the water," Stroup shouted. "I don't like it, Peter.
I don't understand it. You've gone out of bounds. That letter
was like an official White House reprimand."
Bourne protested that Angarola was only expressing his personal
opinion, not White House policy.
"Then why did he write it on White House stationery?"
"Keith, I assure you I did not approve the letter,"
Bourne said. "I understood he was writing some letter of
protest, but I didn't see it before it went out."
"Peter, the White House has no right to inject itself into
NORML'S internal affairs, and that's what that letter did."
"You're probably right," Bourne conceded. "What
can I do to put this right?"
"You can write me a letter on the same White House stationery
and repudiate Angarola."
"I can't repudiate him, but I'll write a letter saying he
doesn't express the White House position, and that I've always
held you in the highest regard."
"I wish you'd do that," Stroup said bitterly. "And
I wish you'd have it hand-delivered to me today."
Bourne said he would, and then he added, "Keith, I hope this
won't harm our personal relationship."
Stroup sighed. "Peter," he said, "after this, I
really don't know if I can trust you."
Bourne's letter arrived that afternoon. It began by saying that
Bourne was sure Angarola's letter was intended to be "constructive
and helpful," and then concluded, "I want you to know
of the very high personal regard in which I hold you and the remarkable
leadership that you have provided to NORML under conditions that
I know have not always been easy. I will look forward to continuing
to work closely with you in the future."
It was all Stroup could have asked. If anyone tried to say he
was in disfavor at the White House, he had Bourne's glowing letter
to disprove the charge. But of course Bourne's letter meant nothing;
if anything, it meant the opposite of what it said, for it was
written under a clearly implied threat. Neither Bourne nor Stroup
would ever trust the other again, and in the small world of drug
policy a good many people knew why.
Once Stroup received Bourne's letter, he called Gary Cohn and
told him the cocaine story would have to remain off the record.
Cohn took this news with mixed emotions. In part, he was relieved.
Cohn had smoked dope and used cocaine, and he had misgivings about
this story. Was it fair? Was it legitimate? He was also concerned
because he assumed the story would cost Bourne his job, and he
thought Bourne was a good man to have as the president's adviser
Still, Cohn was ambitious, and he knew it was a hell of a story,
the sort of expose that helped make a young reporter's reputation.
Part of him lusted for the Bourne story, the part that could rationalize
that reporters don't make moral judgments but only report the
facts. In the weeks ahead Cohn several times asked Stroup if he
wouldn't put the Bourne story on the record. Each time, Stroup
refused. Still, the cat was halfway out of the bag. When Stroup
gave Cohn the names of the two witnesses, he all but guaranteed
the story would come out eventually. The only question was when.
But first, late in February, while Stroup was preoccupied with
paraquat and Peter Bourne, NORML scored a dramatic victory in
a battle it had been waging for years: the effort to gain recognition
for the medical uses of marijuana.