High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
As1972 began Stroup had big money from Playboy and big plans to
go with it. One of his first decisions was to move NORML'S office
from the basement of his home to a rundown row house a block away,
in the middle of a restaurant's parking lot on Twenty-second Street.
He opened two new offices, too. One, in New York City, was headed
by the tall, likable Guy Archer, who had left his Wall Street
law firm to work with NORML. The other, in Phoenix, was run by
a short, energetic drug dealer who vowed he had given up dealing
in order to work for legalization.
There was movement on the political front. Two other reform groupsBLOSSOM,
in Washington State, and Amorphia, in Californiawere determined
to put pro-marijuana initiatives on the ballot in their states,
and Stroup had to decide how NORML should relate to them. Moreover,
the Marijuana Commission's report, due in March, was rumored to
be favorable, and Stroup hoped it would set off a national election-year
debate on marijuana. Then, if a Democrat could beat Nixon in November,
the revolution might be at hand.
Such were the fantasies as 1972 began. The reality was that Stroup
and his closest friends, Larry Schott and Larry Dubois, had entered
a period of drug use that was both destructive to their personal
lives and harmful to their work with NORML. They had begun using
hallucinogenic drugs, particularly MDA, a substance developed
by Dow Chemical Company and produced illegally in clandestine
Stroup was introduced to MDA by Dr. Andrew Weil, a twenty-eight-year-old
Harvard-trained expert on mind-altering drugs. Weil had studied
drugs in Haight-Ashbury, at the National Institute of Mental Health,
and in such places as the Amazon basin, where he investigated
tribal drug use. When he met Stroup at a Marijuana Commission
hearing in mid-1971, he was working on a book called, The Natural
Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness,
wherein he argued, among other things, that "stoned thinking"
was superior to "straight thinking."
Weil, who was living in the Washington area, called Stroup and
invited him and Kelly to dinner. Their talk soon focused on hallucinogens,
or "psychedelics," such as MDA, LSD, and mescaline,
and what Weil saw as their mind-expanding qualities. Stroup had
heard all these "higher consciousness" arguments before
from freaks he had met in his travels, but to hear them now, from
this very sophisticated, articulate, Harvard-trained scientist,
was far more impressive.
Weil stressed that the hallucinogenic experience would help Stroup
in his work, and he added that he had a friend at Harvard who
could supply some excellent MDA. Stroup, never shy about new drug
experiences, was soon on a plane to Boston. He spent an evening
with Weil's friend, a chemist who was making large quantities
of MDA. The chemist was impressed to meet Stroup, having read
about him in Playboy, and he showed him around his lab
and told him about a problem he'd had recently. There is a point
in the production of MDA when the mixture is highly explosive,
and the chemist's lab had blown up. That was bad enough, but then
the FBI, thinking that radicals were starting to bomb the Harvard
campus, had swarmed over the damaged lab, causing widespread panic
among Harvard's MDA-tripping community. As it turned out, the
FBI never discerned the true nature of the blast, and the lab
was soon back in production. When Stroup returned to Washington,
he took with him several hundred tabs of MDA, enough to keep him
and his friends in outer space for months.
Stroup was curious about the hallucinogens and saw them as a natural
step up from marijuana. By then, marijuana was part of his daily
life. It relaxed him, it was fun, but it was no big thing: It
was the equivalent of a couple of beers at the end of the day.
MDA was not a couple of beers. Once you swallowed the little pink
pill, you were gone for eight hours; you were on the bus and there
was no getting o£ The first rush could be frightening, but
after that the drug was mind-expanding, or so it seemed.
Music, for example, became more intense, more meaningful, far
more so than with marijuana. MDA brought a sense of intimacy,
a sense of community. You became intensely interested in the people
you were with. You wanted to know all about them, and so you talked
a mile a minute, seeking communication, seeking understanding.
Your ego seemed to fade away, you cared more about others than
about yourself, you saw the unimportance of the individual in
MDA was an immediate sensation with Stroup and his friends, one
of whom, after his first trip, proposed that they fly immediately
to Cambridge and buy up the chemist's entire supply and put it
in a bank vault, lest they run out of this priceless substance.
Stroup and Dubois and their wives, Schott, and two or three other
couples, close friends of theirs, began to make MDA-tripping the
center of their lives. On weekends they would gather at someone's
house and get high and listen to records and sip endless soft
drinks, because MDA made you so thirsty. Or they would go outdoors.
There was an urge to be outdoors when you were tripping, to climb
mountains, to get close to God, and since there were no mountains
nearby, they would go wander through Rock Creek Park or sit by
the Potomac for hours, watching the sea gulls.
Once they went to a ballet at the Kennedy Center while they were
tripping. Stroup, very high, felt himself become a part of the
dance, caught up in the syncopation, but when the intermission
came and the audience got up, he freaked out, because it seemed
that they were all part of the dance, everyone but himself. He
ran out of the theater, racing across streets, oblivious of traffic,
and he might have been killed if one of his friends hadn't caught
up with him.
His work was affected. After a weekend of tripping he would be
irritable, depressed, and later he felt that his judgment had
been impaired by the drug. Once, starting off on a trip to another
city, Stroup bought himself a pair of high-heeled, three-toned
shoes. The purchase seemed perfectly logical at the time, but
later he thought it was crazy. What was a middle-class reformer
doing turning up at a meeting in pimp shoes? Worse, Stroup never
got around to arranging to testify before the Democratic Platform
Committee that spring, simply because he was too incapacitated
by MDA to do his job.
But the worst, most destructive part of it was the sex. MDA was
the aphrodisiac of drugs; it was often called the "love drug."
The sense of intimacy it created led inevitably to sex. Moreover,
it created a sense of community, of sharing, of new relationships,
that could lead to great complications. There was talk among Stroup
and his friends of living together communally. They never did
that, but as 1972 progressed, there were far too many instances
of one friend ending up in bed with another friend's mate. It
all seemed fine when you were tripping, but when you came down,
you faced the reality of guilt, anger, broken friendships, collapsing
marriages. Stroup's period of heavy tripping lasted a year, and
when it was over, he had come to view hallucinogenic drugs with
sharply divided emotions. He thought, on the one hand, that they
could be useful, broadening. In later years he always thought
he could spot people who had tripped, as they tended to be introspective,
relaxed, not hung up on rigid rules and concepts. On the other
hand he saw hallucinogens as having great potential for abuse,
and he thought he and his friends had tripped far more than was
good for them.
He also tried LSD for the first time that winter. He'd gone to
Lehigh University to make a speech, and after his speech he went
back to a fraternity house where he was to spend the night. He
was playing pinball when a boy offered him a tab of LSD. Stroup
laughed, thinking that frat-house life had certainly changed since
his day, and swallowed the tab. Soon he was caught up in the worst
drug experience of his life.
An LSD trip, Stroup came to think, could be a good, useful experience,
if you undertook it with a friend who could guide you through
it, reassure you so that when the walls started to melt or a tree
started to attack you, your friend could remind you that it was
only the acid, that you hadn't really lost your mind. Unfortunately,
Stroup had no such guide on his first acid trip. The fraternity
boys were either tripping themselves or indifferent to his plight,
so he spent the night in the basement, seeing the walls close
in, not sure who he was or where he was, thinking he was dying,
thinking he was dead, thinking he had lost his mind, suffering
all the agonies of a very bad trip. By morning he had come down
enough to catch his plane back to Washington, but he wanted no
more of LSD, at least not for a while.
For better or worse, Stroup was still running NORML, and one of
his prime concerns in those days was how he should relate to the
various other reform groups that were scattered around the country.
There were quite a few of them, often with wonderful acronyms:
BLOSSOM (Basic Liberation of Smokers and Sympathizers of Marijuana),
CAMP (Committee Against Marijuana Prohibition), CALM (Citizens
Association to Legalize Marijuana), COME (Committee on Marijuana
Education), POT (Proposition of Today), SLAM (Society for the
Legalization and Acceptance of Marijuana), MELO (Marijuana Education
and Legalization Organization), and STASH (Student Association
for the Study of Hallucinogens).
From the first, Stroup sought out such groups. He wanted to know
them, wanted to exchange ideas with them, and of course he wanted
NORML to emerge as their national leader. For the most part Stroup
found these groups to be composed of freaks, hard-core smokers,
people who viewed smoking as a sacrament, people who might be
kind and well-meaning but who, politically speaking, were still
living in the Stone Age.
One such group, which Stroup worked with in early 1972, was BLOSSOM,
in Washington State. A legalization bill had been introduced in
the Washington legislature in 1970, but its sponsor was unable
even to find a cosponsor for it. It was in the aftermath of this
legislative disaster, in December of 1970, that BLOSSOM was formed.
Its leader was a big, bearded mountain man named Steve Wilcox,
who wrote to Stroup in April of 1971, as soon as he read about
NORML in Playboy. Wilcox and six or eight followers were
living a communal life in some cabins beside a lake outside Olympia.
Convinced that marijuana could save a world gone mad, frustrated
by the legislative defeat, Wilcox and his friends dreamed of a
legislative initiative on the 1972 ballot. They filed official
notice of their intent early that year and had to submit the signatures
of 102,000 registered voters by July 7 in order to get the initiative
on the November ballot.
Voter initiatives are provided for in the constitutions of more
than twenty states. In theory they are a way for people to bypass
a balky legislature and make law themselves. The voter initiative
seemed ready-made for marijuana's true believers, who tended to
talk only to themselves and thus to think there was vast (the
pun is unavoidable) grass-roots support for legalization, waiting
only to be proved by a direct vote.
In state after state Stroup argued against the initiative approach,
and in state after state he thus made himself suspect to hard-core
smokers. Stroup began with the assumption that there was no state
where a majority of voters favored legal marijuana. It seemed
to him that if you lost your initiative, you were at a political
dead end. If you went back to the legislature, your opponents
could say, with some logic, Forget it; the people have spoken.
As Stroup saw it, to win an initiative, even at best, would require
a huge outlay of money on advertising and public education, and
that sort of money was not available. Logic demanded a legislative
strategy. In a legislature you only had to persuade, say, two
hundred men, not millions of voters, and they were politicians
who perhaps could be reached by some combination of reason and
pressure. In any event, you could keep going back to a legislature,
year after year, picking up a few more votes each time, until
you had your majority.
The real difference between Stroup and the freaks was their timetables.
Stroup was braced for the long haul. The freaks, living on the
edge, in despair, in fear of arrest, wanted to gamble everything
on one roll of the dice.
Stroup made his first of several trips to visit the BLOSSOM people
in the spring of 1972. Wilcox and his friends met him at the airport,
and soon they were pressing their best weed on him. That was a
ritual he encountered almost everywhere he went, and he was never
entirely comfortable with it. It was always possible that his
new friends with their "special stash" might attract
the policeor, for that matter, might be the police.
But Stroup always smoked with them. He had to, to prove he was
one of them, willing to run risks with them. He and the BLOSSOM
people dropped by the water-bed store that was their headquarters,
then drove out to their cabin beside a lake near Olympia to spend
the night. The cabin had a gorgeous view, but it lacked electricity
and running water. The BLOSSOM people, who were mostly vegetarians,
lived a simple life there, staying high most of the time. It was
a ritual always to have at least one joint in circulation, like
an eternal flame.
They talked most of the night. Stroup explained his reservations
about an initiative, but the others were unconvinced. Washington
is different, they insisted; the people are with
us. Stroup thought Wilcox and the others were decent, well-intentioned
people but hopelessly naive politically. In the long run he didn't
think there was anything he could do for them, except possibly
give them a little money.
The next morning, Saturday morning, Stroup got up, shaved with
cold water, ate pancakes on a deck overlooking the lake, and then
they all set off for the state capital, where BLOSSOM was holding
a rally in support of its signature-gathering campaign. Two or
three hundred students and street people were waiting there on
the capitol steps, along with several watchful state troopers.
The two guest speakers at the rally were Stroup and the state
legislator who'd introduced the unsuccessful legalization bill.
As Wilcox introduced Mr. NORML, the Washington political celebrity
who had come to back their efforts, he casually lit a joint, took
a hit, and handed it to Stroup. Oh, shit, Stroup thought, I've
come to a smoke-in.
Stroup assumed he would eventually be arrested on a marijuana
charge. He rationalized that it would be a useful experience.
A few days in jail might fire his resolve, and it might also increase
his credibility with people like these. Still, he saw no reason
to hasten his incarceration by smoking on the capitol steps in
front of the state troopers.
But he did. He had no choice. He took a hit, grinned at the crowd,
and passed the joint on. And nothing happened. The state troopers
were observing that day, not making arrests. Stroup made his speech,
tried to raise his audience's political consciousness, tried to
make them see themselves as part of a political movement, but
he didn't think he had much success.
BLOSSOM never got the 102,000 signatures. A few weeks later many
of its people were arrested on marijuana charges, and thereafter
their energies were directed at staying out of jail. Stroup was
sorry but not surprised. He still thought initiatives were not
the waymuch less smoke-insand a lot of people were going
to be busted until they figured that out. A group like BLOSSOM
was no threat to NORML. It was only in Amorphia that Stroup encountered
a serious rival. Blair Newman, Amorphia's founder, was a brilliant
and creative young man who had grown up in the Washington, D.C.,
area, the son of a successful real-estate woman. He dropped out
of college, grew a beard, discovered hallucinogenic drugs, ran
a record store, started an all-rock radio station, and by 1968
was talking about starting some sort of legalization lobby in
Washington. When that didn't work out, he moved to San Francisco
and began to give very serious thought to the rolling-paper business.
As a businessman he saw there was a great deal of money to be
made from the marijuana boom, from selling rolling papers and
Had Newman stopped there, he would have become a millionaire,
as did several other young businessmen who arrived at the same
conclusion at about the same time. But Newman was also interested
in social change. He believed that marijuana should be legal,
and it was his inspiration to create a nonprofit organization
that would sell rolling papers and use the proceeds to work for
legalization. He believed that smokers, given a choice, would
buy his papers, knowing the profits would be used in their own
interests, rather than those made by the "profiteering"
Newman spent more than a year studying the international cigarette-paper
industry, finding $16,000 in start-up money, and negotiating a
contract to import papers from Spain. Once here, the papers would
be put in his copyrighted Acapulco Gold packets and sold. But
there was one remaining question: his credibility. Would the smokers
trust him? Or would they think his "Amorphia: The Cannabis
Cooperative" was just another rip-off?
Newman's very shrewd solution was to recruit Mike Aldrich to come
to San Francisco and be the co-director of Amorphia. Once Aldrich
agreed, Amorphia had instant credibility with LeMar's supporters,
with people like Ginsberg and Leary and Sinclair, with the readers
of Marijuana Review, indeed with all the radical left that
concerned itself with the marijuana issue.
By late 1970, as Amorphia was starting businessand as, across
the continent, Stroup was trying to figure out how to finance
NORMLNewman had his long-range plan clearly in view. Amorphia's
profits would go for a pro-legalization program that would include
a media campaign, a news service, a speakers' bureau, court tests
of marijuana laws, and expert witnesses to appear before state
legislaturesa program, in short, very much like the one Stroup
was proposing to Playboy. The money would be there. Newman estimated
that for each 10 percent of the rolling-paper market Amorphia
could seize, it would net $150,000 a year. Moreover, when marijuana
became legalby 1980, Newman estimatedAmorphia could produce
high-quality marijuana on communal farms, import the best foreign
marijuana, and once again use the profits for social change. He
estimated that the legal marijuana market would be about $3 billion
a year. If Amorphia could control one sixth of that, it would
gross $500 million a year, and should have a profit of $30 million
a year to put into social action.
It was a bold plan, to say the least, and for a time all went
well. By 1972 Amorphia's gross was something like $300,000.
Yet Amorphia was pulled in too many directions at once. It is
hard enough to start any new business, and it is almost impossible
when the profits, desperately needed for expansion, are given
away for political action. It is difficult to start a new business,
too, when its key executives spend large amounts of time tripping
on psychedelic drugs. Perhaps if Newman's business skill could
have been combined with Stroup's political talent, a formidable
program might have emerged, but that was not to be. The movement
was too small, and their egos were too big, for the two of them
to work together. They would soon become bitter enemies, and the
only question was which of them would force the other out of the
In September of 1971, when NORML and Amorphia met at the National
Student Association convention in Colorado, there was some political
back-and-forth: Stroup said he was thinking of starting a California
NORML; Newman said he was considering a Washington office. To
fight, or to merge? An uneasy compromise was reached by December:
Blair Newman moved to Washington, worked out of Stroup's basement
office, and called himself co-director of Amorphia and deputy
director of NORML. Both Newman and Stroup were convinced they
had co-opted the other.
At about that time there was great excitement in California. The
idea of a pro-legalization initiative on the 1972 ballot was spreading
In October a forty-year-old Foster City lawyer and law professor
named Leo Paoli began to think about an initiative. He called
John Kaplan, the law professor who had written The New Prohibition.
Kaplan agreed to help, and suggested that Paoli also call
There were a series of meetings, and by early December the reformers
had reached their first serious disagreement. Kaplan wanted the
initiative to propose full legalization, using the alcohol model,
with marijuana sold in liquor stores and with quality control
enforced by a new state agency. But there were two serious objections
to that. One was legal: State legalization would be in conflict
with federal law. The other was ideological: Mike Aldrich wanted
no part of a commercial, state-controlled, alcohol-model marijuana
system. Amorphia, he declared, would support no initiative that
did not permit personal cultivation: free backyard grass.
Amorphia got its way. The reformers rallied behind a simple decriminalization
proposal, which said no person in California over the age of eighteen
could be punished criminally for growing, processing, transporting,
possessing, or using marijuana.
By January of 1972 a new group, CMI, the California Marijuana
Initiative, had been created to direct the campaign, and a state
coordinator had been found for it. His name was Robert H. A. Ashford,
and he was a twenty-seven-year-old, Harvard-trained San Francisco
lawyer who had been active in the anti-war movement and was willing
to devote himself full time to CMI. Ashford was an intense, charismatic
figure, controversial from the first, and he and Stroup and Newman
were soon engaged in a bitter three-way rivalry.
Stroup opposed the California initiative when he first heard about
it, because he thought it would fail, but when it became clear
that Californians were going ahead, he had no choice but to lend
his support. Stroup's uncertainty about the initiative was intensified
in late December when he returned one morning from a trip to Chicago
to find Kelly and Blair Newman waiting at his home. They were
nervous, uneasy, bleary-eyed, the way people were when they came
down from an MDA trip. Stroup knew what was coming even before
they got the words out.
His marriage was already in serious trouble. Kelly had found out
about a number of his affairs, and she had told him, "Fine,
I still love you, but it's an open marriage now. You can have
your freedom, and I'll have mine, too." Stroup, preoccupied
with his work, had not taken her seriously, but now, as she confessed
that she and Newman had tripped on MDA and spent the night together,
he was forced to. He might have used the occasion to reflect on
his shortcomings as a husband, or her needs as a wife; instead
he flew into a rage, threw Newman out of his house, and soon moved
out himself, into a small room in NORML'S new row house on Twenty-second
Street, a room he painted blood red, as if to reflect his violent
state of mind.
The breakup of the marriage was long and painful. For more than
a year they would separate, then try again, for the sake of their
daughter, and because Stroup at some level still believed in marriage
and was guilt-ridden at his failure. But he was emotionally incapable
of either accepting sexual freedom in his wife or denying it to
himself. Nor was there any possibility that he would cut back
on his work or his travels. NORML was his life, and his family
came second; there was nothing he could do about it. One irony
of the situation was that drugs, particularly MDA, helped their
marriage, at least as far as Kelly was concerned. She had found
that when they were tripping, Keith would relax, would lose the
hostility he seemed to feel for her, would be sensitive and loving.
Once, when they were separated and she'd been seeing other men,
he came and spent Christmas with her and they tripped, and they
had a wonderful time. He told her, "Kelly, I can handle it
intellectually, but I can't handle it emotionally." That
summed up the problem. What she saw as equality he saw as a deliberate
attempt to torture him in the one way that could cause him the
Stroup's unhappiness after his separation was made worse because
he had almost no communication with his parents. Later that year,
stoned, Stroup told a writer, "I love this job, but it hasn't
been all fun. When I go home, my parents don't want to talk about
my work. They think it's somehow illegal. I tell them, 'Don't
be ashamed of me. I think I'm doing a moral thing. You don't have
to agree with me, but I wish you'd just think I'm a nice person
who's doing something he believes in.'"
After Stroup threw Newman out of his home, it was open warfare
between NORML and Amorphia. Stroup started telling people that
Amorphia was the "biggest setback to marijuana reform since
Harry Anslinger." Newman fired back with an article, published
in many underground newspapers, entitled "The Playboy Corporation
vs. the People," which charged that Stroup was Playboy's
front man in a scheme to take over the legal marijuana market.
That was the state of the reform movement as spring of 1972 arrived:
CMI was struggling to collect half a million signatures for its
initiative, and Stroup and Newman were trying to destroy one another.
Then, on March 22, something of great importance to them all occurred
back in Washington: The Marijuana Commission issued its report.
The thirteen-member commission, aided by a large staff, had spent
a year preparing its report on marijuana. It had held three sets
of public hearings, and countless private meetings with public
officials and with private citizens, including one group of respectable
Americans, doctors and lawyers, who were marijuana smokers. Members
of the commission had traveled to many foreign nations to talk
to scientists and political leaders. The commission had carried
out major public-opinion surveys to determine the number of people
who smoked and national attitudes toward smoking. It was the most
exhaustive study of marijuana ever conducted in the United States,
perhaps in the world, and the commissioners were citizens above
suspicion. Appointed by Richard Nixon, they included two U.S.
senators, two U.S. representatives, a Republican governor, and
various public-health officials, scientists, and law-enforcement
But on March 22, to the surprise of almost everyone, including
themselves and the president who appointed them, this eminently
respectable group reported to Nixon and to the nation that marijuana,
smoked in moderation, is in effect harmless and that its private
use should be legal and even its public use punished not by jail
but only by a fine.
Here, to be precise, is what the commission said about the effects
There is no evidence that experimental or intermittent use of
marihuana causes physical or psychological harm. The risk lies
instead in the heavy, long-term use of the drug, particularly
of the most potent preparations.
On the basis of these scientific findings, the commission made
specific recommendations for federal marijuana policy. Stripped
of the legal jargon, they were these:
Marihuana does not lead to physical dependency. No torturous withdrawal
symptoms follow the sudden cessation of chronic, heavy use. Some
evidence indicates that heavy, long-term users may develop a psychological
dependence on the drug.
The immediate effects of marihuana intoxication on the individual's
organs or bodily functions are transient and have little or no
permanent effect. However, there is a definite loss of some psychomotor
control and a temporary impairment of time and space perceptions.
No brain damage has been documented relating to marihuana use,
in contrast with the well-established damage of chronic alcoholism.
A careful search of literature and testimony by health officials
has not revealed a single human fatality in the United States
proven to have resulted solely from the use of marihuana.
Possession or use of marijuana in private would "no longer
be an offense," which in effect meant it would be legal.
The commission thus advocated a policy toward marijuana that went
by the mind-numbing name of "decriminalization," and
that they presented as a policy of official "discouragement,"
but the fact remained that as far as the use of marijuana was
concerned, it came very close to legalization. Just how this supposedly
conservative panel came up with such a radical proposal became
a matter of speculation. (Some years later, at the prison farm
where he was confined, former attorney general John Mitchell would
grumble to other, pro-drug inmates that he'd always known Raymond
Shafer was too wishy-washy to run that commission.) One of the
more liberal members of the commission would later say in an interview:
The private distribution of small amounts of marijuana for
no profit or "insignificant remuneration" would be legal.
Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in public would be
legal, although the marijuana could be confiscated.
The possession of more than an ounce of marijuana in public
would be punishable by a fine of up to $100, as would its public
Public distribution of small amounts for no profit would also
be punishable by a fine of up to $100.
To grow or sell marijuana for profit would remain criminal,
We operated under unusual circumstances. Law-enforcement people
were very cooperative with us, because we were perceived as conservative.
They were very candid about how they practiced selective enforcement.
We talked to "hanging judges" who were quite proud of
throwing the book at marijuana smokers. We talked to federal officials
who admitted they'd lied about marijuana for yearsit had been
official policy to lie. Some of us were impressed by the secret
meetings we had with successful people, doctors and lawyers, who
were smokersthey obviously didn't belong in jail. After a while
it became very hard to maintain the old myths. Of course, some
of us had children who smoked.
As is often the case with high-level commissions, the staff had
no small role in the Marijuana Commission's conclusion. The two
key staff members were Michael Sonnenreich, the staff director,
and Richard Bonnie, a University of Virginia law professor who
worked closely with Sonnenreich in drafting the commission report.
Bonnie had in fact published an article in the University of
Virginia Law Review in 1970 in which he called for decriminalization
of possession of four ounces or less of marijuana. One member
of the staff said, "Bonnie was always for decriminalization,
and Sonnenreich reached that conclusionhe was an honest man,
despite his reputation as a Nixon loyalistand they simply had
to mold the consensus, being very careful how they presented the
issues to the commissioners, until the commissioners did what
they wanted them to do."
Another factor was simply how damn much money we had. We could
do anything we wanted, go anywhere we wanted. If someone said
there was evidence of brain damage among smokers in Morocco, we'd
go take a look. Some of us visited as many as thirty countries,
and time after time the same thing would happen. We would talk
to the government officials and they would give us the official
line: marijuana use is very serious, we are concerned about it,
we want to work with your government to stamp it out. Then, that
night, we'd go out drinking with them, and they'd tell us the
truth: they thought marijuana was harmless, but the Nixon administration
wanted a hard line and they feared economic reprisals if they
didn't go along. It all came down to money. We saw so much corruption.
In one country, the king's brother had the hashish concession.
We went to some countries where they would let the Americans out
of prison before we arrived, and to others where they wouldn't
let us see the dungeons where they kept them. By the time it was
all over, and we'd seen all we had seen, there was really not
much debate. No one could argue that people should go to jail
for smoking marijuana.
In the course of its report the Marijuana Commission dismissed
many of the reefer-madness myths of the past: that marijuana was
addictive, that it led to violence, and that it led to heroin
and other hard drugs. Of the latter, the so-called "stepping
stone" theory, the commission said, "The fact should
be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of marihuana users
do not progress to other drugs. They either remain with marihuana
or forsake its use in favor of alcohol.... This so-called stepping-stone
theory first received widespread acceptance in 1951 as a result
of testimony at Congressional hearings.... When the voluminous
testimony given at these hearings is seriously examined, no verification
is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent
heroin use." What the commission found is that peer-group
pressure is the greatest factor on what drugs people use.
The commission's proposed decriminalization policy, while familiar
to people in the drug field, was a new idea to the nation at large.
One of the first public figures to respond to it was President
Nixon. He had appointed the commission and asked them for a national
marijuana policy. They had responded with findings and recommendations
that if ahead of their time politically were nonetheless bold
and sophisticated. The decriminalization concept was an attempt
to find a compromise between two powerful forces: widespread opposition
to marijuana use on the one hand and, on the other, a growing
sense that to jail people for smoking was a punishment that far
exceeded the crime.
The issuance of the Marijuana Commission report was a crucial
moment for American drug policy. Another president might have
endorsed the report, supported it with the power and prestige
of his office, reversed federal policy, and set off a wave of
legal reform in states across the nation. Had that happened, there
might have been decriminalization, if not outright legalization,
in all of America by 1980. It was not inconceivable that even
Nixon might have accepted the commission's report: If he could
climax a lifetime of zealous anti-communism by going to China
to embrace Chairman Mao, he might advocate not putting people
in jail for smoking marijuana.
But it was not to be. Two days after the report was issued Nixon
told a news conference, "I oppose the legalization of marijuana
and that includes sale, possession, and use. I do not believe
you can have effective criminal justice based on a philosophy
that something is half-legal and half-illegal."
By saying he opposed the legalization of marijuana, Nixon simply
ignored the decriminalization concept that the commission hoped
could bring a truce in the nation's marijuana war. The commission,
struggling with a hard social issue, and Nixon, content to play
election-year politics with the issue, were not speaking the same
While Nixon was rejecting his commission's recommendations, NORML
was embracing them. At first the report had set off a flurry of
debate within the pot lobby. Some of Stroup's advisers, notably
Harvard's Dr. Grinspoon, wanted to reject the decriminalization
concept. It was not intellectually honest, they said: If marijuana
was indeed harmless, it should be legal. These purists felt the
commission should have called for legalization and put forth a
plan for its implementation.
Stroup argued that NORML should embrace decriminalization as a
necessary step toward legalization, and this became NORML's official
position, although it criticized the commission on some secondary
issues, particularly the idea that marijuana use might prove to
be a fad. It was one of Stroup's most important decisions. The
Marijuana Commission soon went out of business, and its recommendations
would soon have been gathering dust had it not been for NORML.
Instead, as Stroup and other reformers testified before state
legislatures across America, they made the Marijuana Commission's
report their Bible. They praised the parts of it that were useful
to them (the scientific findings and the no-jail recommendation)
and ignored the parts that were not useful (the idea of discouragement).
Two years later when the anti-marijuana forces launched a major
counteroffensive, they rather lamely complained that the Marijuana
Commission's report had been "misinterpreted," which
was another way of saying they had been outfoxed.
It was a busy summer for Stroup. In July he, his wife, his daughter,
and Schott piled into Stroup's VW van and drove to Miami Beach
for the 1972 Democratic Convention. In a sense there was not much
for them to do there: McGovern was going to be the nominee, and
he was on record as favoring decriminalization. (Indeed, the eventual
McGovern-Shriver ticket was what Stroup called a "double-bust"
ticket, in that both candidates had children who had been arrested
on marijuana charges.) What the NORML delegation was mainly doing
was "working the Left"getting to know other reform
groups, such as the farm workers, the gays, the feminists, the
Yippies, and so on. Stroup spent a part of each day in the People's
Park, often hanging out at the Pot Tree, where the Yippies smoked
and sold dope. It was there that he met Tom Forcade, the Yippie
leader who would later become his close friend.
The next month, August, NORML held the first People's Pot Conference
at the St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. About three
hundred delegates came from thirty-six states, and NORML had put
together an impressive program for them. An economics professor
led a discussion of legalization. Dr. Grinspoon gave a biting
critique of the Marijuana Commission report, calling it "half
a loaf," but Rep. James Scheuer replied that in light of
the political realities, the report was "a minor political
miracle." An attorney reported on a lawsuit NORML had brought
to force the government to end or reduce marijuana penalties.
John Sinclair and Lee Otis Johnson, two well-known political activists
who had been imprisoned on marijuana charges and had recently
been released from prison, led a discussion of the use of marijuana
laws against political dissenters.
It was a good program, but Stroup wasn't sure all the delegates
were making the most of it. Many of them seemed mainly interested
in sitting out under the trees and getting high. On the last day
of the conference Stroup was standing outside the church talking
to Ed Miller, a bearded, balding disc jockey from Fort Worth.
As they talked, Miller started the engine on his car, produced
a small bag of marijuana, and calmly raised the hood of his car
and put the bag on the engine. The idea was that the heat of the
engine would dry the grass. He never got that far, however, because
two plainclothes policemen appeared and put him under arrest.
A crowd gathered, and as the cops led the disc jockey away, John
Sinclair was calling for everyone to storm the police station
to demand Miller's release. Stroup insisted he would go alone
to bail Miller out. Stroup got his way, barely, and the People's
Pot Conference broke up with that final confrontation between
the revolutionaries and the reformers.
Back in California a massive effort was under way on behalf of
the marijuana initiative. It was hampered, however, by constant
infighting between CMI, Amorphia, and NORML.
The situation improved somewhat after May 1, when a tall, neatly
dressed, twenty-eight-year-old Republican named Gordon Brownell
became CMI's statewide political coordinator. Brownell was to
remain a central figure in the reform movement throughout the
decade, and he was, with the possible exception of Stroup, its
most politically sophisticated leader.
Gordon Brownell's father worked for thirty-five years as a sales
representative for the American Can Company. Gordon lived most
of his first fourteen years in Westfield, New Jersey, and later
graduated from high school in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He got his
undergraduate degree from Colgate and his law degree from Fordham,
where he was vice-president of his class. He was always the most
conservative member of his family; his parents were Baptist and
Republican, but they leaned toward the Eastern, liberal wing of
their party. Gordon, by contrast, was a fervent Goldwater supporter
in 1964. He worked on the Nixon campaign in New York in 1968 and
was rewarded with a job at the White House as an assistant to
Harry Dent, the South Carolinian who was a top Nixon political
In May of 1970, anxious for more political experience, Brownell
became an assistant to the director of the Reagan reelection campaign,
but before the Reagan campaign ended, Brownell had been turned
on by drugs and turned off by the Reagan-Nixon brand of politics.
Brownell had smoked marijuana while in law school, as did most
of his classmates. He didn't smoke during his year in the Nixon
White House; but he did smoke with other young Reagan campaign
workers. His turning point came when he began using mescaline,
a drug that was, for him, truly mind-expanding. He was introduced
to the drug by a young woman, also a worker in the Reagan campaign,
with whom he had fallen in love. Their first mescaline trip together
was at the Grand Canyonthe most stunning experience of his
Reagan's victory was not in doubt, and in mid-October, three weeks
before the election, Brownell and the young woman drove for a
weekend at the Grand Canyonher first visit, his second. On
Saturday morning they drove around the rim of the canyon, taking
in its spectacular vistas, and in the afternoon they returned
to their campsite, built a fire, and took mescaline. As the mescaline
took effect, Brownell had a sense of flying, soaring above the
canyon, becoming one with its vast beauty. He could not have said
who he was. It was an ego-shattering experience; he was one with
the universe. For a time it seemed that both he and the woman
were outside their bodies and had achieved a spiritual and psychic
union that was more powerful and more beautiful than any emotion
he had ever known or imagined. He had a sense of being born anew,
and in fact Gordon Brownell's life would never be the same again.
Soon, the use of marijuana and of psychedelic drugs helped him
confront the great contradiction in his life: that the politicians
he was working for regarded him and his closest friends, including
the woman he loved, as criminals because they used drugs.
"I look upon the hallucinogenic drugs as an enlightening,
illuminating experience," Brownell said later. "They
made me see the contradiction between my work for Reagan and my
belief in individual freedom. I was working for people who pretended
to believe in individual freedom, but they didn't when it came
to cultures they disapproved of. Up until then I'd been very much
the upwardly mobile young man on the make. My drug experience
totally redirected me, into the direction I've been going ever
since. It was an eye-opening, mind-opening experience; if it wasn't
for the drugs, I might have stayed on the same path forever. I
came out of it with a clear sense of what I wanted for myself.
I didn't want to spend the next twenty-five years working for
a dying generation. Once I realized that, I felt a great sense
of freedom. Of course, it was a painful and confusing time for
me, because I had to break off personal and political relationships
with people I'd been close to, and I couldn't explain it, because
it would have only confirmed their view that drugs ruined people's
lives. But I saw myself differently.
"The young woman crystallized for me that it was people like
her who were most important to me, not the politicians who called
us criminals. I thought the Republican party had blown the youth
vote over the war, and I saw the marijuana issue as a way to win
back that vote, and also to be true to a libertarian, small-government
philosophy. I saw the older Republicans choosing to ignore reality.
I was present once when Reagan and his advisers talked about marijuana.
It was the first time I saw that the emperor had no clothes. I
thought, These people don't know what the fuck they're talking
about. That was when I started to question the whole thing. If
they didn't understand the marijuana issue, what did they understand?"
After Reagan's reelection, Brownell moved to the village of Anchor
Bay, some 120 miles north of San Francisco. He spent about nine
months working on a novel called "Jessica's Story,"
about drugs and the young woman he had loved. In the fall of 1971,
with his money running out and his novel unpublished, he accepted
an offer from his friend Kevin Phillips, the conservative writer,
to come to Washington for four months and help him start a newsletter.
One day in September he saw an item about NORML in the Washington
Star. He realized immediately what he wanted to doto
use his political skill on behalf of drug-law reformand he
quickly called Stroup.
Brownell soon became close to Stroup, Schott, and Dubois. He wanted
a job with NORML, but Stroup didn't have a place for him. Brownell
also met Blair Newman that winter, during Newman's brief stay
at NORML, and the following spring, as CMI got under way, Newman
invited Brownell to come to work for Amorphia, for $125 a week,
and be assigned full time to CMI.
That suited Brownell, and one evening in the early spring of 1972
he went by Stroup's house to break the news. "He blew up,"
Brownell recalls. "He viewed it as me going over to the enemy.
He literally threw me out of his house when I told him, but the
next morning he called to apologize."
Brownell gave CMI an immediate boost. He was the only person in
the operation with experience running a statewide political campaign.
Moreover, the big, soft-spoken Brownell was able to mediate between
the large egos of Stroup, Newman, and Aldrich. He organized a
massive signature-gathering effort outside the polling places
on June 6, primary day, with some 2000 CMI volunteers assigned
to key precincts. The effort was successful: By the June 19 deadline
CMI had gathered 522,000 signatures, and the marijuana initiative
was on the November ballot.
In the fall CMI had two main activities: voter registration, since
its natural supporters were people who didn't always vote; and
winning whatever free publicity it could for the issue.
There were certain types of standard publicity available to them.
Gordon Brownell, as a Reaganite turned pot activist, could give
interviews, and CMI staged several news conferences in which scientists
spoke in favor of reform. But the greatest amount of publicity
generated on behalf of CMI came from the antics of one Keith Lampe,
who held the honorary title of entertainment director of Amorphia,
and had previously been the Yippies' publicity director. A one-time
correspondent for the Hearst newspapers before he turned on, dropped
out, and became a founder of the Yippies, Lampe in 1972 was forty
years old, a slender, bespectacled man with a ponytail and a long,
scraggly black beard. Throughout the summer and fall, Lampe masterminded
a series of media happenings that generated publicity for the
cause, although the publicity was too exotic to please some of
CMI's more staid supporters. There was, for example, the stoned
Ping-Pong game, in which Lampe and an artist named Arthur Okamara
played a match high on marijuana. Another of Lampe's creations
was Jocks for Joynts. Dave Meggyesy, former NFL star linebacker,
was chairman of the Jocks, whose goal was to demonstrate that
marijuana enhanced, rather than impaired, their athletic abilities.
At one point the Jocks challenged an anti-marijuana organization
to a softball game, the Jocks to play stoned; the anti-pot forces
declined, and the Jocks claimed a great moral victory.
Lampe was also the genius behind Mothers for Marijuana and Grannies
for Grass. As he saw it, he was putting a friendly face on the
issue, showing that smokers were not all sinister hippies but
also mothers, grandmothers, people who liked Ping-Pong and softball.
Not everyone agreed. Lampe's antics enabled Stroup to grumble
that CMI was a bunch of freaks who wanted to settle a serious
issue in a softball game.
But the real issue was never softball; it was money and control
of the legalization movement. Stroup, as he contemplated CMI,
had mostly negative feelings. In the first place, he didn't think
the initiative could pass, and he was too wedded to a legislative
strategy to grant any value in a defeat. Moreover, he had to consider
what a CMI victory in California would mean to him. Almost certainly,
if the initiative won, Bob Ashford, the CMI director, would (with
some justice) proclaim himself the national leader of the reform
movement and would set out to direct initiatives in other states.
If that happened, NORML might be out of business.
The crunch came in July when Ashford sent the Playboy Foundation
an impressive fifty-page request for $80,000 to help finance CMI's
fall campaign. Stroup, learning of this, opposed it every way
he could. His power came from having exclusive access to Playboy's
money, and he wasn't about to share that money with anyone. CMI's
request was turned down, and its members were furious at Stroup.
In an effort to ease the situation Stroup sent the likable Guy
Archer from New York to California with a copy of the movie Reefer
Madness. Stroup had discovered that spring that the film was
in the public domain, and he bought a copy from the Library of
Congress for $297. It was the bargain of the year. NORML used
it for fund-raising, because 1970s smokers found hilarious its
portrait of young people driven to crime and madness by a single
reefer. Archer raced up and down California, showing the film
on college campuses, asking a dollar donation for admission, and
he raised $16,000 for CMI, enough to protect Stroup from charges
that he had done nothing for the California Initiative. Indeed,
he had not done nothing, only as little as possible.
On election day the initiative won a third of the votes33.47
percent, or 2,733,120 votes. It received 51.26 percent of the
votes in San Francisco County, 71.25 percent in Berkeley, and
ran ahead of McGovern in four counties. CMI immediately claimed
a moral victory. Stroup, in Washington, grumbled that anytime
you lose by two to one, you haven't done very damn well.
CMI was closer to the truth, as Stroup would in time concede.
There is a certain relativity in politics. For the Democratic
candidate for president to get 40 percent of the vote is a disaster,
but for a poorly financed proposal for what amounted to legal
marijuana to get a third of California's votes was certainly a
victory. California politicians, considering the CMI vote, and
the thousands of volunteers who worked for CMI had to ask themselves
what would happen if all that energy was directed foror againstthem.
They would realize, too, that time was on the marijuana movement's
sidethat 33 percent would inevitably become 51 percent, as
more and more people smoked.
Still, as 1972 came mercifully to a close, the immediate reality
was that CMI had lost, the Marijuana Commission report had caused
no dramatic turnabout in national opinion, and Richard Nixon had
been overwhelmingly reelected. The prospects for the reform movements,
to put it mildly, were not bright.