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High in America

  The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana

    Patrick Anderson

  Chapter 13

    During the first week of 1978, Stroup was in New York for three days of fun and fund-raising at the drug-paraphernalia industry's annual boutique show. He had got to know many of the industry people through Tom Forcade. By some estimates, paraphernalia was close to being a billion-dollar-a-year business, and Stroup hoped that some of its leaders could be persuaded to support NORML. In his travels Stroup had sought out local head-shop proprietors and often persuaded them to sell NORML T-shirts, distribute its literature, and even put DONATE-TO-NORML jars on their counters. He found most head shop operators to be politically naïve, but he hoped that would change as they took more and more political heat. Local officials and legislators who could not otherwise discourage marijuana-smoking were trying to do so by passing laws against head shops and the paraphernalia they sold. The laws they passed were often struck down by the courts as unconstitutional and they did little to stop drug use, but they made the politicians look boldly anti-drug, and they caused people in the business some inconvenience—enough, Stroup hoped, to make them organize and be more politically active.
    In addition to thousands of generally unsophisticated head-shop operators the industry had created six or eight tycoons, marijuana millionaires, and Stroup had found some of them to be more politically aware. Two examples were Don Levin and Burt Rubin. Levin had been a General Motors management trainee in the late 1960s when he saw the potential in the paraphernalia business. He opened a head shop and in time started Adams Apple, Inc., which became the largest distributor of rolling papers in the U.S. Burt Rubin, who had been a trader in precious metals, noticed how many smokers would stick two standard-sized cigarette papers together so they could roll a good, fat joint. He had the inspiration to market a double-sized paper with a punny name, E-Z Wider and thereby parlayed a $6500 investment into a $9-million business.
    Stroup had become friendly with Levin and Rubin, and both had begun contributing $5000 or $10,000 a year to NORML. It was Stroup's hope that as he cultivated others in the industry, many more would be moved to do the same. During the January boutique show a rolling-paper distributor named Ralph Kaplan gave a benefit reception for NORML. There was an art auction featuring originals of High Times covers, and by prearrangement some of Stroup's friends pushed up the bidding, challenging others to support NORML, and pledges of $40,000 were made. It was for Stroup a good night's work, a step toward what he hoped could be an important new source of funding for NORML.

    On January 25 Peter Bourne wrote an unusual "To Whom It May Concern" letter to the provincial court in Calgary, Canada. He began by saying he was writing on behalf of Keith Stroup, who was facing criminal marijuana charges in Canada. "I have known Mr. Stroup in a professional capacity for several years, and I can attest to the seriousness of his work," he said. "I have always found his conduct to meet the highest standards of professionalism." He suggested that "Mr. Stroup be accorded whatever diversion programs" might be available so that "he not have his career needlessly blemished by a criminal conviction."
    Peter Bourne had not wanted to write this letter. He knew that it was a tricky, potentially explosive act for an assistant to the president of the United States to give even the appearance of meddling in the judicial affairs of another nation. It was always possible that the judge or the prosecutor might protest the intrusion. International incidents had erupted from less. To minimize that risk, Bourne wrote his letter on his personal stationery and signed himself simply "Peter G. Bourne, M.D." There was no mention of his official role. Still, he disliked writing the letter, and he resented Stroup's requesting it.
    That summer, when reports of Bourne's cocaine use at the NORML party were published, columnist Michael Novak charged that Stroup had, in effect, acquired blackmail power over Bourne—that Bourne had, for example, no choice but to write the letter Stroup wanted. Stroup resented the suggestion. As he saw it, when his lawyer suggested that character references might help with the Canadian court, he'd naturally turned to Peter Bourne and Stuart Statler, two men who were both his friends and his professional associates. Still, the potential for blackmail was there, and before another month had passed, Stroup would wield it like a bludgeon against his friend Peter Bourne.

    On January 26, the day after Peter Bourne wrote his letter, Stroup sent a "Dear Sirs" letter to Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, and Peter Bensinger, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, a letter that was NORML'S declaration of war on the paraquat-spraying program in Mexico.
    Stroup's letter was, in legal terms, a "demand letter." It demanded that the State Department file an environmental-impact statement on the spraying program and that it halt all U.S. participation in the program until that statement was completed. As all parties involved understood, the demand letter was only a formality, a prelude to a lawsuit. And although the letter was signed by Stroup and was largely written by Peter Meyers, the prime mover of NORML'S anti-paraquat campaign was a twenty-three-year-old law student named George Farnham, who was having the time of his life.
    George Farnham, unlike Stroup and Schott and most of NORML'S senior staff, did not come from a middle-class or working-class background. His father, a conservative Republican, was a senior partner in a leading New York law firm, and Farnham grew up in very comfortable circumstances in Scarsdale, New York. After graduating from Scarsdale High, he went off to Washington University, in St. Louis, to study political science, and it was there that he became a marijuana smoker and a great fan of Hunter Thompson's writings. He wrote a three-hundred-page term paper that argued that Thompson's was by far the best coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign. Later, when he attended the 1976 Democratic convention, Farnham persuaded one delegate, a friend of his, to cast her vote for Thompson for vice-president.
    Farnham decided to attend law school at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and when he learned he could receive credit for working as an intern for some public-interest program, he quickly made his way to NORML. He chose NORML in part because Hunter Thompson was on its advisory board and in part because he had been impressed with what he'd heard about Stroup. Farnham began working as an aide to Meyers in July of 1977 and was immediately assigned to the paraquat issue. At that point not much had happened, except that Peter Bourne, in response to Stroup's and Senator Percy's inquiries, had ordered DEA and NIDA to investigate the matter. That fall, Farnham filed Freedom of Information Act requests with State, DEA, and NIDA asking for information on their roles in the spraying program in Mexico. He was spurred in part by rumors that the government planned to expand the program to Colombia and other countries. The DEA never turned over any information, but in January of 1978 the State Department did surrender some 150 pages of material. Most of it was quite innocuous—it had obviously been carefully edited—but there were references to memoranda written by John Ford, who'd set up the spraying program for the Mexicans in the fall of 1975. It seemed to Farnham and Meyers that if they could get Ford's reports, they might get at the truth about U.S. involvement in the spraying program. Officials at State refused to hand over the Ford memos, but NORML was given copies by a friend on Capitol Hill, and after that the pot lobby was no longer working in the dark on the paraquat issue.
    What the Ford memos did was to document the full extent of U.S. involvement in the program and thus contradict the government's claims that it was entirely a Mexican program over which the U. S. had no control. The memos showed, among other things, that Ford had personally set up the program; that the stress from the first was on spraying marijuana fields, not poppy fields; and that contrary to official claims, DEA was deeply involved in the program.
    With this information in hand, Farnham began to meet with State Department officials. First he talked to an environmental specialist who laughed aloud when Farnham suggested State should file an environmental-impact statement on the spraying program. The National Environmental Policy Act, the official explained, applied only to domestic programs, not to the overseas activities of the State Department. When Farnham suggested that the spraying program was poisoning marijuana smokers, the official laughed again and said that maybe all the marijuana smokers would die, and then the problem would be solved.
    Another meeting, the next day, made it clear that State would release no more data on the spraying program, would concede no U.S. control over the program, and had no intention of filing an environmental-impact statement. The State Department was completely committed to the paraquat program, and there was nothing left to do but to sue.
    It happened that NORML could make a good legal case for the government's obligation to file an impact statement on the program. The 1969 Environmental Policy Act required impact statements on "major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment," and the courts had liberally interpreted this requirement. Stroup's letter to Vance and Bensinger noted, for example, that the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration had been required to file an impact statement when it made a $3000 grant to spray herbicides on marijuana plants in Indiana in 1972. As for State's argument that no impact statement was required, because the spraying program was outside the United States, the NORML letter cited two precedents. In one, the Agency for International Development (AID), when sued by an environmentalist group, agreed to file an impact statement on its pesticide-spraying programs. In another, after the Sierra Club brought suit, a U.S. district court held that an impact statement was required for the construction of a highway through Panama and Colombia.
    In short, NORML was about to bring a lawsuit that had a good chance of forcing the Department of State to stop a program that it did not wish to stop. NORML had ceased to be a mildly amusing bunch of crazies and had become a major annoyance, a problem to be dealt with. All this was a prelude to the remarkable letter that Stroup received from the White House on February 4, just nine days after his letter to the secretary of state.

    On the first of February, Gordon Brownell called Stroup with a puzzling report: He had heard that Stroup was about to receive a "stinging" letter of rebuke from the White House on the pie incident. Brownell had heard this from Roger Roffman, the University of Washington professor who was NORML's Washington State coordinator, who in turn had heard it from Wes Pomeroy, a former California law-enforcement official who had joined Peter Bourne's staff in the White House.
    Stroup didn't know what the stinging rebuke might prove to be, but he did know that the two-month-old pie incident was far from dead. Joe Nellis had sent word to the Playboy Foundation that he was displeased that it would support an organization that allowed pies to be thrown at its conference guests. More important, Stroup continued to get reports that Marc Kurzman was calling NORML's state coordinators, saying that Stroup had to go and apparently offering himself as successor. Stroup had decided to fire Kurzman as his Midwest coordinator. He was not going to pay someone to organize a coup against him.
    The White House letter arrived. It was on White House stationery and was signed by Robert Angarola, general counsel for the Office of Drug Abuse Policy. It was a very curious document, one that makes sense, if at all, only in the hothouse of high-level Washington politics. It was headed "Dear Keith," and began by noting that Angarola was a panelist at the NORML conference when "the unfortunate pie incident" occurred. Angarola said he had considered the matter closed until he was sent a copy of Stroup's memo on it to the NORML staff, which caused him and others to be concerned about his "apparent absence of regret regarding this incident." Angarola then praised NORML'S work and Stroup's "patient and able leadership," but added, "I was therefore upset to learn that its National Director condoned, and in a sense encouraged, such an irresponsible act against one of the organization's invitees. This can only prove counterproductive to your and NORML's most worthwhile efforts. It also must call into question the advisability of participating in future conferences which you sponsor." He said he had discussed the matter with Peter Bourne, Marc Kurzman, and others, all of whom shared his concerns. He concluded: "Although it will inevitably have a negative impact, I sincerely hope that it will not seriously affect your future activities and that NORML will be able to maintain support and continue the fine work it has done in the past."
    The letter, signed "Bob," noted at the bottom that copies were going to Bourne, Bonnie, Kurzman, Nellis, and Pomeroy.
    It was not exactly a stinging letter, but it was one Stroup read with mounting outrage. He was not interested in Angarola's compliments, only in certain negative phrases: "call into question the advisability of participating in future conferences," "inevitably have a negative impact," and most of all the question of whether "NORML will be able to maintain support."
    As Stroup saw it, this letter was nothing less than an effort to destroy him.
    He assumed, first, that the real purpose of the letter was not for a minor White House functionary to express concern over a two-month-old pie-throwing. He assumed, second, that Angarola would not have written the letter without Peter Bourne's approval. No, Stroup thought that now that NORML had challenged the State Department over paraquat, the White House was looking for a way to oust him and encourage more docile leadership at NORML.
    He took the letter to be a threat that the White House would not work with NORML so long as he remained its director. He thought, by way of analogy, that if the president's top energy adviser had sent word to Exxon that he no longer wished to deal with its senior Washington lobbyist, Exxon would have rather quickly replaced that lobbyist, and the White House was gambling that the dope lobby would do the same. Stroup feared the letter might put him on the defensive, and he might even lose control of the organization he had created.
    Whether Stroup's analysis of the Angarola letter reflected paranoia or political realism is debatable but not relevant. Another, more secure man might have shrugged it off as an ambiguous letter from a minor official, but Stroup, attuned to the Byzantine ways of Washington, took it as a deliberate attempt by Peter Bourne to destroy him. He responded in kind.
    He called Bourne but could not reach him. He talked instead to Wes Pomeroy, an aide to Bourne who was a respected and quite remarkable law-enforcement officer. After serving as undersheriff in California for many years, Pomeroy had been a special assistant to Ramsey Clark at the Justice Department in 1968 and then was chief of security for the Woodstock rock festival in 1969. Stroup had met him when Pomeroy was a fellow at the Drug Abuse Council in the early 1970s. Stroup respected the older man, but now he shouted his outrage over the Angarola letter, and Pomeroy protested that it was intended only as constructive criticism.
    "Bullshit!" Stroup raged. "Listen, Peter is crazy. What does he think he's doing? You guys are all vulnerable as hell. Do you want to play hardball?"
    "You can't threaten me," Pomeroy shot back.
    Stroup hung up.
    To make sure his message got through, Stroup next called two people who were both his friends and Bourne's, Bob Carr at the Drug Abuse Council and Mathea Falco at the State Department. He gave both the same message: "My constituents know I use drugs. Do Peter's know he uses drugs? You tell Dr. Bourne he'd better repudiate that letter!"
    Bob Carr, who understood the threat and was shaken by it, quickly talked to his boss, Tom Bryant, who in turn talked to his friend Peter Bourne. Still, days passed and Stroup heard nothing from Bourne. When he tried to call him, he could only reach Ellen Metsky, who asked what he wanted. "I want that letter repudiated," Stroup said. Metsky said Bourne was extremely busy, and asked if it would wait a few days. Stroup assumed that Bourne simply wanted time to decide what to do. He told Metsky that it would wait only until the next Monday.
    Then, as if to prove his resolve, Stroup took what proved to be a fateful step: He called Gary Cohn, a friend of his who was a writer on Jack Anderson's staff.
    Gary Cohn was twenty-six years old, an ambitious and aggressive young reporter. One day in 1976, when he needed a story, he'd noticed a NORML poster on the wall over another reporter's desk. On impulse he called Stroup, and came away with a nice item about an expensive government study that had proved only that marijuana makes monkeys hungry. After that, Cohn dropped by Stroup's office from time to time to smoke a joint and poke around for news.
    Cohn attended the 1977 NORML party, heard the rumors of Bourne's cocaine use there, and had several times asked Stroup to confirm them. Each time, however, Stroup brushed his questions aside. Now, however, the situation had changed. Stroup asked Cohn to come by his office. Cohn arrived and found him furious. Stroup told Cohn about Bourne's cocaine use at the party and gave him the names of two other witnesses. He stressed, however, that the information was off the record. He said that if Bourne sent him the letter of apology he wanted, it would stay off the record; if not, Cohn could go with the story.
    On Monday, February 11, eight days after Angarola sent his letter, Bourne called Stroup and asked what the problem was.
    "The problem is that you fuckers are trying to blow me out of the water," Stroup shouted. "I don't like it, Peter. I don't understand it. You've gone out of bounds. That letter was like an official White House reprimand."
    Bourne protested that Angarola was only expressing his personal opinion, not White House policy.
    "Then why did he write it on White House stationery?" Stroup demanded.
    "Keith, I assure you I did not approve the letter," Bourne said. "I understood he was writing some letter of protest, but I didn't see it before it went out."
    "Peter, the White House has no right to inject itself into NORML'S internal affairs, and that's what that letter did."
    "You're probably right," Bourne conceded. "What can I do to put this right?"
    "You can write me a letter on the same White House stationery and repudiate Angarola."
    "I can't repudiate him, but I'll write a letter saying he doesn't express the White House position, and that I've always held you in the highest regard."
    "I wish you'd do that," Stroup said bitterly. "And I wish you'd have it hand-delivered to me today."
    Bourne said he would, and then he added, "Keith, I hope this won't harm our personal relationship."
    Stroup sighed. "Peter," he said, "after this, I really don't know if I can trust you."
    Bourne's letter arrived that afternoon. It began by saying that Bourne was sure Angarola's letter was intended to be "constructive and helpful," and then concluded, "I want you to know of the very high personal regard in which I hold you and the remarkable leadership that you have provided to NORML under conditions that I know have not always been easy. I will look forward to continuing to work closely with you in the future."
    It was all Stroup could have asked. If anyone tried to say he was in disfavor at the White House, he had Bourne's glowing letter to disprove the charge. But of course Bourne's letter meant nothing; if anything, it meant the opposite of what it said, for it was written under a clearly implied threat. Neither Bourne nor Stroup would ever trust the other again, and in the small world of drug policy a good many people knew why.
    Once Stroup received Bourne's letter, he called Gary Cohn and told him the cocaine story would have to remain off the record. Cohn took this news with mixed emotions. In part, he was relieved. Cohn had smoked dope and used cocaine, and he had misgivings about this story. Was it fair? Was it legitimate? He was also concerned because he assumed the story would cost Bourne his job, and he thought Bourne was a good man to have as the president's adviser on drugs.
    Still, Cohn was ambitious, and he knew it was a hell of a story, the sort of expose that helped make a young reporter's reputation. Part of him lusted for the Bourne story, the part that could rationalize that reporters don't make moral judgments but only report the facts. In the weeks ahead Cohn several times asked Stroup if he wouldn't put the Bourne story on the record. Each time, Stroup refused. Still, the cat was halfway out of the bag. When Stroup gave Cohn the names of the two witnesses, he all but guaranteed the story would come out eventually. The only question was when.
    But first, late in February, while Stroup was preoccupied with paraquat and Peter Bourne, NORML scored a dramatic victory in a battle it had been waging for years: the effort to gain recognition for the medical uses of marijuana.

Chapter 14

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