High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
What Stroup did not fully understand, as he started NORML, was
that he was injecting himself not so much into a social issuein
the sense that the League of Women Voters might concern itself
with clean airas into a war, a very one-sided war against marijuana
and its users that had been raging for a long time. It was a war
that had been aggravated both by the war in Vietnam and the election
of Richard Nixon, but its origins went back at least to the turn
of the century.
The origin of the word "marijuana" is unclear. One scholar
suggests it derives from mariguango, Portuguese for "intoxicant."
Another scholar thinks it came from "Maria y Juana,"
Mexican slang for soldiers and whores in the era of Pancho Villa.
Whatever its origin, "marijuana" is the word by which
Americans have come to know Cannabis sativa, which most
of the world calls "Indian hemp." It is a weed-like
plant that requires little or no cultivation, will grow almost
anywhere there are hot summers, and can reach a height of ten
or fifteen feet. Its fibers can be used to make rope, baskets,
bags, cloth, even sheets and napkins. Moreover, its leaves, if
smoked or eaten, produce a state of intoxication. There are references
to its use as an intoxicant in Chinese literature dating back
to 2000 B.C. and in Greek medical journals dating to 500 B.C.
From earliest times, one scholar notes, there has been dispute
as to whether the hemp plant lined the road to Utopia or to Hades.
The first American crop of Indian hemp was planted in 1611 near
Jamestown, Virginia, and soon there was a thriving hemp-farming
business in the Colonies, providing bagging, marine rope, and
clothing. George Washington was a hemp farmer, and modern marijuana
cultists have used enigmatic notes in his diaries to claim the
father of our country as a smoker. In truth, if anyone in those
days knew marijuana was an intoxicant, it was a well-kept secret.
Hemp remained a crop, like corn or cotton, but one that was doomed
by the abolition of slavery and the decline of the ship-building
industry. (Then, as now, whiskey was the American passion; Washington
called alcohol "the ruin of half the workingmen in this Country,"
and Jefferson warned with his usual prescience that we would soon
become "a nation of sots.")
Across the Atlantic the use of hashish, a more powerful, compressed
form of marijuana, became fashionable among French intellectuals
in the 1840s. Baudelaire, Balzac, and others formed the Club des
Haschischins and held weekly meetings in an elegant apartment
on the Ile Saint-Louis. Their hashish supply came from a friendly
physician, who obtained his supply from Algeria. Hashish can be
smoked, like marijuana, but the Frenchmen chose to eat it, which
produces a far more intense state of intoxication than smoking.
There is no evidence that this experimentation among French artists
influenced Americans, but in 1854 an American writer named Bayard
Taylor published a magazine article about his experience with
hashish while visiting Damascus, and one of the readers of his
article was an impressionable eighteen-year-old college student
named Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who soon became the first American to
proclaim to his countrymen both the joys and the horrors of hashish.
Ludlow was born in 1836, in New York City, the son of a prominent
abolitionist minister. He grew up in upstate New York, a well-educated,
widely-read, religious young man, and he found that Taylor's article
on hashish moved him "powerfully to curiosity and admiration."
He therefore managed to obtain some hashish from a doctor, who
kept it on hand as a sedative, and soon he was eating large quantities
of the drug. As a result, he had hallucinogenic experiences much
like the LSD trips college students would embark on more than
a century later.
After two years of hashish use, the twenty-year-old Ludlow wrote
a remarkable memoir called The Hasheesh Eater, which was
published anonymously in 1857 and was devoted almost entirely
to depicting, in the ornate prose of the era, the heavens and
hells of drug use. In his mind Ludlow had voyaged through the
universe; he had spoken to God, visited magical kingdoms; he had
been attacked by devils with red-hot pitchforks. By the time he
wrote the book, drugs had caused in him periods of suicidal depression,
and the book was intended to discourage drug use, although it
may have had the opposite effect. One avid reader of The Hasheesh
Eater was an eighteen-year-old student at Brown University
named John Hay, who was moved to obtain and eat some hashish.
He told a friend it was "a marvelous stimulant to the imagination,"
and after graduation he looked back on the days when he "used
to eat Hasheesh and dream dreams" in a "mystical Eden."
Drug use did not impede Hay's later career. At age twenty-two
he became an aide to President Lincoln, and he was later a distinguished
novelist, poet, and secretary of state.
America was developing a serious drug problem in the late nineteenth
century, but it had nothing to do with hashish. The hollow-needle
hypodermic syringe was invented in 1854, and during the Civil
War, injecting wounded soldiers with morphine was common. Morphine
addiction was widespread after the war, so much so that it was
called "Soldier's illness." Moreover, the postwar era
saw a proliferation of patent medicines, most of them opium-based.
By the turn of the century there were an estimated twenty to thirty
thousand drug addicts in America, mostly as a result of the patent
medicines. The typical addict was white, male, and rural, and
public opinion toward him was sympathetic: He was seen as a sick
person but not as a criminal.
Attitudes were changing, however. The severity of the addiction
problem was one reason, and another was the rise of immigration.
Native Americansmostly Protestant, with Puritan heritagetended
to look down on the newcomers, and one reason was the supposed
immorality of the latter, which was thought to manifest itself
both in drunkenness and in drug addiction. When Congress passed
the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, to regulate patent-medicine
sales, it in effect declared that drug addicts were criminals.
The Harrison Act, according to Dr. Norman Zinberg, assistant professor
of psychology at Harvard, "ushered in the modern era of repression
of drug use." In time the new law did reduce the number of
opium addicts in America, and by then the forces of morality had
moved on to a new target: the prohibition of alcoholic beverages
It was against this cultural and political background that marijuana
use was introduced to America early in the century by Mexican
field-workers who came across the border into Texas and other
Southwestern states. By the early 1920s New Orleans had become
a marijuana-importing center, with boatloads of the weed arriving
from Mexico, Cuba, and Texas and moving upriver to St. Louis and
cross-country to other large cities. Black dock-workers in New
Orleans were soon smokers, as they and other laborers learned
that a marijuana high made their routine chores more bearable.
New Orleans jazz musicians were also discovering the weed. Louis
Armstrong once recalled, of his early days in New Orleans, "One
reason we appreciated pot was the warmth it always brought forth....
Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you 'heep
much.' But the price got a little too high to pay, law wise. At
first you was a misdemeanor. But as the years rolled by you lost
your misdo and got meanor and meanor." Armstrong was arrested
for marijuana possession in Los Angeles in 1931 and spent ten
days in jail before he was released with a six-month suspended
As Armstrong's comment suggests, the spread of marijuana was soon
followed by the imposition of harsh sanctions against it. Marijuana
use was made a felony in Louisiana in 1925, and many other states
followed. The first states to act were Southern and Southwestern,
and their motivation was primarily racial. Marijuana was seen,
correctly, as a drug primarily used by blacks and Mexicans. This
was a time when lynchings were frequent and racial fears were
growing. There were rumors that marijuana gave black men superhuman
strength, violent sexual desires, and otherwise caused them to
challenge their ordained place in society. Newspapers attributed
horrible crimes by blacks and Mexicans to marijuana use. By 1930,
the year the federal Bureau of Narcotics was created, sixteen
states had passed laws against marijuana, and Harry Anslinger,
the head of the new bureau, soon made a federal marijuana prohibition
his top priority.
Harry Jacob Anslinger, America's first great anti-marijuana crusader,
was born in 1892 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, attended Penn State,
embarked on a diplomatic career, made a name for himself pursuing
rumrunners in the Bahamas, and by 1929 had switched to the Treasury
Department and become assistant commissioner of prohibition. By
then, of course, the prohibition of alcohol was recognized as
a colossal failure, but despite that fact, or perhaps because
of it, America was soon to attempt a new prohibition, this time
Anslinger was known for his hard-line views on the enforcement
of Prohibition, an attitude that would not change when he turned
his attention from liquor to marijuana. The Prohibition laws made
it a crime to sell, manufacture, or transport liquor, but not
to buy it. Anslinger proposed in 1928 that the purchase of liquor
be made a crime, with six months' imprisonment for a first conviction
and two to five years for a second conviction. Cooler heads prevailedthe
Hoover administration had enough troubles without locking up all
the nation's whiskey drinkersbut when Anslinger became commissioner
of narcotics, there was no opposition to his hard-line policy
toward drugs other than alcohol.
Anslinger was a contemporary and a rival of the most formidable
bureaucrat in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. Both men headed
law-enforcement agencies despite having had little or no law-enforcement
experience; both men's success came from their brilliance as bureaucrats
and their ability to use the press to serve their purposes. Hoover,
over the years, had far more to work with: He had the Red Menace,
Bonnie and Clyde, the Nazi Menace, atom spies, and an endless
succession of Public Enemies, and he used them to make himself
a national hero, feared and deferred to by the presidents he served.
Anslinger, by contrast, had little to capture the public imagination
except a weed that was smoked by a relatively small number of
poor blacks and Mexicans, plus a few jazz musicians and intellectuals.
It was therefore a tribute to his imagination and energy that
he was able to turn this little-known and relatively innocuous
plant into the Killer Weed, a menace to life and health that would
soon strike fear into the hearts of millions of God-fearing, law-abiding
Americans who had never smoked marijuana, had never seen any,
and had never known anybody who had.
By 1936, as legislation to outlaw marijuana was nearing Congress,
he and his agents were busy giving out blood-curdling tales of
marijuana-inspired crime and violence, tales that enlivened hundreds
of newspaper and magazine articles. One favorite anecdote, which
turned up in article after article, concerned the polite young
man in Florida who smoked one reefer, then picked up an ax and
killed his father, mother, sister, and two brothers. Never in
history have so many mothers been ax-murdered, so many virgins
lured into white slavery, so many siblings decapitated, as in
the heyday of Anslinger's anti-marijuana campaign. The spirit
of the era was most perfectly captured in the 1936 movie classic
Reefer Madness, in which casual marijuana use was shown
to lead swiftly to murder, rape, prostitution, addiction, madness,
In the spring of 1937, testifying before the House of Representatives
on the anti-marijuana bill, Anslinger granted himself a good deal
of historical and literary license when he declared, "This
drug is as old as civilization itself. Homer wrote about it, as
a drug which made men forget their homes, and that turned them
into swine. In Persia, a thousand years before Christ, there was
a religious and military order founded which was called the Assassins,
and they derived their name from the drug called hashish which
is now known in this country as marijuana."
Almost no one had anything good to say about marijuana at the
congressional hearings. The only serious dissenting voice was
that of Dr. W. C. Woodward, legislative counsel for the American
Medical Association, who protested, first, that future medical
uses might be found for marijuana, and, second, that no serious
evidence had been presented to support the charges that marijuana
caused crime and violence. For his trouble, Dr. Woodward was insulted,
ridiculed, and sent on his way.
The billofficially, the Marijuana Tax Actwas passed, and
became law on October 1, 1937. Soon, many more states passed laws
making the use or sale of marijuana a felony. In the next few
years there would be various scientific studies that said that
marijuana was not addictive and did not cause crime or personality
change or sexual frenzy, but these were invariably ignored or
In 1938 New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed a team of
scientists from the New York Academy of Medicine to study the
medical, sociological, and psychological aspects of marijuana
use. The study included tests on seventy-seven inmates in the
city jails. A report was issued in 1944 that directly challenged
everything Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics had been saying.
It said smoking marijuana did not lead to mental or physical deterioration,
to addiction, or to crime or violence. It was the most complete
study of marijuana ever conducted in America, but Anslinger quickly
denounced its "superficiality and hollowness" and charged
that its authors "favored the spread of narcotic addiction."
Perhaps more significant was the response of the American Medical
Association. Several years earlier, the AMA spokesman was ridiculed
at the congressional hearing when he questioned Anslinger's anti-marijuana
orthodoxy. The AMA saw the error of its ways, and in 1945 an editorial
in the Journal of the American Medical Association said
of the La Guardia report, "Public officials will do well
to disregard this unscientific, uncritical study, and continue
to regard marihuana as a menace wherever it is purveyed."
Thereafter the AMA was solidly in the anti-marijuana camp.
As the 1940s began, the Second World War stole the spotlight from
Anslinger and his "devil's weed," but he had done a
remarkable job. He had created a mythology that made it impossible
to debate a marijuana issue in America: There was no issue, because
marijuana was universally accepted as so insidious a drug that
society had no choice but to use the harshest measures against
It was possible to grow up in the America of the 1950s in blissful
ignorance of marijuana. It was something, like flying saucers,
that happened to other people. Robert Mitchum, the actor, was
jailed for smoking marijuana in Los Angeles, and Candy Barr, one
of the great Texas ladies of her time, was sent to prison for
possession; Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac wrote about smoking
the weed. But this was not the mainstream. If the average young
American wanted to get high, he or she did so in the same way
that dear old dad had in decades past: with beer busts and gin
dins, with purple passions and hurricanes, with mint juleps and
Singapore slings, with Scotch, bourbon, vodka, wine, and all the
other forms of alcoholic delight that were easily available and
socially acceptable. The first question, then, is why, in the
mid-1960s, did large numbers of young Americans choose to risk
imprisonment to get high with a new intoxicant, marijuana?
There are various theories. Dr. Norman Zinberg, one of the nation's
leading experts on drug issues, thinks television has been a major
factor in conditioning young people to use drugs. Television presents
a restricted world, he says, a world confined to a twenty-four-inch
box, and young people turned to marijuana and other drugs as a
means of "boundary diffusion," of freeing their minds
from an imprisoned view of reality.
Sen. James Eastland, after holding hearings in 1974 on the "marijuana-hashish
epidemic," concluded that "the epidemic began at Berkeley
University at the time of the famous 1965 Berkeley Uprising"
and warned that "clearly subversive groups played a significant
role in the spread of the epidemic."
Dr. Robert DuPont, a senior government drug-policy figure in the
mid-1970s, suggests that a multiplicity of factors contributed
to the spread of marijuana: the "baby boom" and the
pressures it put on the schools; the breakdown of the family;
the prevalence of television, which he says makes young people
look for "quick, passive gratification"; and, finally,
a kind of "me first" attitude throughout society.
Another factor, perhaps the crucial one, in turning young people
toward marijuana was the war in Vietnam.
Once the war was over, almost everyone wanted to forget it, the
people who opposed it no less than the people who made it. But
the trauma was real; the scars ran deep, perhaps deeper than anyone
yet understands. The war cut a generation adrift. Millions of
young Americans who had grown up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance
were suddenly chanting "One, two, three, four, we don't want
your fucking war." And they were the lucky ones; the unlucky
ones were being maimed and killed in a country that few Americans
had heard of a few years before. It was a time of madness, an
Orwellian time in which "peace with honor" meant more
bombing, and in which villages had to be destroyed in order to
be saved. Confronted with this madness, millions of young people
rejected the culture that had produced the warrejected their
parents, their pastand set out to build their own counterculture,
their own world, and it was imperative that the new world be as
different as possible from the one they had left behind.
It was a time of symbols. Long hair was a symbol. Casual clothing
was another. Rock music became a symbol, toobad times often
create good artand Frank Sinatra gave way to Bob Dylan, Patti
Page to Janis Joplin. Dylan, more than any artist of his time,
looked into the eye of the madness and fused it with his personal
vision. Songs like "Tombstone Blues" and "Desolation
Row" are nothing less than distillations of the madness,
art at the edge of the abyss. On one great 1965 album he sang
two songs that seemed to state definitively both the madness and
the possibility of escape from it. One song, "Subterranean
Homesick Blues," told it all in three minutes: the police,
the paranoia, the drugs, the alienation. It even gave a name to
the terrorists who were still to come: the Weathermen. The other
song, "Mr. Tambourine Man," was at once an invocation
of the muse and an exquisite hymn to drugs. (Several years later
Hunter Thompson dedicated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to
Dylan, specifically "for 'Mr. Tambourine Man.'")
Marijuana, like rock music and long hair, was another symbol of
rebellion for the young. It was illegal, it produced a nice high,
and it drove parents up the wall: Who could ask for more? Young
blacks had smoked during the civil-rights movement of the early
1960s, and they passed the habit along to young white activists,
and as the civil-rights movement gave way to the anti-war movement,
marijuana-smoking began to spread rapidly. Pot was not easy to
come by at first, unless you grew your own, but the law of supply
and demand operates in a counterculture as elsewhere, and soon
informal distribution networks spread across the country and into
If smoking spread in the mid-1960s for essentially negative reasons
defiance of authorityits proponents would nonetheless argue
that the custom endured, and reached millions of otherwise undefiant
people, for a positive reason: It was fun, and it provided a better
high than alcohol.
Marijuana became the Achilles' heel of the counterculture. The
dominant culture might hate the dirty clothes and the long hair
and the rock music, but it was difficult (not impossible, but
difficult) to punish people for those offenses. It was simplicity
itself, however, to arrest young people for the weed in their
pocket. J. Edgar Hoover, in a 1968 memo to all FBI field offices,
said, "Since the use of marijuana and other narcotics is
widespread among members of the New Left, you should be alert
to opportunities to have them arrested by local authorities on
drug charges." Others might equivocate, but Hoover saw the
marijuana issue with perfect clarity: It was a way to put his
enemies in jail. Throughout the drug debate, up to the present
day, there has been that ugly undercurrent. Many sincere people
may worry about health hazards or teenage drug abuse, but there
are always those in authority who simply want power over other
Because of the war and the angry passions of the time,
marijuana became politicized, evolving into a central symbol in
the most bitter generational dispute in American history. To the
young, smoking marijuana (or pot, dope, grass, weed) became a
kind of communion, a rite that affirmed generational unity, that
demonstrated their willingness to run risks with their peers.
But that very willingness made smokers all but defenseless against
Smoking spread, too, in another, quite different way. If millions
of young Americans, particularly college students, began smoking
while protesting the war in Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of
others began smoking while they were in Vietnam fighting that
war. When they returned home, many GIs brought their smoking habit
back to the small towns and working-class lives that awaited them.
They, too, were often arrested.
Originally the drug laws had been aimed at immigrants and at
the poor blacks and Mexicans who were virtually the only marijuana
users in America. Now it was young, white Americans, with their
long hair and their dirty talk, who had become the foreigners,
the alien culture, the threat to respectable America. And so the
marijuana arrests rose: from 18,000 in 1965 to more than 220,000
in 1970, the year Stroup first conceived of NORML.
Inevitably, the mounting arrests led to the first stirrings
of protest and political action. As best as anyone can say, the
American legalization movement began on August 16, 1964, when
a young man walked into a San Francisco police station, lit a
joint, and asked to be arrested. His lawyer was an ultraconservative
civil libertarian named James R. White III, who proceeded to form
LeMar (for Legalize Marijuana), which sponsored the first marijuana-law-reform
demonstrations in America in San Francisco's Union Square in December
of that year.
LeMar soon began to spread. Poets Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg
started a chapter in New York early in 1965 and organized demonstrations
outside several prisons. By 1966 there were chapters in Cleveland,
Berkeley, and Detroit, where the poet John Sinclair was among
the founders. In the fall of 1966 a graduate student named Mike
Aldrich began organizing a chapter on the Buffalo campus of the
State University of New York. The chapter would fold in time,
but Aldrich would be a key figure in the legalization movement
for years to come.
Michael R. Aldrich was a slight, bespectacled, bookish young
man who grew up in South Dakota, discovered marijuana as an
undergraduate at Princeton, smoked hashish while a Fulbright scholar
in India, and then returned to SUNY's Buffalo campus to seek his
doctorate. He soon became friendly with Leslie Fiedler, the literary
critic. When Aldrich started the LeMar chapter, he persuaded Fiedler
to be its faculty adviser. He also persuaded Fiedler to let him
write his thesis on "Cannabis Myths and Folklore." Mike
Aldrich, soon to be Dr. Michael R. Aldrich"Dr. Dope"
to his friendsthus began a career that would combine his passion
for drugs, history, and scholarship.
LeMar's chapters began to fold after the violence at the Democratic
convention in Chicago in August of 1968. Most activists by then
thought their very survival was at stake and that focusing on
the marijuana issue was a luxury they couldn't afford. Just after
Chicago, however, Aldrich and Sanders started the Marijuana
Review. By 1970 LeMar consisted mainly of Aldrich and of occasional
issues of the Review, a journal of interest only to hard-core
smokers. Aldrich had also worked as Allen Ginsberg's secretary
and written a book entitled Free Marijuana, which he couldn't
get published; his publisher said it was "too emotional."
Just then, with LeMar fading and Dr. Dope's future uncertain,
Aldrich got a call from Blair Newman, who said he had a plan to
work for legal marijuana. They founded Amorphia, the California
group that soon would contest NORML for leadership of the reform
By 1970 marijuana was becoming an issue in presidential politics.
In 1968 Richard Nixon had campaigned for law and order, but drugs
had not been at the core of the issue. When Nixon needed to make
good on his law-and-order promises, he turned to drug control
as his surest bet, and, aided by John Mitchell and G. Gordon Liddy,
he declared a much-publicized war on marijuana, heroin, and other
Such was the national mood when Stroup began NORML. It could be
said that to start a marijuana-law-reform program at the peak
of the Nixon era was an act of madness. Victory was too distant
a goal even to define. To stay solvent and out of jail would be
a considerable achievement. Still, as an ambitious young lawyer-activist
looking for an issue to call his own, Stroup had chosen well.
He would later say that discovering the marijuana issue in 1970,
with no one working on it, was like finding out in 1965 that no
one was opposing the war in Vietnam. He had a potential constituency
of millions of smokers. He had potential allies, too, in people
like Ramsey Clark and John Kaplan, who were calling for a more
rational policy toward marijuana. The immediate challenge was
to unite all these people, from hippies to Harvard professors,
in a political alliance. The larger challenge was to confront
the mythology, to persuade millions of nonsmoking Americans that
the problem was not "reefer madness," as they had been
told for so long. It is unwise, certainly, to abuse any drug,
but the challenge to NORML was to convince America that the time
had come to refocus its concerns; that when a nation began putting
thousands of its young people in prison for using a mild intoxicant,
the problem had become something larger, something deeper, than
reefer madness, something that might more properly be called American