High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
After the unexpected victory in Oregon in the summer of 1973,
the marijuana-law reformers waited anxiously for the walls of
resistance to come tumbling down. For a long time they waited
in vain. The rest of 1973 passed, and all of 1974, without another
state following Oregon's example, although many states were considering
Then, in 1975, the dam broke. Five statesincluding two of the
nation's largest, California and Ohiopassed decriminalization
bills. The most obvious reason for this dramatic breakthrough
was political: In August of 1974 Richard Nixon resigned from the
presidency in disgrace. A month later, his hand-picked successor,
Gerald Ford, granted Nixon pardon for whatever crimes he had committed
in the Watergate affair. Two months after that, the voters of
America took revenge on Nixon's political party by ousting Republican
incumbents in Congress and in the state legislatures in record
There was a new, post-Watergate mood across the land. In Washington
this new mood was most perfectly expressed in the person of Dr.
Robert L. DuPont, the director of the White House Special Action
Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (ODAP, to its friends), who delivered
the keynote speech at NORML'S third annual conference, in November
of 1974, just three months after Nixon's resignation.
DuPont was a tall, handsome, sandy-haired man in his late thirties,
a psychiatrist who was rapidly making a name for himself as a
drug expert. He was an engaging, outgoing man, a natural politician
who was quick to explain that he was not one of the rich chemical-company
duPonts. He was, however, blessed with aristocratic looks and
self-confidence. He had gone to Emory University, in Atlanta,
where he was a friend of both Tom Bryant and Peter Bourne, and
from there to the Harvard medical school, where, in the early
1960s, he tried marijuana a few times but never managed to get
high. By the early 1970s he was gaining a national reputation
as the head of a methadone program in Washington, D.C., and in
June of 1973, although he was a registered Democrat, he had been
recruited by the Nixon White House to head its anti-drug program.
He would later say that he had favored an end to jail penalties
for possession of marijuana since 1970, but "knowing of the
strong feelings of President Nixon opposing any move toward 'decriminalization,"'
he "carefully avoided any comment on the issue until [Nixon]
turned over the presidency to Gerald Ford."
With Nixon out and Ford in, DuPont gladly accepted an invitation
to address the NORML conference and to declare that criminal penalties
had not prevented marijuana use, had needlessly disrupted lives,
and should be replaced by a noncriminal fine, perhaps twenty-five
dollars or so. For NORML, to have the top White House drug-policy
adviser endorsing its no-jail policy as DuPont's old friend Tom
Bryant, another speaker at the conference, beamed his approval
was dramatic proof both that the dope lobby had achieved respectability
and that there was a thaw taking place after the long, cold winter
There was, to be sure, no national surge toward legal marijuana,
but as the state legislatures convened in January of 1975, there
was a growing sense that the existing laws were too harsh. Democrats
in many states were in their strongest position in ten years,
and many of the new Democratic legislators were young, had used
marijuana and other drugs, and were committed to marijuana-law
reform. The reformers sensed the stirrings, and their hopes were
high, nowhere more so than in California.
When the new legislature convened in Sacramento, the Democrats
held a fifty-five-to-twenty-five majority in the assembly and
a twenty-five-to-fifteen majority in the senate. Moreover, Ronald
Reagan, who had vetoed several marijuana-reform bills, had been
succeeded as governor by Jerry Brown, who had said in his campaign
that he favored a law based on the Oregon model. Also, the Democratic
leader in the state senate, George Moscone, who was committed
to reform and had sponsored several bills in years past, was determined
to pass a decriminalization bill in 1975. Part of Moscone's motivation
was that he was planning to run for mayor of San Francisco. It
was a city that had voted decisively for the CMI proposal in 1972,
and a decriminalization bill would obviously be popular there.
Moscone's closest ally, through six months of intense political
conflict, was NORML'S man in California, Gordon Brownell. Throughout
the first half of the year, Brownell spent two or three days a
week in Sacramento, working out of Moscone's spacious majority
leader's office. There was no friction or suspicion to the relationship.
Moscone regarded Brownell as he might a member of his own staffexcept
that his services came for free. Moreover, besides Brownell's
help, NORML was willing to spend whatever had to be spent to fly
in witnesses, get out mailings, and otherwise support the California
Stroup largely stayed out of California, partly because he trusted
Brownell's political judgment and partly because he had a dozen
other states to worry about. But California was always number
one in his thinking. It was the nation's most populous state,
it was the scene of roughly a fifth of the nation's marijuana
arrests (eighty-eight thousand in 1975), and it was an acknowledged
political style-setter for the rest of the nation. Stroup went
all over America that spring promising that decriminalization
would soon pass in California. He put NORML'S credibility on the
line, and he came to think that if the reform bill didn't win
in the Golden State, NORML would be wiped out politically.
By the time the new legislature convened early in January, Moscone
and Brownell had agreed on the sort of bill Moscone would introduce.
The original bill was more liberal than they thought would pass,
in order to leave room for negotiation. Existing California law
still made possession of any amount of marijuana a felony punishable
by up to ten years in prison. The Moscone bill proposed to make
possession of up to three ounces of marijuana an "infraction,"
punishable by a fine of up to $100. Existing felony penalties
for sale or cultivation would remain unchanged.
It was not enough to satisfy the puristsit did not allow free
backyard grassbut Moscone and Brownell thought it realistic.
If their bill passed, 90 percent of the hundred thousand people
who were being arrested in California on marijuana charges each
year would not face jail, only a citation and possible fine. It
was a start; cultivation could come later.
Hearings were scheduled for February in the senate judiciary committee,
a graveyard for past reform bills. Seven votes were needed for
passage therea majority of the committee's twelve membersand
those seven were by no means certain. As it developed, the decisive
vote belonged to a newly elected Democrat named Robert Presley,
who had previously been the undersheriff of Riverside County.
Moscone had campaigned for Presley, and Presley wanted to support
Moscone's bill, but he and others on the committee thought up
to three ounces of marijuana was too large an amount to decriminalize.
Also, they didn't like calling possession an infraction; they
wanted to call it a misdemeanor, even if only a fine was provided
Presley was supported in these concerns by the lobbyist for the
District Attorneys Association, who said many DAs would oppose
the "infraction" terminology but might not oppose the
bill that called possession a misdemeanor. Brownell and Moscone
agreed to fall back to one ounce, but they were more concerned
by the infraction/ misdemeanor issue. In one sense, it was only
face-saving terminology for the law-enforcement people, but in
another sense it went to the heart of the question of whether
or not smoking was a crime.
Finally, knowing that without Presley's vote the bill might die
in committee, they agreed to the "misdemeanor" terminology,
but they extracted some concessions in return, notably a provision
calling for the destruction of the felony records of more than
half a million people who had been arrested in California in past
years for simple possession.
When the bill thus amended, hearings began. Tom Bryant came to
testify and brought with him a new, politically important survey
of attitudes toward marijuana in California. The poll had been
conducted by the respected Field Research Organization and paid
for by the Drug Abuse Council. It showed that 46 percent of those
questioned favored a civil-fine approach to marijuana use. It
also showed that only 9 percent of Californians were regular marijuana
usersa figure that could be used to counter Senator Eastland's
claim of a marijuana epidemic. To legislators the survey strongly
suggested that a vote for reform was politically safe in California.
Pat Horton, Steve Kafoury, and Stafford Hansell came from Oregon
and attested to the success of decriminalization in their state.
NORML paid for the expenses of their trip.
The bill was not without opposition. A lady from the Women's Christian
Temperance Union asked if NORML might not be a Communist front.
Dr. Hardin Jones, of the University of California, a star of the
Eastland hearings, claimed that regular marijuana use could cause
loss of memory, sterility, and chromosome damage equal to that
of survivors of the Hiroshima blast. Another outspoken opponent
of reform was Los Angeles police chief Ed Davis, an unannounced
candidate for governor, who warned an American Legion convention
that marijuana use was probably responsible for poor test scores
in California schools and added that George Moscone was becoming
the Marie Antoinette of Californiaone who said "Let them
smoke pot" instead of "Let them eat cake."
The bill cleared the judiciary committee with the bare seven votes
required, and went next to the full senate.
Twenty-one votes were needed in the senate, a majority of its
forty members, and those twenty-one were by no means certain.
Everything depended on Moscone's personal leadership. He was the
Democratic leader, he was popular, and he was calling in his IOUs
on the marijuana bill. He was able to win the vote of the conservative,
seventy-five-year-old dean of the senate who had opposed previous
reform bills. He swung the vote of a Chicano senator who had strong
anti-drug feelings. It was an intense, all-out effort by a first-rate
politicianMoscone the Magnificent, Brownell would call him
in later yearsand even so, his bill cleared the senate on March
20 with only the minimum twenty-one votes it needed, and that
included the support of two liberal Republicans.
The reformers celebrated that night. The senate had traditionally
been the more conservative of the California legislature's two
houses. The assembly, with its more than two-to-one Democratic
majority, and with several Republicans favoring reform, seemed
to pose no problem. Brownell, in a memo to Stroup, predicted smooth
He was wrong.
The reform bill's sponsor in the assembly was Alan Sieroty, who
represented Beverly Hills and had worked for reform in the past,
but the two key actors in the drama there proved to be the Democratic
speaker, Leo McCarthy, and a conservative Republican gadfly named
John Briggs. In early May, as a vote neared, Brownell began to
hear rumors that conservative Republicans, led by Briggs, would
try to evoke unit rule on the marijuana bill. This meant that
if two-thirds of the Republican caucus opposed the bill, they
could require the other third to oppose it, or at least abstain
from voting, or else lose all party rank and privileges. However,
unit rule had almost never been invoked in the assembly, so Brownell
hoped the talk of its invocation was some sort of bluff.
It wasn't. On the morning of May 8, the day the vote was scheduled,
the Republicans caucused, and John Briggs argued forcefully for
unit rule. The Republican leaders opposed his proposal; several
of them planned to support the reform bill. Briggs was, in effect,
leading a conservative rebellion against his party's more liberal
leaders. But there was more than factional hostility here. Briggs,
an outspoken, publicity-prone politician who later allied himself
with Anita Bryant's anti-homosexual crusade, had a very clear
strategy in mind.
As he and many Republicans saw it, their party had been decimated
the previous year by an issue that had nothing to do with them:
the sins of Richard Nixon. They were fighting for survival, and
if the Democrats wanted to go out on a limb on the marijuana issue,
why give them a free ride? If every Republican in the assembly
opposed the bill, several things would happen. For one, they could
probably defeat the bill and thereby embarrass Moscone and other
Democrats who had put their prestige on the line. Moreover, if
every Republican opposed reform, a clear-cut issue would be raised
for the 1976 elections: The Democrats would be the pro-pot party.
In particular, a pro-marijuana vote might be enough to defeat
several of the first-term Democrats who had been elected in 1974
in traditionally Republican districts.
The Republican caucus did invoke unit rule, outraging Republican
liberals who had planned to vote for the reform bill and sending
into panic several Democrats who had hoped their votes would not
be needed to pass it.
There was a further complication that hectic Thursday morning.
Assemblyman Willie Brown's "consenting-adults bill"
was voted on and passed narrowly; it removed criminal penalties
for homosexuality and was sometimes called the "gay bill
of rights." The timing was terrible: It was very hard for
many Democrats to vote for both gay rights and marijuana reform
on the same day.
Worried Democrats started streaming into Speaker McCarthy's office,
particularly the first-termers from conservative southern California
districts. His advice: Don't walk into the trap. Don't support
the marijuana bill. McCarthy wanted to postpone the vote. He knew
that one pro-reform legislator was in Europe, and that a vacant
assembly seat would soon be filled by a pro-reform liberal. McCarthy
had his majority to think about. Why should young Democrats risk
their careers on a pro-marijuana vote when, in a month or two,
the bill might pass without their votes' being needed?
To wait, or to vote? Moscone, Sieroty, and Brownell debated the
issue, amid much confusion. Sieroty wanted to wait, but Moscone
and Brownell wanted to go ahead, despite the speaker's recommendation.
They thought they could still count forty-one votes, even without
They were wrong.
The vote was thirty-eight to thirty-four, a majority of those
voting, but still three votes short of the forty-one needed. Three
first-term assemblymen the reformers had counted on had backed
away, apparently at the urging of Speaker McCarthy.
Brownell called Stroup in Washington to break the news. Brownell
was outraged, furious. He had been waiting five years for this
vote, waiting since the days when he worked for Ronald Reagan,
and now all his hopes and efforts seemed down the drain.
Stroup, hearing the news, could only mutter, "Oh, my God."
So much was riding on Californianot only NORML'S credibility
but perhaps the fate of reform bills in five or ten other states.
Stroup was soon on his way to California, not because he had a
plan to save the day but because he didn't know what else to do.
The reformers were furious. Moscone spoke bitterly to reporters
about legislators whose only concern was self-preservation. It
was not clear, in the immediate aftermath, whether there would
be a second vote, or whether the bill would pass if there was.
Brownell was more angry at Speaker McCarthy than at anyone else.
He started calling FM radio stations, asking announcers to tell
their listeners to call Leo McCarthy if they didn't like what
the assembly had done. Within hours McCarthy's lines were tied
up by hundreds of calls, and that afternoon he took the extraordinary
step of calling Brownell, asking him to call off his troops, and
giving his personal assurance that the bill would pass when it
came up for a second vote.
The question had become one of timing. In retrospect, the reformers
had been wrong to push for the first vote, and it was imperative
they not make the same mistake twice. There had been several reasons
Brownell and Moscone had ignored McCarthy's advice and demanded
the first vote. One was that political crusades take on a certain
momentum; they are easier to start than to stop. Passions are
aroused; hopes are high. To stop becomes a kind of political coitus
interruptus: easier said than done.
Also, the marijuana reformers lived in fear that some sudden development
might swing public opinion against them. Senator Eastland might
hold new hearings, or some scientist might claim that marijuana
caused cancer, or some Manson-type atrocity might be blamed on
drugs. (Later, in Michigan, after a reform bill had narrowly passed,
its sponsor was bitterly denounced by another legislator, who
said his son had smoked marijuana and it had led him to heroin
and to death. With passions thus aroused, another legislator attacked
the bill's sponsor with an ashtray, and when the dust settled,
a second vote was taken and the bill was defeated.)
Perhaps most important, California was the keystone of NORML'S
national strategy. In California itself it didn't matter if the
bill passed in May or November; it would still go into effect
on the first day of 1976. But NORML was counting on early passage
of the California bill to have a domino effect, to blast loose
the passage of bills in perhaps five or ten other states. It was
imperative that those bills pass in 1975, because the next year,
1976, was a national-election year, a time when many legislators
might not risk a pro-reform vote. It was now or never, or so it
When Stroup arrived in Sacramento, Brownell took him around to
meet several Democratic assemblymen, one of whom took him for
an outside agitator and threw him out of his office, whereupon
Stroup carried his lobbying campaign to Beverly Hills, where he
rallied rich liberals to contact their assemblymen. The Playboy
mansion was made available for lobbying efforts, a fact that reflected
Hefner's intense interest in the legislation.
The second vote came on June 24. The Republicans invoked unit
rule again. During two hours of emotional debate, Assemblyman
Willie Brown, a black liberal, waved a hand-rolled cigarette and
declared that people who smoked a few joints were not criminals.
(He later said the joint was made of tobacco). John Briggs, the
anti-gay, anti-pot leader, gave the Democrats a candid summary
of his political strategy: "It's quite possible that in 1976
your platform will be 'Grass, Gays, and Godlessness."'
The bill needed forty-one votes, and it got forty-two. In Brownell's
eyes the heroes of the second vote were two first-term Democrats
from conservative districts who voted no the first time but switched
to yes on the second vote. One of them was Floyd Mori, a Mormon
who neither smoked nor drank. The reformers had succeeded in convincing
him that a vote against jail penalties did not amount to an endorsement
of marijuana. The other convert was Richard Robinson, a former
Marine officer in Vietnam who decided that as a matter of conscience
he could not oppose reform, even if his vote was not needed and
might harm him politically.
The bill's passage was denounced by Ed Davis, who said the legislature
was favoring "pansies and potheads" and urged Governor
Brown to veto it. In fact, Brown postponed action on the bill
until it was within hours of becoming law without his signature;
then he signed it with a minimum of ceremony. Still, he signed
it, and on the first day of 1976, California stopped putting people
in jail for smoking marijuana.
A state agency later conducted a survey of the results of the
new law in its first year. It found that arrests dropped from
about eighty-eight thousand in 1975 to about ten thousand in 1976
(these were for possession of more than an ounce), and about forty
thousand citations were issued for possession of less than an
ounce. An estimated $25 million in police and court costs was
Finally, in the 1976 elections, there was a political footnote:
None of the Democrats who supported the reform bill was defeated.
That spring, as the battle raged on in California, strange things
were happening in Alaska.
The Alaska saga actually began in 1972, with two young lawyers
sitting around one evening smoking marijuana and grumbling about
the marijuana laws. The two lawyers in Alaska were about thirty
years old, and their names were Robert Wagstaff and Irwin Ravin.
Wagstaff was a native of Kansas City who had done his undergraduate
work at Dartmouth. It was there, in 1961, that he first smoked.
Marijuana was not readily available in those days, but Wagstaff
was a jazz fan, and some black jazz musicians introduced him to
the weed. He returned to the University of Kansas law school,
then moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he became an assistant
district attorney. It was in Fairbanks that he met Ravin, a native
of Newark, New Jersey, and a graduate of Rutgers. Later they moved
to Anchorage and practiced law together.
They also smoked marijuana, and as they talked that night in 1972,
they agreed the legal and political climate in Alaska was such
that a good test case, with the right client, could overturn the
marijuana laws. But who would be that client?
That question was left unresolved. Then, a couple of nights later,
fate intervened in the person of a Fairbanks policeman who stopped
Ravin because a taillight was out on his car. It was a routine
traffic violation. All Ravin had to do was sign the citation and
go on his way. But Ravin decided the time had come to take a stand.
Knowing he had a couple of joints in his pocket, he refused to
sign the citation. That left the arresting officer no choice but
to take him to the station. There he was routinely searched, the
two joints were found, and the case of Ravin v. Alaska came
Wagstaff and another lawyer, R. C. Middleton, filed a motion to
dismiss the charges before trial, arguing that the state law prohibiting
possession of marijuana was unconstitutional because it violated
the right of privacy guaranteed by both the U. S. and the Alaska
constitutions. In a sense, the issue was not so much legal as
political. Reformers in other states had made the same right-of-privacy
arguments and had always been turned down. But Alaska was not
like other states. It was a frontier. People went there for privacy,
for freedom; for Alaskans the right of privacy came near to being
sacred. That, at least, is how Wagstaff hoped the courts would
see things, and he was aware that the Alaska supreme court was
the youngest and most liberal in the nation.
Lengthy hearings were held in district court on the constitutional
question. Wagstaff was a member of the national board of the ACLU
and he had legal and financial help from it. He also had help
from NORML, who paid the expenses for Drs. Thomas Ungerleider,
Joel Fort, and Lester Grinspoon to go to Alaska to testify. The
district court denied Wagstaff's motion to dismiss, and he appealed
the constitutional question to the Alaska supreme court. By the
spring of 1975 the court was near a decision, and Wagstaff was
increasingly optimistic that it would be a favorable one.
Meanwhile, things were happening in the state legislature. State
Senator Terry Miller, a clean-cut Republican in his early thirties,
had introduced a decriminalization bill similar to Oregon's. Stroup
never went to Alaska, but he kept in touch with the situation
there through Wagstaff, who had agreed to be NORML'S state representative.
As legislative hearings drew near, an unexpected conflict arose
between Stroup and Wagstaff. Wagstaff was convinced there was
a very good chance that the supreme court would make smoking legal
in Alaska. For that reason he was very skeptical about the decriminalization
bill. It provided for $100 fines for private possession and $1000
fines for public smoking or possessing while driving. As far as
Stroup was concerned, it was a good bill, but Wagstaff feared
that if the bill passed, it would take the pressure off the supreme
court to rule in favor of Ravin. Thus, Alaska might settle for
a system of fines when it could have had full legalization of
private possession. He therefore announced to Stroup that he intended
to go testify against the bill.
Stroup couldn't believe it. Wagstaff was the kind of smart, able
lawyer he dreamed of finding to be a NORML state coordinatorand
now he said he was going to testify against decriminalization.
Stroup thought it made him and NORML look like idiots. A transcontinental
shouting match ensued.
"Bob," Stroup insisted, "we can't have NORML opposing
a decriminalization bill. It may not be a perfect bill, but we've
only been able to pass one in America so far."
Wagstaff was not moved, and he did in fact testify against the
bill. It didn't matter. On May 16 the Alaska bill passed, and
the state's new Republican governor, Jay Hammond, keeping the
promise he had earlier made, did not veto it. The bill became
law without his signature.
That made Alaska the second state, after Oregon, to adopt decriminalization.
Then, eleven days after the legislature acted, the state supreme
court, in a stunning decision, ruled five to none that possession
of marijuana by adults at home for personal use was constitutionally
protected by the right-of-privacy provision in the state constitution.
In its fifty-four page opinion the court said there was "no
firm evidence" that marijuana was harmful to the user or
to society, and that "mere scientific doubts" could
not justify government intrusion into the privacy of the home.
The court added, "It appears that the use of marijuana, as
it is presently used in the United States today, does not constitute
a public health problem.... It appears that effects of marijuana
on the individual are not serious enough to justify widespread
concern, at least as compared with the far more dangerous effects
of alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines."
The ruling stuck down the legislature's new system of fines for
marijuana use. Private cultivation of marijuana was not mentioned
by the court, but later the state attorney general ruled that
the right of privacy included cultivation. It was as legal to
grow marijuana in Alaska as it was to grow tomatoes. Only sale
On June 16 Maine became the third state, after Oregon and Alaska,
to decriminalize marijuana use. The main reason marijuana-law
reform passed easily in Maine was that it was part of a new state
criminal-code revision that had been recommended by a high-level
commission after several years of study. The commission concluded
that far too much time and money were being spent on victimless
crimes, such as marijuana use and prostitution, and the legislature
accepted the view.
In Maine, as in several other states, it was not until after decriminalization
passed that its opponents, particularly law-enforcement officials,
began to speak out strongly against it. Pressure from police officials,
who claimed the new law was causing increased smuggling activity
in the state, led to new hearings the next year. A repeal bill
was introduced, and anti-marijuana scientists, veterans of the
Eastland hearings, were brought in to testify. But now the pro-reform
legislators were in the unusual but enjoyable position of defending
the status quo, and they saw to it that the repeal bill never
got out of committee.
In 1974 Stroup had found himself part of an unlikely scheme to
legalize marijuana use in Colorado. While visiting the state,
he had met a handsome, Yale-educated rancher and politician named
Michael Strang, who was a liberal Republican and a member of the
state senate. One day, as they discussed the marijuana laws, Strang
declared, "Hell, why don't we just legalize the stuff, tax
it, and put the money in the old folks' pension fund?" Strang
introduced a bill to that effect, and Stroup testified in support
of it, along with Dr. Dorothy Whipple and Ed Brecher, the author
of the Consumers' Union report on drugs. Stroup never expected
the bill to pass, but the hearings drew plenty of publicity, and
it was all part of the consciousness-raising process.
In 1975, however, a decriminalization bill was introduced that
had a serious chance of passage. NORML'S man in Colorado then
was James Moore, a tough-talking cowboy lawyer in his mid-forties
who was the deputy district attorney for Pitkin County, which
includes Aspen. Perhaps the turning point in Colorado came when
Moore, as a middle-aged, whiskey-drinking law-enforcement official,
was able to persuade the state senate's Republican majority leader,
a Denver lawyer named Richard Plock, to be the floor manager for
the decriminalization bill.
Certainly the bill could not have passed without the Republican
leader's support, and even with his support it passed the senate
by only one vote, and after two days of intense debate. Moore's
impression was that the most effective argument in Colorado, an
essentially conservative state, was that millions of dollars were
being wasted needlessly on enforcement of the marijuana laws.
In May, as the states began to move, the reformers got an unexpected
boost from Washington. Sen. Birch Bayh, of Indiana, held hearings
before his Juvenile Delinquency Sub-committee on a federal decriminalization
bill sponsored by Sens. Jacob Javits, Ed Brooke, Alan Cranston,
and Gaylord Nelson. Bayh's support of decriminalization was a
personal turnabout and one that many people assumed was intended
to win support for him among the young when he ran for president
in the next year. The witnesses included Stroup, Pat Horton, of
Oregon, and Richard Bonnie, of the Marijuana Commission staff,
but the dramatic highlight of the hearings came when Sen. Philip
Hart, of Michigan, one of the most respected members of the Senate,
explained that he had changed his mind on marijuana after his
son was arrested. "I knew then we had a topsy-turvy operation
here. He spent twenty days in jail for a stub this big. I'm from
the older generation who thought taking marijuana on Tuesday meant
heroin on Friday. His arrest was all the education I needed."
On August 22 Republican governor James Rhodes, of Ohio, signed
a bill that made Ohio the sixth state, and the fifth since May,
to decriminalize marijuana use. It was a remarkable victory for
the reform movement. Oregon, Alaska, California, and Colorado
were all Western states with a pioneer tradition that government
should leave people alone. Maine was a flinty, no-nonsense New
England state, proud to go its own way. But Ohio? Ohio was the
heartland, one of the most conservative states in the union. It
made no sense at all that Ohio would pass the nation's most liberal
marijuana lawnot, that is, unless one understands the unique
role played there by a Republican businessman and civic leader
named Richard M. Wolfe.
Dick Wolfe's grandfather was a shoemaker. He and his brother,
in the best Horatio Alger tradition, became successful shoe manufacturers
and went on to found an Ohio dynasty. By the 1970s the Wolfe family
owned among other things, the Columbus Dispatch, television
stations in Columbus and Indianapolis, hotels, radio stations,
and a major interest in the state's largest bank. The Wolfes were
rich, Republican, and ultra-respectable, and Dick Wolfe was very
much in that tradition.
In 1975, at age forty-two, he was president of WBNS, the CBS affiliate
in Columbus, president of the local symphony, chairman of the
Franklin County Mental Health and Retardation Board, and involved
in more civic affairs than he could keep track of. A graduate
of Ohio State and the Harvard Business School, he was a tall,
good-looking man, balding, always elegantly dressed, who had a
wife and two daughters, a beautiful home, and a taste for expensive
sports cars and stereo equipment. He was the very epitome of the
Midwestern Establishment, the public-spirited citizen who can
work behind the scenes to get things done in his community.
In the late 1960s, while he was chairman of the Columbus Area
Community Mental Health Center, Wolfe became concerned about drug
use at Ohio State University, and he helped set up a drug clinic,
the Open Door Clinic, near the campus. He came to the drug issue
as a hard-liner, but as he got to know the doctors and the patients
at the clinic, he began, as he later said, to see what was myth
and what was reality. He decided that the drug problem was in
large part a political problemthat the need was to change the
laws so that drug use was seen as a health problem, not a law-enforcement
problem. It happened that at about the same time, one of the state's
most powerful politicians had reached a different conclusion.
Ohio's attorney general was an ambitious young Democrat named
William J. Brown, who wanted very much to be governor and had
decided that to sponsor a tough new drug law would help him toward
that goal. In 1973 he introduced a bill that was modeled after
the Rockefeller law in New York. His bill passed the state house
and senate easily, but was defeated in conference committee, not
because it was too harsh, but because Republicans didn't want
to see Brown get credit for what they knew would be a popular
It was then that moderates began to meet and consider how to cope
with Brown's bill the next time around. A series of meetings at
Wolfe's home, with civic leaders and legislators attending, led
to a model bill, one that called for the decriminalization of
marijuana and increased treatment facilities for drug addicts.
These moderates assumed that Brown's bill would pass, in some
form; their strategy was to amend his bill so they could live
with it, all the while giving Brown credit for having sponsored
a tough new law. Wolfe liked to say there was a train coming down
the tracks and all he wanted to do was change a few of its boxcars.
He had immediate access to any legislator or state official, and
he used it effectively. He approached them not as a marijuana
advocate (although he had smoked) but as a concerned civic leader
and a mental-health expert. He found it was often quite easy to
convince legislators that young people shouldn't be jailed for
marijuana use; they knew that their children and their friends'
children smoked. Their concern was whether they could support
marijuana-law reform without getting burned politically. And it
was there, as a member of a family that controlled a newspaper
and radio and television stations, that Dick Wolfe could play
a crucial role.
Wolfe thought, throughout his lobbying effort, that legislators
overestimated his influence on his family's media empire. He knew
that he could not dictate the news or editorial policies of his
television station, even as its president, and he certainly had
no editorial control over the Columbus Dispatch. He knew,
in fact, that most of the members of his family did not share
his views on drug policy. They were mostly hard-liners, as he
had been. Still, the fact that he was lobbying on behalf of the
drug bill had an impact. Reporters tended to assume the bill had
the Wolfe family's endorsement. Certainly his family's newspaper
and radio and television stations were unlikely to criticize the
bill; to a very large extent, Wolfe's involvement protected the
progressive aspects of the bill from right-wing attack.
Wolfe and other supporters of reform were careful always to speak
of the new bill as a very tough law, and in part it was. Penalties
for the sale of heroin, for instance, were strengthened. But nestled
among the hard-line provisions was the decriminalization of up
to 100 grams (about three and a half ounces) of marijuana, and
also of up to five grams of hashish and one gram of hashish oil.
Three and a half ounces was far more than any other state had
decriminalized, and no other state had included hashish and hashish
oil in its reform package.
The bill's first legislative hurdle was the house judiciary committee,
and it was there that Wolfe staged a dramatic political coup:
He arranged for Art Linkletter to testify.
In thirty years as a radio and television personality, Art Linkletter
had become one of the most beloved men in America. He was a man,
like Lawrence Welk and Arthur Godfrey, with whom Middle America
could be at ease. Art Linkletter was as American as could be.
And then one day drugs tore his life apart.
In 1969 his daughter fell to her death, apparently while under
the influence of LSD. Linkletter's first response was anger, outrage.
Drugs had killed his daughter; therefore he would use his influence
to combat the drug menace. But he could not speak out on the evils
of drugs until he knew more about them, and the more he studied
the issue, the more he came to see that harsh laws were not the
answer. In time, his views on drugs were not greatly different
from Dick Wolfe's or NORML'S. Wolfe met Linkletter at a meeting
of the Young Presidents Organization in Florida. As they talked,
Wolfe felt that Linkletter's transition from hard-liner to reformer
was much like his own. He asked if the entertainer would come
to Ohio and testify before the legislature. Linkletter said he
would. To make the trip as convenient as possible, Wolfe sent
his plane to pick up Linkletter. Speaking before the house judiciary
committee, Linkletter said that after his daughter's death he
had viewed the drug problem as a vengeful parent, but later he
had changed his mind. "I don't think any law is going to
solve the drug-abuse problem," he said. "I don't think
hiring more policemen or devoting more money or building bigger
walls is going to be the answer. We've sent far too many young
people to jail.
"I'm soft on people," Linkletter concluded, "not
soft on drugs."
It was a moving statement, and immensely effective politically.
Dick Wolfe, anticipating this, had it filmed. Thus, when Wolfe
himself testified before the senate judiciary committee, he took
with him a film that featured highlights of Linkletter's testimony
and concluded with an even more dramatic segment from the television
program 60 Minutes. The segment concerned a young marijuana
smoker in Pennsylvania named Billy Nester. Billy's parents found
some marijuana in his room. Horrified that their son was using
a dangerous drug, they called the police and said they wanted
him arrested and sent to prison, if that was the only way to save
him from drugs. He was in fact convicted and sent to prison. Soon
after his arrival he was gang-raped. Shortly thereafter he hanged
himself in his cell.
By the end of Wolfe's presentation, many people in the hearing
room were in tears. The bill cleared the judiciary committee without
A final obstacle to the reform elements of the bill arose when
opponents tried to lower the amount of marijuana to be decriminalized
from three and a half ounces to one ounce. The reformers might
have compromisedto decriminalize one ounce would have been
a victorybut they chose to fight. Wolfe was able to call for
help from labor-union lobbyists he'd worked with in the past on
mental-health legislation, particularly with regard to alcoholism,
a major concern to union leaders. The labor lobbyists weren't
greatly concerned with the hundred-grams-versus-one-ounce issue,
but they owed some favors to the mental-health people and they
believed in paying their debts.
Finally, when a vote came on the question, Lt. Gov. Richard Celeste,
a liberal who was presiding over the state senate, arranged for
the question to be settled on a voice voteone in which individual
members' positions were not recorded. The three-and-a-half-ounces
provision won easily.
NORML'S Ohio coordinator was David Weiner, a friend of Stroup's
from law school who had joined a leading Cleveland law firm. Weiner
attended some meetings at Wolfe's house and worked with student
groups seeking reform, but he recognized that NORML was very much
the outsider in Ohio politics and Wolfe was the insider who could
get things done. So although Stroup and Wolfe had become friends,
and Stroup gave Wolfe long-distance advice on strategy and on
what outside witnesses could be most helpful with the legislature,
NORML stayed in the background. As Stroup saw it, he had created
a sort of drug-law supermarket, where reformers like Wolfe could
pick and choose the best strategies and witnesses to suit their
When the bill became law in August, newspaper headlines in Ohio
declared, "Ohio Gets Tough New Drug Law," which was
true in part, although it was equally true that Ohio had got the
nation's most liberal marijuana law. For Attorney General Brown,
the-bill was a politician's dream come true: He was able to reap
immediate credit for a tough drug law, and later, when decriminalization
was seen as a success, he could claim credit for it, too. But,
politics aside, supporters of reform knew who deserved credit
for the progressive elements of Ohio's new law: Richard Wolfe,
the very respectable Republican who had provided a textbook example
of how a conservative can bring about the reform that liberals
wanted but could almost never achieve on their own.
The political victories of 1975 had given NORML new respectability.
Decriminalization seemed no longer a fringe issue but the wave
of the future, and Stroup had made NORML central to the movement.
If a reporter wanted to write about the issue, if a state legislator
wanted advice on how best to write and present a reform bill,
if reform-minded citizens wanted to know how they could help,
NORML was the starting point, the central clearinghouse for all
of them. NORML thus became the national organization it had always
claimed to be. Stroup had coordinators, most of them first-rate
lawyers, in almost every state, and in many states there was also
a network of volunteers to raise money, gain publicity, lobby
the legislature, and help individual defendants. As his Washington
staff grew, along with his national organization, Stroup traveled
more, and increasingly focused his talents on the things he did
best. One was publicity, his role as celebrity-spokesman, Mr.
NORML. Another was simultaneously expanding and holding together
his burgeoning coalition. Another, perhaps the most urgent, was
the endless battle to keep NORML afloat financially.