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High in America

  The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana

    Patrick Anderson

High in America  1981 by Patrick Anderson
Published by The Viking Press, New York ISBN 0-670-11990-3
High in America appears in The Psychedelic Library and
    The DRCNet Library by permission of the author.


    One Saturday evening in November of 1972, my wife and I drove into Washington for dinner at a Georgetown restaurant. It was a celebration, of sorts. Since the early spring we had worked as volunteers for George McGovern in the rural Virginia county in which we live. We'd been delegates to the state Democratic convention; we'd knocked on doors and registered voters and worked the polls on election day. We'd done all the things Americans do when they believe passionately in a political cause.
    On election night, of course, Richard Nixon wiped us out. Our anti-war candidate for president lost about as decisively as you can lose an election in America. That was why Ann and I were dining in an excellent French restaurant that Saturday night: We were celebrating the end of the campaign, the fact that at least the disaster was behind us, and for better or worse we could get on with our lives.
    After dinner we dropped by the nearby home of Larry and Louise Dubois. Larry, a writer I had met that summer, was tall, dark, and excitable; Louise was petite, blond, and serene. On this Saturday night there were eight or ten people sitting around their living room talking and drinking wine and listening to a Grateful Dead album. One of the guests was an attractive, dark-haired woman in her twenties named Kelly Stroup (rhymes with "cop"), who was talking about her and her husband's adventures at the Democratic convention in Miami Beach that summer. I asked her what they'd been doing there.
    "We lobby for marijuana-law reform," Kelly said.
    "You what?"
    "My husband is the head of NORML," she said, and went on to tell me about her husband, Keith Stroup, and about the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which he had founded two years before.
    I was thirty-six years old, and didn't know much about marijuana—I'd tried it only twice—and I'd never heard of NORML. I did, however, know a little something about writing for magazines. In the previous six years, in addition to writing my first three books, I'd written articles for The New York Times Magazine on such political figures as Larry O'Brien, Henry Kissinger, Clark Clifford, Ralph Nader, and Bill Moyers, and if there was anything I was sure of, it was that the adventures of a pro-marijuana lobbyist in Washington would make good copy.
    On Monday morning I called an editor at The New York Times Magazine and told him I had a natural for them. Shortly thereafter I joined Stroup on a trip to Texas, where, among other things, we visited the state prison and met young men who had been sentenced to as much as twenty-five years' confinement for smoking and/or selling marijuana.
    My article on NORML appeared in the Times Magazine the next month, and though properly "objective," it was certainly favorable to the cause of marijuana-law reform. I was not part of the drug culture, but it seemed blindingly clear to me that people should not go to jail for smoking marijuana—not for a day, much less for the ten- and twenty-year sentences I'd encountered in Texas. A few months earlier, in March of 1972, Richard Nixon's own National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, after conducting the most exhaustive study of marijuana ever made in America, had concluded that it was virtually harmless and that people should not go to jail for smoking it. Nixon didn't agree with his commission, but I did, and still do.
    I started dropping by NORML'S office from time to time, to see how Stroup's work was coming and, more generally, to enjoy the wonderful panorama of people who wandered in and out: reporters, political activists, drug dealers, groupies, law students, scientists, Yippies, rock musicians, and assorted other notables and crazies. A busy little world revolved around Stroup as he dashed about his ground-floor office, with the marijuana posters on its walls and the bust of George Washington on the mantel. Whether playing host, making introductions, fielding phone calls, yelling orders to his staff, rolling joints, dropping names, or denouncing his political adversaries, he was always on-stage, starring in his self-created role of outlaw lobbyist.
    Stroup was thirty then, and certainly one of Washington's most colorful political figures. He was a turned-on Nader, a funny, fast-talking, charming, very bright lawyer-activist. Angry and hot-tempered at times, he was always competitive, always the politician, quick to turn every situation to his own advantage. But he was also candid and introspective with his friends, dedicated to his cause, and quick to laugh at himself and at the madness of it all. It was a dispiriting time in Washington, and one of Stroup's most attractive qualities was his enthusiasm. He was always up, always ready to fight the next battle, and if he was sometimes frustrated by NORML'S political setbacks, he was never discouraged and never dull. He saw himself as a professional manipulator, employed by the marijuana smokers of America to manipulate national drug policy to their advantage, and he believed it an honorable pursuit.
    By then NORML, in its second year, was becoming the catalyst of a national movement to reform the nation's marijuana laws. Stroup's endless wheeling and dealing had brought together an unlikely alliance that ranged from out-and-out drug freaks to young lawyers who smoked and resented the laws that defined them as criminals to nonsmoking scientists and clergymen and civic leaders who simply thought the laws were wrong. As NORML'S support grew, Stroup searched for new ways to bring pressure on the political system. There was nothing he could do to change the Nixon administration's zealous anti-drug policy, but NORML was starting to challenge the marijuana laws and to work with state legislators who wanted to enact the Marijuana Commission's recommended policy of "decriminalization," which simply meant that people could be fined, but not jailed, for marijuana use.
    Stroup loved the constant intrigue and manipulation. He was a power groupie, one who lived for the deals, the leaks to the press, the political gossip, the daily crises, the delicious high that is obtained only at the center of the action. Like any lobbyist, he was first of all selling himself, and he took pains to develop his public persona of Mr. NORML, the cool and collected pot politician, party-giver and Iadies' man. In fact, he had to an extent modeled himself after NORML'S first financial patron, Hugh Hefner. But there was another, darker side to Stroup's personality, an angry side. He was angry in part at the drug laws and at a political establishment that, as he saw it, loved to guzzle its whiskey but denied his generation the right to enjoy its drug of choice. At another level Stroup was angry at his past, angry at a small-town Baptist boyhood in Dix, Illinois, that for years he had only wanted to escape. There was a certain Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to Stroup. If he could be charming and considerate, he could also be abruptly cold, self-righteous, and intensely critical of others, including his close friends and allies, if they did not match him in their dedication to the cause. This duality seemed to flow from the influence of two quite dissimilar parents: a father with a small-town politician's live-and-let-live attitude and a mother who was a devout Southern Baptist and not at all tolerant of the sins of the world.
    In the fall of 1975 I was asked to conduct a Playboy interview with Stroup. By then the reform movement had scored some major victories. In 1973 Oregon had ended criminal penalties for smoking, and in the summer of 1975 five more states had done the same: Alaska, California, Maine, Colorado, and Ohio. NORML had provided national leadership to this burst of reform, by gaining publicity for the issue, by advising state legislators on what strategies and expert witnesses might be most effective, and often by paying the expenses for those outside witnesses to go to testify. Moreover, NORML had begun a far-ranging legal program, which involved both aid to individual defendants and court challenges to the constitutionality of state and federal marijuana laws, and to the federal government's ban on the medical use of marijuana. For many years the government had treated marijuana smokers pretty much as it pleased, but now NORML was rallying some of the brightest young lawyers in America to the smokers' defense.
    As I studied the marijuana debate in preparation for my interview with Stroup, I began to think of it in terms of a war, a terrible civil war. I was struck by the parallels between this issue and the other great nation-dividing issue of the time, the war in Vietnam. In both cases the political establishment had been hell-bent to convince young Americans of something they refused to believe: that they should go die in Vietnam, in one case; that they should not smoke marijuana, in the other. In the minds of many Americans the two wars seemed to have blended: The slippery little Vietcong in Southeast Asia had become the dope-smoking hippie at home, and it was somehow imperative that the government's armed forces search out and destroy him. The same mentality that could say we had to destroy a village to save it in Vietnam could argue that we had to send a college student to prison to save him from marijuana.
    The marijuana war was being waged on one front as a military conflict, in which tens of thousands of police and narcotics agents busied themselves arresting millions of young people for smoking and/or selling the weed. But as NORML, the Marijuana Commission, President Nixon, Sen. James Eastland, and others began a national debate on the issue, it became increasingly a propaganda war, fought through the media, as the pro-marijuana and anti-marijuana forces battled for the hearts and minds of millions of nonsmoking Americans who would ultimately determine the outcome of the conflict in the political arena.
    In 1976 I spent six months as Jimmy Carter's speechwriter and had an opportunity to view the marijuana issue from the perspective of a presidential campaign. If there is anything to be learned in a national campaign, as it moves endlessly from city to city, rally to rally, enclave to enclave, it is that America is an incredibly large, diversified, and potentially explosive nation, less melting pot than tinderbox. The divisions are all there—black and white, Protestant and Catholic, North and South, immigrant and blueblood—waiting for politicians to exploit them. Now to that list has been added the division between those who enjoy drugs and those who fear them. The issue had been exploited in 1972, when McGovern supported decriminalization and Nixon opposed it. Nixon's followers denounced McGovern as the candidate of the three A's—acid, amnesty, and abortion, marijuana having been transformed by political hyperbole into "acid," or LSD.
    Fortunately, the drug issue was not exploited in the 1976 campaign. Carter had endorsed decriminalization early in his campaign. I had assumed he was motivated by a combination of intellectual honesty and political necessity: the former because he knew his sons had smoked, the latter because the issue was important to a lot of young activists and to rock stars, like the Allman Brothers, whose support he sought. Having endorsed the no-jail concept, he rarely mentioned it unless asked, for he was aware of the basic political fact that the great majority of voters were anti-marijuana. His opponent, Gerald Ford, waffled on the issue. He said he didn't want smokers to go to jail, but he never quite endorsed decriminalization. Still, he never tried to exploit the issue, perhaps in part because he, too, had sons who had smoked and a wife who said she might have if it had been around in her younger days.
    If marijuana had become an issue in the 1976 campaign, it would probably have been because some of us on the Carter staff occasionally smoked, not only among ourselves but with friends in the media. It was a crazy thing to do, but people do a lot of crazy things in a political campaign. (Consider the candidates, the one proclaiming lust in his heart, the other forever bumping his head and forgetting where he was. What were they smoking?) Alcohol was by far the drug of choice on the campaign, but sometimes, late at night in somebody's hotel room, we'd share a joint or two, and in the small, gossipy world of the campaign that fact could have leaked and been transformed into a great drug scandal. Looking back on it, I think our smoking was symbolic, a gesture of defiance, of individuality, against the insane and dehumanizing pressures of a national political campaign. The reporters were my friends, but our respective roles in the campaign made us antagonists. By smoking we were making a separate peace.
    During the campaign I would sometimes receive calls and memos from Stroup, who was busy pinpointing his potential allies in a Carter administration. I was one, although less crucial to Stroup's hopes than Dr. Peter Bourne, Carter's friend and advisor on health issues, whom Stroup had known for several years. When NORML held its annual conference in December of 1976, a month after Carter won the election, Stroup had persuaded Bourne to be its keynote speaker and me to be cohost (with Christie Hefner and Garry Trudeau) at a fund-raising party afterward. Unfortunately for Stroup's ambitions, I had by then decided I was not cut out to be a politician, or even a politician's speechwriter, and I parted company with Carter just before his inauguration.
    Stroup also had his problems with Jimmy Carter, who had been president less than a month when Stroup decided he was backing away from his campaign commitment to decriminalization. Stroup angrily—and rashly—leaked an embarrassing story about Chip Carter, the president's son, to reporters, and thereby outraged Peter Bourne and members of the Carter family. Stroup continued to mix socially with some of the younger, more adventuresome members of the Carter administration, including Chip Carter, but he was increasingly at odds with it on policy. This culminated in a lawsuit NORML brought to stop the government from supporting a program in which the Mexican government sprayed marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat.
    I knew about NORML'S fight with the government over paraquat, but I was still shocked by a phone call that reached me in France one evening in July of 1978. My wife and I were having dinner at L'Hotellerie du Val-Suzon, a wonderful country inn outside Dijon, when the call came from a friend of mine, a reporter with the Washington Post.
    "What do you know about Peter Bourne and Ellen Metsky and the drug scandal?" my friend asked.
    "About what?"
    "Oh, God, haven't you heard? Bourne wrote Metsky a Quaalude prescription and used a phony name, and then Keith blew the whistle on him about using coke at the NORML party and he had to resign, and the whole town's gone crazy, and don't you know anything?"
    I really didn't know anything, except that from my perspective, sitting there in a French country inn, the whole thing sounded insane. When I got back to Washington a few weeks later, I found that to be the case. Bourne, whom I knew and liked, had been caught using a false name in writing out a Quaalude prescription for a patient. Then, with Bourne already in serious trouble, Stroup helped Jack Anderson break a story about Bourne's having used cocaine at a NORML party eight months earlier. Bourne denied the charge, but several witnesses supported Stroup's account.
    Once again Stroup had acted rashly, out of anger toward the administration over the paraquat issue, and this time his anger was self-destructive. His attack on Bourne was considered irresponsible by many of NORML'S supporters. By the end of the year, realizing he had lost much of his effectiveness, Stroup left NORML to start a law firm. By then, the seventies were coming to a close, NORML was struggling to stay afloat, a new anti-marijuana political movement was gathering momentum, and one era in the long national debate over drugs was coming to an end.
    This book is about Stroup's adventures, NORML'S work, and the political war over the marijuana issue in America, an increasingly bitter confrontation between two groups of angry Americans. On one side are millions of smokers, many of them well educated, successful people who resent being defined as criminals for using what they regard as a mild but enjoyable drug. Opposing them are angry parents who see increasing marijuana use by adolescents as a threat to their children's health and well-being. Both sides have their scientists to cite—those who say marijuana is virtually harmless and those who believe it presents real or potential health hazards—and both sides have their political champions, although as the 1980s began, the momentum was clearly with the parents' anti-marijuana movement.
    The marijuana debate is an increasingly complex one, and there are many perspectives from which to view it: historical, scientific, economic, legal, cultural, sociological, political. My focus in this book is mainly on the politics of the issue and, beyond that, on its human dimension. As a writer, I have been fascinated by the mixture of comedy and tragedy that has surrounded the issue, and by the wonderful variety of people who became caught up in it in the 1970s. The cast of characters includes Stroup, an admirably flawed protagonist; Peter Bourne, a well-intentioned man who ventured beyond his political depth, Hugh Hefner, who scorned drugs for years, then suddenly found marijuana giving him unexpected pleasure, and a cocaine investigation causing him unexpected pain; Gordon Brownell, a Ronald Reagan adviser who was transformed by psychedelic drugs into a pro-marijuana politician; Sue Rusche, a liberal Atlantan who became an anti-drug crusader; Tom Forcade, a smuggler turned Yippie who made a fortune with a pro-drug magazine; Frank Demolli, a college freshman whose love of marijuana won him a twenty-five-year prison term; and Bob Randall, a teacher who challenged the government because he needed marijuana to save his eyesight. I knew most of these people, and I thought them all caught up in political currents they could barely understand, much less control, currents that tossed their lives about, challenged them, changed them, defined them, and sometimes destroyed them. Few controversies in recent years have touched more Americans' lives than has the drug issue, and to examine that issue is, I think, a way of looking at America in the 1970s, perhaps as good a way as any.
    Where to begin? One place would be the celebrated NORML party in December of 1977, a party at which many worlds intersected, a party that seemed to be NORML at its zenith but proved to be the beginning of the end.

Chapter 1

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