High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
Keith Stroup, who would in time become Mr. Marijuana, had a boyhood
as American as apple pie. Born two days after Christmas 1943,
he grew up on his parents' 160-acre farm on the outskirts of the
hamlet of Dix, in Southern Illinois. His parents, Vera and Russell
Stroup, were hard-working, God-fearing people, pillars of their
community. Russell Stroup's people had farmed in the area, but
by the 1950s he was a successful building contractor who drove
a Lincoln Continental and was the area's unofficial Republican
political leader. Vera Stroup's parents, Irvin and Effie Hawley,
lived nearby. Irvin had been a minerin time he died of black
lungand Effie worked in a dress factory and spent her weekends
quilting. As a boy Stroup loved to go squirrel hunting with Grandfather
Hawley, who always made a point of saving the squirrel heads,
which were considered a great delicacy when cooked, for his grandsons.
Keith had a brother, Larry, who was exactly one year older, and
the two boys were expected to work hard at home and in their father's
construction company. If they didn't, or if they missed Sunday
school or talked back to their parents, Russell Stroup was quick
to whip off his belt and administer fast, firm discipline. He
believed in the age-old admonition about sparing the rod and spoiling
the child. The elder Stroups were Southern Baptists, fundamentalists
who in theory opposed drinking, smoking, dancing, and related
worldliness, although in practice Russell Stroup liked a drink
now and then, a fact that grieved his wife. Vera Stroup was the
more zealous of the two. She was a cheerful, rather shy woman
who believed that truth and salvation were to be found in the
Good Book, strictly interpreted, and who used her considerable
strength of character to see that her husband and sons lived by
Both Stroup boys grew up in the church, often winning gold stars
for their perfect attendance at Sunday school, but their behavior
was often far from perfect. Like other boys of that time and place,
they sometimes shot cats, blew up mailboxes with cherry bombs,
got in fights, and avoided their chores, and once, when they were
in their early teens, a solemn delegation appeared at the Stroup
home: the local Baptist minister, a touring evangelist, and several
stalwarts of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Russell Stroup
ordered his sons onto their knees. The visitors had come to pray
for the two boys, whose behavior of late had put the future of
their souls in doubt. The brothers were horrified to find themselves
surrounded by weeping, chanting, praying adults. The Baptist religion
was increasingly a social embarrassment to Keith, although he
could not reveal that awful fact to his parents. Church continued
to be central to his life, particularly the tent revivals that
came to town twice a year and were a much-awaited highlight of
community life. Years later, when Stroup had become Mr. Marijuana
and was preaching his own version of hellfire-and-damnation on
the college lecture circuit, he would laugh at how much he had
learned from those backwoods evangelists who had saved his soul
twice yearly in his youth.
From boyhood, the Stroup brothers exhibited very different personalities.
Larry was an excellent student who married his high-school sweetheart,
became a successful businessman, and was always comfortable with
the Baptist Church, the Midwest, his parents, and his father's
political conservatismwith everything, in short, against which
his younger brother would rebel. In later years Larry thought
he was what Keith had rebelled against, that since he,
the older brother, had been a conformist, Keith had been forced
to become a rebel to gain attention and to carve out a separate
identity for himself.
Keith always thought he had been rebelling against what he saw
as his father's strict discipline, and, beyond that, against the
hypocrisy and oppression of his hometown and his church. Russell
Stroup, when his younger son shocked the family by becoming a
marijuana lobbyist, thought that the boy had taken after his mother,
that he had inherited her moral zeal but had applied it to a quite
different social standard. Vera Stroup, for her part, didn't think
Keith resembled her to any great degree. She really didn't know
how to explain his behavior (nor did she ever stop praying that
he would return to the teachings of the Church), but she suspected
that the turning point had come when he was thirteen and left
his hometown of Dix to confront the temptations of Mount Vernon,
Illinois, the nearby city where he attended high school.
The move from the little elementary school in Dix to the high
school in Mount Vernon was in fact traumatic for Keith. He had
grown up as a leader in Dix, but when he started riding the bus
to his new school, he discovered that his status had abruptly
changed. The Mount Vernon kids who were the social elite of the
high school looked down their noses at the country kids who rode
the yellow buses in from places like Dix. They viewed the bus
riders as farm kids, hillbillies, people of no social consequence.
Stroup was indeed a farm boy, but an ambitious one, and he moved
quickly to solve the crisis in his young life. Rather than be
stigmatized by emerging from the school bus each morning, he simply
quit riding the bus and began hitchhiking the ten miles to school
It was Stroup's first effort at image-making, at setting himself
apart from the crowd, and it was a success. He was bright and
articulate as well as ambitious, and he soon won the social acceptance
he so badly wanted. He was voted into Mount Vernon's exclusive
"teen club"; in time he was elected a class officer,
dating prom queens, and hanging out in the Mount Vernon pool hall
with the high school's "in" crowd. Sometimes he even
visited the local country club, to which some of his new friends
As he spent more and more time with his new friends in Mount Vernon,
Stroup was increasingly embarrassed by his home, by his father's
poor grammar and his mother's religious fervor. He was embarrassed,
too, when he visited his new friends' homes and realized how much
he didn't know about art and music, or when he went to dinner
at the country club and confronted the classic uncertainties over
which fork to use. He had by then offended his parents by leaving
the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, near Dix, to attend a Methodist
church in Mount Vernonthe move was social, not theologicaland
it would have hurt them more if they'd known he and his friends
soon quit going to church at all.
His parents of course resented the amount of time he spent with
his new friends in Mount Vernon. His mother was upset when he
and some friends were stopped by the police for driving a car
in someone's yard and were required to wash police cars for several
Saturday mornings. To the boys, of course, that "punishment"
was a badge of honor. His parents understood that their younger
son was rejecting their values, their culture, and it pained and
angered them. 'What's wrong with you?" his father once demanded.
"We're country people and we're proud of it. Why isn't Dix
good enough for you?" There was, of course, no answer to
the question, except the universal, unutterable truth: It just
Keith Stroup grew up resenting his father's strict discipline
and his lack of social polish, but the fact remained that he learned
his politics from him. Russell Stroup had for years been Dix's
most active Republican. He was a stocky, white-haired, long-winded
man, a classic courthouse politician, a horse trader, a teller
of tales, the country bumpkin who invariably outfoxes the city
slicker. For years he kept on good terms with the district's Republican
congressman, and he was at least on speaking terms with Sen. Everett
Dirksen. In 1968 Russell Stroup would reach the pinnacle of a
lifetime of party loyalty as one of a group of downstate Republican
leaders called to Chicago for a personal meeting with candidate
In the little town of Dix, Russell Stroup talked up Republican
candidates, handed out their campaign literature, gave them advice
on local matters, and in return had a measure of influence with
them and their staffs. When a farmer wanted his road blacktopped,
or when two aspirants sought one postmastership, it was to Russell
Stroup that they appealed for a political boost. When the family
visited Washington during Keith's teenage years, they rated VIP
treatment on Capitol Hill and a tour of the White Houseroutine
constituent treatment by Capitol Hill standards but dazzling to
a family from Dix, Illinois. And as Russell Stroup's construction
business flourished in the late 1950s, his custom of holding fish
fries had grown into an annual summer event to which hundreds
of friends and political associates were invited. Years later
Stroup would joke that those fish fries had inspired the annual
NORML conference parties, to which everyone who was anyone in
his world was invited.
His father's political involvement affected him in another important
way. Russell Stroup had a friend named Frank Walker, a Mount Vernon
lawyer and a state representative. When Walker ran unsuccessfully
for Congress, the elder Stroup was his campaign manager. Frank
Walker was the most impressive man Keith knew in those days, and
it was his example that made him decide, while still in high school,
that he wanted to be a lawyer; or, more precisely, that being
a lawyer was the best route to the money and social status he
saw as his goals in life.
Stroup's final break with his parents came just a few nights after
he graduated from high schoolthird in his class of three hundred.
He and some friends had started meeting weekly to play poker and
drink a few beers. They'd held their poker parties in the other
boys' houses, and Stroup thought he'd received his parents' permission
to hold one at their house. Perhaps he had, but around midnight,
when the laughter became too loud, his parents came down from
their bedroom and ordered his friends to leave at oncehis mother
in tears, his father shouting, both outraged that he had brought
drinking and gambling into their home. Stroup, equally outraged,
left with his friends. He hitchhiked to Yellowstone National Park,
found a job, and didn't return homeor bother to tell his parents
where he wasuntil Labor Day. After a brief, tense reunion with
his parents, he was off to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
It was the fall of 1961.
Stroup's first step in college, like that of any ambitious young
man of that era, was to join a fraternity. He lacked the connections
or social graces to be invited into one of the Big Three fraternitieshe
arrived at college sporting an elaborate flattop haircutbut
he joined Theta Chi, which prided itself on being one of the top
ten of the forty-odd fraternities on campus. He let his hair grow
out and was chosen social chairman of his pledge class, and soon
he was busy with the two great preoccupations of frat boys in
those days: dating sorority girls and drinking beer. At the end
of his sophomore year Stroup was elected vice-president of Theta
Chi for the next year. It was a great honor. It meant he had a
shot at being president of his fraternity, and perhaps an officer
of the interfraternity council. He was on his way to being a certified
Big Man on Campus.
Still, there were problems. One was money. His father's construction
company had failed a few years earlier. The family farm had to
be sold to pay debts, and Vera Stroup took a job as a nurse's
aide. Russell Stroup went to work as a federal housing officiala
reward from the Republican party for years of faithful service.
What all this meant to Keith was that he was on his own as far
as his college expenses were concerned. He could earn about half
of what he needed from summer and part-time jobs and borrow the
other half from government student-loan programs, but he was usually
a few months behind in his fraternity-house bill. Once, when it
seemed he'd never get caught up, he went to his rich unclehis
father's older brother, who'd had the good fortune to have oil
discovered on his farmand asked for help. The uncle declared
that he'd gladly lend the young man $500, provided he'd sign a
pledge promising not to smoke or drink until graduation. As it
happened, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer were basic to Stroup's
collegiate life-style, so he declined the offer.
Drinking would soon lead to Keith's downfall. First, in his sophomore
year, there was a drunken frat-house prank in which he and some
accomplices ordered pizzas sent to the sorority house across the
street, then sneaked across to steal pizzas off the truck when
it arrived. They were caught, and Stroup was put on probation.
That summer, not wanting to go home to Dix, Stroup attended summer
school. He rented an apartment and soon gave an informal rush
party that was thrice illegal: It was off campus, beer was served,
and women were present. Worse, a campus cop's son had attended
and told his father, and the next thing Stroup knew he had been
expelled from college for "conduct unbecoming a student."
Stroup's world had collapsed. Overnight he had gone from BMOC
to an embarrassment to his fraternity, an outcast, a reject. He
was too stunned to do anything but flee. He headed west, lit out
for the territory, like Huck Finn. In later years he would see
his expulsion from the university as the first step in his radicalization.
Broke, disgraced, jobless, hitchhiking west, he wanted to think
something was wrong, that the university had been hypocritical,
that he was being punished unfairly for doing what everyone did,
for drinking beer and chasing girls. But he had no support for
his resentment. His friends, his family, his fraternity brothersall
accepted that he had broken the rules and had been justly punished.
And the social conformism of the time was such that he was half
convinced they were right.
He caught a ride to Portland and found a job repossessing furniture
for a loan company. But there was no future in that, and when
the university refused to readmit him the next semester, he hit
upon a fallback position: He joined the Peace Corps.
Stroup had not been much impressed by the Kennedys or caught up
in the liberal idealism of the New Frontier. His interest was
campus politics, not national politics. He and a fraternity brother
had attended the first big civil-rights march on the University
of Illinois campus, but as observers rather than participants.
It was a candlelight procession in honor of some murdered civil-rights
workers, and Stroup thought it moving but not particularly relevant
to his life. In 1964 he would be vaguely pro-Goldwater.
Stroup's joining the Peace Corps was less a political statement
than a shrewd social move. If he couldn't get back into college,
the Peace Corps would give him a certain status, certainly more
than he would gain repossessing furniture in Portland.
The Peace Corps sent him to New Mexico to train for "rural
community action" in Colombia. It was not a prize assignment;
from what he could determine, his community action would consist
of building public toilets. He soon noticed that everyone in his
training class was a loser of some sortcollege dropouts, like
himself; people of dubious intellectual achievementand that
there were other classes in which the bright, young Ivy Leaguers
trained for the showcase projects. The truth dawned: "They've
put me in a class full of fuck-ups," Stroup raged, unable
to accept the possibility that he was himself something of a fuck-up.
Furious, he quit the Peace Corps. Told he had to write a letter
of explanation to get severence pay, Stroup gladly responded with
a five-page denunciation of the testing and classification program
that had, as he saw it, failed to recognize his talents. It was
the first of many disagreements he would have with the government.
He attended a small college in Kentucky for a semester, sometimes
bootlegging beer and whiskey for spending money, and in time the
University of Illinois readmitted him. Stroup's fraternity brothers,
far from welcoming him back, still considered him an embarrassment,
his illegal party having got the fraternity in trouble. Stroup
lived in the frat house for a while, but having seen the real
world, he was no longer impressed by the Joe College world. He
was running a Texaco station part-time, and it amused him to show
up for meals in his grimy overalls while his fraternity brothers
were trying to impress their dates.
He was as resentful toward the university as he was toward his
fraternity. He was on probation, obliged to report to the dean
once a month, like an ex-convict reporting to his parole officer.
By then, Stroup cared only about getting his degree. He did, in
August of 1965, and he left the next day for Washington, D.C.
"I got the fuck out of the Midwest without a wasted minute,"
he would later recall.
In Washington he quickly enrolled in law school at Georgetown
University, found an apartment, got another government loan to
help with expenses, and dropped by Senator Dirksen's office. There,
playing on his father's political contacts, he talked his way
into a $50-a-week job as an office boy. It was menial work, but
it provided him a useful view of Capitol Hill, and a sense of
how Congress operates, and left him in no great awe of the people
there. Senator Dirksen himselfthe Republican leader, the silver-tongued
orator, his father's great herostruck Stroup as a comic character
at best and an incoherent old drunk at worst. "This man
is helping run the country?" he would ask himself. It amused
him greatly one day, while operating the machine that signed the
senator's name to his letters, to spot a letter to his father
and to scribble at the bottom "Hey, Dad, you didn't think
he signed them, did you?"
The next summer, when Stroup was seeking a better-paying job,
someone in Dirksen's office suggested that he contact the senator's
friend Bobby Baker about a job at Baker's Carousel Hotel, in Ocean
Bobby Baker was under indictment then, awaiting trial on the tax-evasion
and other charges that would eventually send him to prison, but
he remained a popular, legendary figure in Washington. He was
a child of the Senate. He had gone there as a teenager, from his
home in Pickens, South Carolina, to be a page, and while still
in his twenties he had become the protégé of the
powerful Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson. Baker was famous
for his detailed knowledge of the senatorstheir pet projects,
their likes and dislikes, which way they might lean on a given
issue. And he knew, too, which senator liked a drink, which had
a roving eye, which might be interested in a profitable business
deal. He was a smart, charming, ingratiating young man, a reflection
of the Senate's darker side, perhaps, but a man who in his prime
understood the realities of Washington as well as anyone of his
Stroup and Baker hit it off, and Stroup was hired to wait tables
at Baker's hotel. Soon he advanced to manager of the hotel's nightclub,
and at the end of the summer Baker offered him a job in his Washington
office, the one that handled his various business interests. Baker
saw in Stroup the same instinctive political skill that he himself
had brought to Washington some years before, and Stroup, for his
part, liked Baker and was tempted by his offer. They were, indeed,
a great deal alike, enough alike for Stroup to realize that Baker,
however charming, was in a lot of trouble, and definitely not
someone to hitch his wagon to. So he thanked the older man and
returned to law school.
Something else happened to Stroup in Ocean City that summer: He
fell in love.
Her name was Kelly Flook. She was dark-haired, vivacious, and
very pretty, and in some ways she was much like Stroup. She, too,
had grown up on a farmnear Jefferson, Marylandhad gone off
to college at the state university, and was something of a rebel,
or at least she wanted to be. She had been a tomboy, an independent,
outgoing girl who grew up driving a tractor, and by her high-school
years she was dreaming of a career as an interior decorator. But
when she went off to college, her parents convinced her that this
wasn't realistic, that she was destined to be a wife and mother.
In those pre-feminist days the advice seemed indisputable, so
Kelly chose to be a home-economics major, vowing that if she was
to be a housewife, she would learn to be the best. Then she took
a summer job as a waitress in Ocean City and fell in love with
He seemed to be just the husband she'd dreamed of. He was bright
and funny and attractive, clearly destined to be a great success
as a lawyer, and he shared her goals of a family, a comfortable
home, a good life. At the summer's end she returned to Washington
to live with Stroup while she finished college at the nearby University
of Maryland and he completed his second year of law school.
The next summer Stroup worked for a lawyer he knew in Mount Vernon,
back in Illinois. The lawyer made a great deal of money, more
than $100,000 a year, and at the end of the summer he offered
Stroup a job and said he would make him a partner in two years.
It was a tempting offer financially, and it fit perfectly with
what for several years had been Stroup's general plan: to return
home, practice law, and then go into politics, perhaps by running
for Congress. But now, facing a decision, he realized he couldn't
go home again. He saw Southern Illinois as a cultural wasteland.
He couldn't live there, not for a million dollars a year. He was
hooked on Washington, on its glitter and intrigue, and the only
question was what niche he might find for himself there.
While he worked for the Mount Vernon lawyer that summer, Kelly
came out to spend a month with him. They were to be married at
the end of the summer, and this was a chance for her to be with
Keith and to get to know his parents. The encounter did not turn
out ideally, at least as far as Keith's mother was concerned.
Mrs. Stroup was not sure her son should be marrying so early,
she didn't approve of Kelly's long hair, and she definitely disapproved
of the young couple's living together under her roof before their
marriage. By the time the summer was over, Kelly had come to see
her future in-laws quite differently from the way Keith did. He
saw his father as crude and oppressive, and his mother as a kind,
long-suffering Christian, but Kelly saw Mr. Stroup as a warm,
good-natured man, a man who liked a drink and a laugh, and Mrs.
Stroup as cold and narrow-minded, always trying to force her strict
religious views on others. Kelly could never understand why Keith
resented his father so, because, as she saw it, if you allowed
for the generational difference, Keith was his father,
in the way he liked to drink, to joke, to talk about politics.
There was a problem as the newlyweds settled into their first
apartment and Stroup completed law school: The nation was at war,
and as Stroup's graduation neared, his most urgent priority was
to avoid the military draft. Two of his college fraternity brothers
had already died in Vietnam, and he wanted no part of the war.
He hoped to win some kind of deferment, but they kept changing
the rules; deferments for both marriage and fatherhood had been
discontinued. If he couldn't get a deferment, he knew an anti-war
psychiatrist who would testify he was homosexual. If that failed,
he planned to go to Canada. He was annoyed when Kelly said she'd
rather go to Canada than have him say he was gay; after all, she
knew better than anyone that he was not.
The fact that a rather straight, rather conservative, and devoutly
heterosexual young law student would consider fleeing the country
or declaring himself homosexual suggests the desperation that
millions of young men felt in those days. There are few things
like the prospect of an early death in a distant land to cause
young people to rethink their political assumptions. Stroup had
always been preoccupied with looking out for himself, but the
war forced him to think for the first time in generational terms.
In law school Stroup had been exposed to liberal ideas and had
begun to find new heroes. One was Phil Hirschkop, a recent Georgetown
Law graduate who was making a name for himself representing leaders
of the anti-war movement. Stroup and other law students who were
threatened by the draft began to attend anti-war rallies and to
look for leadership to the Hirschkops and Naders and others who
were challenging the government on every possible front.
Stroup and many of the lawyers of his generation were, in fact,
professional mutants. They had been trained to serve the American
establishment, but the war had forced them to be anti-establishment.
They remained intensely competitive, but prestige had become not
a high-paying job with a major law firm but rather a low-paying
job with Ralph Nader or some other public-interest cause. The
war produced a generation of reformers; Stroup, when he eventually
seized upon the marijuana issue to make his name, was only one
of the more colorful of them.
When Stroup saw a note on the law-school bulletin board that the
newly formed National Commission on Product Safety was interviewing,
he was quick to respond. The most urgent reason was his hope that
it might qualify him for a "critical skills" deferment
from the draft. A secondary reason was a sense that the commission's
pro-consumer role appealed to his budding liberalism. After he
was hired as one of four young lawyers on the commission, he found
out that two of the other three had applied, as he had, in hopes
of a deferment. He and another lawyer from the commission, Stuart
Statler, consulted a draft lawyer who, after hearing their stories,
laughed and said, "Fellows, there's no way they can draft
you." They would apply for a critical-skills deferment; if
that failed, they would seek conscientious objector status; and
by the time all appeals had been exhausted, they would be beyond
draft age. As it turned out, Stroup's draft board back in Mount
Vernon granted his critical-skills deferment without debate. Too
many hometown boys had died in Vietnam, and the draft board was
exempting anyone it could.
Safe from the draft, Stroup could concentrate on his new job.
The Product Safety Commission was called for by President Johnson
and created by Congress, but its spiritual father was Ralph Nader,
that unique political genius who in a few years had forged the
American consumer movement into a major political force. The commission,
which had only a two-year mandate, was feared and bitterly resisted
by industry, and it soon began to investigate and publicize such
problems as soft-drink bottles that exploded, toys that harmed
children, and lawn mowers that maimed people.
Stroup soon joined the pro-consumer faction on the commission's
staff. Consumerism seemed to him to follow logically from his
anti-war position: People had a right to buy soft drinks in bottles
that did not explode in their faces, just as they had a right
not to be sent to die in a senseless war. It was David versus
Goliath in either case: the average guy versus big government
and big industry. For Stroup, two years with the Product Safety
Commission was like a graduate course in practical politics. He
and the other pro-consumer staff members planned their strategy
sub rosa with Nader and with Michael Pertschuk, an influential
Senate aide who later became a controversial chairman of the Federal
Trade Commission. Stroup learned how the commission's public hearings
could be stacked, one way or the other, by the choice of witnesses.
He learned how important it was to make your case with dramatic
photogenic examples that would attract the media, like that of
the little black girl who'd been blinded by an exploding bottle.
He learned how a low-level staff member could outflank his boss
by a timely leak to Jack Anderson or to some other columnist.
That was the most lasting lesson he learnedthe power of the
media, the art of the leakand he would make ample use of it
soon, when he started his lobby for the consumers of marijuana.
Something else was contributing to Stroup's thinking by the end
of the decade: He was becoming a regular marijuana smoker.
In college he'd been vaguely aware that a few students smoked
marijuana, but they'd been considered the artsy-craftsy crowd,
oddballs. Stroup's only drug use in collegeexcept for beer
and whiskey, which of course weren't thought of as drugshad
been the amphetamine pills that he and some of his fraternity
brothers had used to stay awake and study for exams. They had
got them from another fraternity brother, a football player who
had an unlimited supply and who therefore made a little spending
money by selling them. Stroup and a few friends soon realized
that the pills"black beauties," they were callednot
only kept you awake but gave you a fine sense of euphoria, and
once in a while they took them just to get high. But booze remained
by far his and his friends' drug of choice in college.
He smoked marijuana a few times in law school without ever getting
high. At the commission, however, he became friends with another
young man who introduced him to serious smoking and who, in time,
would become his partner in NORML: Larry Schott, who had made
his way to the Product Safety Commission for the good and simple
reason that he had married a senator's daughter. Schott, who was
a few years older than Stroup, was a black-haired, dark-complexioned
man of Alsatian ancestry who had grown up in a small town near
Indianapolis, where his father was a tool-and-die maker in a GM
plant. After high school Schott went to work for the telephone
company, and he might have continued there except that in 1961,
so as not to be drafted, he joined the National Guard. During
his six months of training he met a lot of college boys, and he
decided to enter college himself. At age twenty-one he entered
Indiana University, where he soon met and married a young woman
named Sandy Hartke, whose father was the state's maverick Democratic
senator, Vance Hartke.
In 1964, Larry and Sandy moved to Washington, where he enrolled
m the University of Maryland, from which he later graduated. Then,
with a boost from his father-in-law, he became the Product Safety
Commission's chief investigator. Schott and Stroup soon became
close friends. Many of their colleagues at the commission were
Easterners, Ivy Leaguers, often Jews, and they felt a special
kinship as two young Midwesterners from working-class backgrounds.
Keith and Kelly had moved to a town-house development in suburban
Fairfax County, and Schott often visited them there, sometimes
bringing his friend Joe Sharp, a short, muscular, good-natured
man with long red hair. Joe had sold cars and real estate in the
Washington area and was starting to sell marijuana. The first
time Stroup got really highso high he couldn't sleep that nightit
was from eating marijuana brownies made with Joe Sharp's dope.
Another time he and Kelly smoked while playing bridge with some
friends. They hadn't even mastered the art of rolling joints,
but someone had an old cigarette-rolling machine. Soon they were
stoned, and the bridge game was forgotten. Keith rocked so obsessively
in a rocking chair that the chair broke. Then he became convinced
that someone was about to murder his and Kelly's new daughter,
and he raced home to save her. At another party they got so high
that the walls seemed to be closing in, and they all ran out into
the street for safety. Another time, Larry Schott, Joe Sharp,
and a friend of Joe's, a long-haired, tough-looking biker named
Ronnie, came to dinner. Kelly prepared her specialty, roast duck,
but they all got stoned before dinner, and someone dropped the
duck, and then Stroup became paranoid, convinced that Ronnie was
going to kill them all. After a few parties like that the neighbors
began to grumble, and one evening someone yelled in their door
"Fucking hippies"which upset Keith and Kelly,
who were, after all, hardworking, respectable, middle-class Americans.
In fact, Stroup was getting into the marijuana culture. He and
his friends were spending less time playing bridge in their suburban
apartment and more time getting high and going into Washington
to see Fantasia or Yellow Submarine. He had never
owned any sound system more elaborate than a clock radio, but
after the first time he got high and listened to rock music on
Schott's expensive stereo, he hurried out to buy one of his own.
Guided by Larry Schott and Joe Sharp, he began to attend rock
concerts by the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Elton John, and Leon
Russell, and to find out that rock music often reflected his own
views on politics and drugs.
Marijuana was an all-purpose drug. It made you laugh, it made
sex seem better, and it had political significance as well. Stroup
not only quit drinking whiskey but came to scorn it. The first
time Joe Sharp brought an ounce of dope by the commission's office
to share with them, they knew it was a symbolic moment: They might
be working for the government, but they would defy it, too, scorn
its rules and regulations. Stroup and Schott began to let their
hair grow longer; their sideburns were down to their earlobes
and sinking fast. They were caught up in a political rebellion
along with millions of other young Americans. They were turning
on, and if not quite dropping out, they were at least covertly
rejecting a society that supported the war and chose Richard Nixon
as its leader.
Keith and Kelly moved in the summer of 1970 from their rented
suburban town house to a house at 2105 N Street NW, in Washington.
Stroup had decided that the suburbs were sterile, the habitat
of Nixon's "silent majority"; Kelly felt isolated there,
alone all day with her infant daughter. Kelly's uncle had left
her $10,000, and they used half of it for a down payment on the
new house, which was located in a racially mixed neighborhood,
a mile or so from the White House. Soon, as the great Washington
anti-war rallies were held, Stroup would invite demonstrators
to camp out on their floor. At the appointed hour they would all
smoke some grass and then go march and chant and shake their fists
at Richard Nixon.
One day Joe Sharp was arrested while driving his Volkswagen van
in Washington. He was stopped for a traffic violation, and the
police found a small amount of marijuana in the van. He called
Stroup, who went and bailed him out. Stroup was outraged at the
way his friend has been treated. As he saw it, Joe had been stopped
arbitrarily, because he had long hair and was driving a van with
a peace sticker on it. The incident caused Stroup to focus for
the first time on the marijuana issue. He knew, as everyone did,
that tens of thousands of young people were being arrested each
year on marijuana charges; Joe's arrest had simply made that fact
personal for him. It infuriated him to think that he was classified
as a criminal by the marijuana laws, and that he could be arrested,
jailed, perhaps fired from his job, all for using what he viewed
as a mild intoxicant.
Law students were taught that for every wrong there is a remedy,
and it seemed to Stroup that marijuana smokers were the victims
of a great social wrong. Joe Sharp had won his case, on the grounds
of an illegal search, but you obviously couldn't fight the government
on a case-by-case basis. There should be some way to help marijuana
smokers as a group, as Nader had helped consumers as a group,
but for the moment Stroup could not see what it was.
As 1970 began, Stroup and Schott, who had by then separated from
Sandy, faced a more urgent problem than the marijuana laws. The
Product Safety Commission was going out of business that summer,
and they would be out of a job. As he pondered his future, Stroup
realized that he was pulled in opposite directions, caught between
cultures. Part of him still cherished conventional goals, but
another part was drawn toward public-interest law, something like
what Nader had done, something anti-establishment, but he didn't
Stroup and Schott often discussed some kind of marijuana project.
Perhaps a Nader-style program to change the laws. But how would
you finance it? Perhaps some kind of "bust insurance,"
to pay for bond and legal fees for persons arrested. They even
discussed the idea of producing a marijuana-related board game,
a smoker's Monopoly. Stroup had other, non-marijuana-related ideas
as well, for the idea of making a lot of money was very attractive
to him. One was for a pizza-franchise business. Another was a
scheme to fly women to London for legal abortions. Another involved
pork bellies. Then, on the Fourth of July 1970, one of his get-rich-quick
schemes blew up in his face.
He persuaded Kelly to let him invest $5000 of her money with Joe
Sharp, who would go to California and bring back several
hundred pounds of marijuana. Stroup hoped to double his investment.
But once Joe headed for California, the jitters began. He was
supposed to be back in five days, but he wasn't heard from for
ten. Stroup was in panic when Joe finally called. Everything was
fine, he said. He'd just been doing a little partying on the Coast.
He was home, and the trip had been a great success. Stroup breathed
a sigh of relief
Joe, reflecting his business success, had rented a comfortable
house in a respectable neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. Unfortunately,
he, his flashy new car, and the company he kept were all quite
conspicuous in the neighborhood. The postman had warned Joe that
police were watching his house, but he ignored the warnings, and
on the Fourth of July, soon after his return from California,
the police, armed with shotguns, raided Joe's house, arrested
everyone there, and seized several pounds of marijuana.
Keith and Kelly had been invited to spend the Fourth at Joe's
house, but they had gone to Ocean City instead, to spend a few
days at the Carousel Hotel. When Stroup got a phone call that
evening, telling him of Joe's arrest, he was close to hysteria.
If Joe named him as one of his partners, he would be arrested,
jailed, ruined. He imagined the police breaking down his door
at any moment. He and Kelly were staying in a room with a balcony
overlooking the ocean. It was a stormy night, and Stroup spent
hours on the balcony, watching lightning flash above the churning
sea, almost ready to jump. Should he flee? Or give himself up?
What would happen to his family? There were tears, embraces, promises:
If he got out of this mess, he would never smoke again, never
even look at marijuana again.
Around midnight there was a knock at the door. Stroup grimly opened
the door, expecting the police, but instead it was Joe, grinning
his mad doper's grin. Everything was cool. He had made bond. He
would never rat on his friends. The police hadn't even got all
the dope; most of it was safely hidden in a "stash house."
Stroup would even get his money back. Stroup felt as if he'd been
raised from the dead. There were tears, handshakes, laughter.
Finally, Joe produced some of his California grass and
they all got stoned.
When Stroup's job at the Product Safety Commission came to an
end that summer, he moved to a $16,000-a-year position with the
American Pharmaceutical Association, a lobby for the nation's
pharmacists. He never took the job very seriously, for by then
he was obsessed with starting some sort of marijuana-law project,
and he and Schott were starting to spend all their spare time
seeking out ideas and support for the new venture.
One thing Stroup and Schott did not know, as they talked endlessly
about the marijuana laws and how to change them, was that across
America other people were thinking the same thing. In San Francisco
a talented young man named Blair Newman was starting a nonprofit
corporation called Amorphia, which was going to sell rolling papers
and use the proceeds to work for marijuana-law reform.
At about the same time, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, two
young lawyers named Guy Archer and Frank Fioramonti were talking
about introducing a marijuana-legalization bill in the state legislature.
Also in New York at that time, officials of the rich and prestigious
Ford Foundation were concerned about the explosion of drug use
in America and about the probability that the Nixon administration
would respond to it only with negative, law-and-order programs.
Their concern would soon lead to the creation of the Washington-based
Drug Abuse Council, which would press for drug-law reform.
By 1970 these groups and others were responding in different ways
to the fact of widespread drug use and widespread imprisonment
of drug users. Soon the various groups would discover one another.
Sometimes they would form alliances; sometimes they would do battle
for control of the emerging reform movement. But Stroup and Schott,
as they planned their marijuana project, were unaware of the other
reformers, and their plans drew upon their own experience as young
men in Washington: Nader's example, their work at the Product
Safety Commission, their fairly sophisticated understanding of
the political process. They kept coming back to the idea of a
Nader-style operation, a public-interest lobby, one that would
represent straight, middle-class smokers like themselves, one
that would use legal means to change what they saw as unjust laws.
By the fall, Stroup even had a name for his proposed project:
the National Organization to Repeal Marijuana Laws. Acronyms were
fashionable, and NORML seemed a good one. Schott, more cautious,
insisted the R should be "reform," not "repeal."
No, Stroup declared, you had to be out front about it: They wanted
One of the people Stroup turned to that fall, as he sought advice
and encouragement, was a former attorney general, Ramsey Clark.
He had read Clark's book, Crime in America, and had been
deeply impressed, not simply by Clark's call for legalization
of marijuana but by Clark's compassion and social vision. In his
darker moments Stroup feared this whole idea for a marijuana-law-reform
program was crazy, but if Ramsey Clark thought it made sense,
then perhaps it would be worth pursuing.
Ramsey Clark was then one of the most controversial men in America.
He was a tall, jug-eared Texan who as Lyndon Johnson's attorney
general had championed the legal rights of the poor and called
for an end to wiretapping, for tighter gun controls, and for the
abolition of the death penalty. Richard Nixon, running for president
on a law-and-order platform in 1968, largely ran against Clark,
who became Nixon's symbol of the "jellyfish" liberal
who was not tough on crime and criminals.
Clark had a law office in Washington. He also had a secretary
who was very skeptical about callers who wanted to talk about
marijuana. Eventually Stroup talked his way past her, however,
for the first of what became several conversations with Clark.
To Stroup's immense relief, Clark took his plan seriously. In
essence what Clark said was this: Do it. What do you have to lose?
You're a lawyer, and if it doesn't work, you can always do something
else. But if you believe in your idea and you don't give it a
try, you'll regret it the rest of your life.
Once, speaking of the opposition Stroup might expect, Clark reflected
on the criticism he had received when, after leaving office, he
visited Hanoi with a group of anti-war leaders. He viewed this
as a mission of peace, but when he returned, he was confronted
by reporters asking if he wasn't a traitor, if he hadn't given
aid and comfort to America's enemy. Clark recalled the outrage,
the helpless fury, he had felt, the same kind of anger and frustration
he had felt when Martin Luther King was killed. But you can take
the criticism if you know you're right, Clark said. It can be
tough, but you can take it.
Clark had one specific suggestion: Make it the National Organization
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, not Repeal. "Repeal"
was a scare word, Clark cautioned, but there was a long and honorable
tradition of political reform in the United States. Stroup had
been unconvinced when Larry Schott made the same suggestion, but
he followed Clark's advice at once.
Clark gave Stroup the names of six or eight small foundations
that might support his project. Stroup quickly approached them
all, and one by one they turned him down. It was a discouraging
time. Marijuana-law reform was too hot an issue for these traditional
supporters of liberal causes. Then, one Sunday afternoon, Keith
and Kelly went for a walk and dropped by Ralph Nader's office,
and a lawyer named John Esposito asked if they'd tried the Playboy
Stroup had never heard of the Playboy Foundation, but he was soon
on the phone with its staff director, Margaret Standish. By early
February, Playboy had dispatched one of its senior executives,
Bob Gutwillig, to Washington for a talk with Stroup, Schott, and
a third young man who had joined forces with them, Larry Dubois.
Dubois was a writer, a tall, thin, bearded, energetic man of about
Stroup's age who had attended Princeton, worked in Time's Washington
bureau, and then set out on a free-lance career. The way he and
Stroup met was typical of the way Stroup was operating that winter.
Keith had read a book called Marijuana: The New Prohibition,
by John Kaplan, a law professor at Stanford. Kaplan, a political
conservative, had been hired by Gov. Ronald Reagan to recommend
a new state marijuana policy. He studied the issue in depth and
recommended that marijuana be made legal. Reagan quickly fired
Kaplan, who published his report in book form. When Stroup called
Kaplan, seeking ideas and support for NORML, Kaplan suggested
that he seek out a "young conservative" named Dubois
who had reviewed his book favorably for William Buckley's National
Review. It turned out that Dubois lived not far from Stroup
in Washington, and he was not a conservative at all but a liberal
and a marijuana smoker who happened to have become friendly with
Buckley. Dubois shared Stroup's enthusiasm for NORML, and he became
Stroup's close friend and a member of NORML's board of directors.
After the meeting with Gutwillig, Stroup submitted his proposed
program, which included a pamphlet explaining the marijuana laws,
a direct-mail fund-raising program, model legislation, a newsletter,
and public-service television spots. Stroup asked for about $20,000
for the first six months of the program. Also, he counted on a
free advertisement in Playboy to bring in tens of thousands
of dollars more.
Stroup was invited to come to Chicago and meet Hugh Hefner and
members of the Playboy Foundation's board. Upon arrival he went
to dinner with Burton Joseph, the Chicago lawyer who headed the
foundation. Stroup proceeded to get drunk; as a committed smoker
he had lost his capacity for alcohol. At noon the next day, as
he waited, nervous and hung over, to see Hefner and the foundation's
board of directors, Stroup met a slender, funny, fast-talking
woman who would soon become important in his life: Bobbie Arnstein,
Hefner's executive assistant, who reassured him that Hefner was
extremely interested in his proposal. Why else would he have got
up for a noon meeting, which for Hefner was like getting up at
As the meeting began and members of the foundation's board began
to question him, it was clear that many of them were extremely
skeptical about venturing into the marijuana controversy. All
of which mattered not, because Hugh Hefner liked the idea of NORML,
for reasons that were not immediately clear to some of the people
who were close to him.
Hefner was not at that time a frequent marijuana smoker. He would
take an occasional puff if a friend passed a joint his way, but
he did not keep marijuana for his personal use or allow its use
in his mansions. Nor had America's growing marijuana controversy
touched his very sheltered life. None of his friends had been
busted for marijuana; nor did he have any reason to think the
authorities would ever concern themselves with whatever occasional
drug use might go on in his mansions. Still, he was aware that
thousands of people were being arrested for smoking marijuana,
and that fact outraged him, for reasons that were basic to Hefner's
very complex nature.
Hefner, looking back on his youth in a 1980 interview, recalled
two great influences on his boyhood. One was a strict Midwestern
Methodist upbringing that left him sexually repressed, with a
deep, painful conflict between his emotional needs and his acquired
sense of right and wrong. As Hefner saw it, he had spent his adult
life freeing himself from puritanical sexual repression, and he
had, through his magazine, helped millions of other Americans
fight that same battle for sexual liberation.
The other great influence on the young Hefner was movies. As a
teenager he had been an usher in a movie theater, and Hollywood's
world of illusion often seemed more real to him than the world
that awaited him outside the theater. Of the hundreds of movies
he saw, none made a greater impression on him than those of Frank
Capra. In Capra's films, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
and Meet John Doe, the hero was always a lone idealist
who challenged the powers that be. That became Hugh Hefner's vision
of the future: of himself, no longer young and lonely and uncertain
and anonymous but a knight on a white charger who would slay the
dragons of intolerance and, not incidentally, win the fair princess
who awaited him in some shining tower.
Hefner had, as an adult, acted out his boyish fantasies to a remarkable
degreenot only his sexual fantasies, although it was for those
that he was most famous, but also his political fantasies of the
lone crusader. In founding Playboy, he successfully challenged
the obscenity laws. His Playboy Foundation challenged the sex
laws that in many states were used to jail homosexuals or even
heterosexuals who had engaged in "crimes against nature."
Thus, to Hefner, a challenge to the marijuana laws was consistent
with his commitment to the cause of individual freedom.
He therefore instructed his foundation to support NORML. But because
he was a cautious man and his commitment was to the issue, not
to Stroup or NORML, he advised going slowly. Thus, a few days
later, Stroup got a call from Burton Joseph that shocked him.
The foundation would give him $5000 to get started.
"Five thousand dollars?" Stroup raged. "Do you
think I'm going to quit my job and go out into the cold, cruel
world for five thousand dollars?" Joseph assured him
that the five thousand was just a start, that if he did a good
job, there would be more money. Stroup was uncertain. He had envisioned
an $18,000 salary for himself and enough money to guarantee at
least a year's program. If NORML folded, he might lose his house,
and he wondered if any respectable law firm would hire a failed
marijuana lobbyist. He was burning a lot of bridges for $5000.
He talked to Schott and Dubois, and they encouraged him. But they
were not the ones taking the chance. Finally he made his decision:
He would do it. The money arrived, he quit his job, and NORML
was in business.