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High in America

  The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana

    Patrick Anderson

  Chapter 17

    On June 8, 1978, U.S. district court judge Joseph Waddy denied NORML'S request for an injunction to stop U. S. funding of the spraying program in Mexico. NORML was then forced to turn to a new anti-paraquat strategy. First it had tried to persuade the Carter administration to stop the program. Then it had gone to court. Now NORML set out to persuade Congress to stop the spraying, and a key figure in this effort was Stroup's friend Stuart Statler, who continued to be troubled by U.S. support of a program that he viewed as a serious health hazard to Americans. Statler outlined his concerns to his boss, who shared them, and thus was born the Percy Amendment.
    The amendment was quite simple. If approved by Congress, it would prohibit U.S. financial support for the spraying of marijuana in Mexico. By July a vote was drawing near in both houses of Congress, and a key factor was what position the Carter administration would take. Statler was first told that the administration would not oppose the Percy Amendment, but then he heard that Mathea Falco, of State, was lobbying actively against it. He passed that news along to Stroup, who was moved to have his first talk in some time with Peter Bourne.
    Bourne's public support of the spraying program had been so outspoken that Stroup had quit trying to discuss the issue with him. But now, on Friday, July 14, he called Bourne and, as he later recalled it, said, "Peter, we're in a fight. Do you want to move? Can you move? Because if you can't, let me know and we'll go on lobbing grenades but we won't try to kill you."
    He meant that he wanted to know how Bourne really felt about the paraquat issue, whether he truly opposed the amendment or was simply bowing to top-level pressure. Bourne's reply seemed encouraging: Stroup could tell senators that, unofficially, the White House had no objection to the Percy Amendment.
    Stroup was elated. He had the impression that Bourne's hands were tied, because of the president or the State Department, but he still might give them some help, seek some sort of compromise, when he could. He passed on that good news to a friend of his on Sen. Birch Bayh's staff. "Keith, that's not what Peter's telling the senator," his friend replied, and went on to say that Bourne had asked Senator Bayh to rally opposition to the Percy Amendment.
    Once again, Stroup was furious with Peter Bourne. And it was the next morning, Wednesday, July 19, that the political equation was dramatically changed, as all Washington was stunned by a Washington Post headline:


    What Stroup could not know when he talked to Peter Bourne the previous Friday was that Bourne had far more serious problems on his mind than the Percy Amendment. Bourne's difficulties had begun the Friday before that, July 7, when, as he would later reconstruct the story, Ellen Metsky came to him for help. Metsky was nervous, upset. The pressures of the job were getting to her. Worse, she was breaking up with the young man she'd been involved with for two years, since the campaign. She was tense, unable to sleep. If she could just get some rest this weekend, she said, she might snap out of it. Bourne was familiar with her problems. Once before he'd suggested she talk to a psychiatrist, but she had not, explaining that she feared any history of psychiatric treatment might make it difficult for her to get government jobs in the future.
    Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a tranquilizer that can be used as a "downer" and is often used in the drug culture to enhance sex. Bourne wrote the prescription on one of his own prescription forms, with his name on it, but he did not write it for Ellen Metsky. Instead he wrote in a fictitious name: Sarah Brown.
    He thought no more about the prescription until Sunday, when he saw Metsky at a party. She said she hadn't got the prescription filled; she'd gone to a Washington drugstore, waited two hours, and finally given up. She added that she felt better, and she didn't think she'd get it filled at all.
    "Ellen, you should get it filled," Bourne told her. "You'll be back at work on Monday and all the same pressures will be there again."
    Metsky followed his advice, but she didn't take the prescription to a crowded Washington drugstore again. Instead she gave it to a friend, Toby Long, who took it to a People's Drugstore in suburban Woodbridge, Virginia. But there was a new problem. A state-pharmacy-board inspector happened to be in the drugstore. She asked for Long's identification. She had none, of course, in the name of Sarah Brown. The inspector called the police, and Long was arrested.
    It seemed possible that, at least technically, both Bourne and Long had broken the law. Because of Bourne's position, Virginia authorities notified the U. S. attorney general's office in Washington. By the end of the week, Bourne was talking to a lawyer, his old friend Charles Morgan, who had gained a national reputation battling for civil rights in the South and then as an ACLU lawyer in Washington.
    While all this was happening, President Carter and his top advisers were in Germany for what was billed as an economic summit conference. On Friday, the fourteenth, the day Bourne was assuring Stroup he would not oppose the Percy Amendment, a Justice Department official called Jody Powell in Germany and told him there was a problem concerning Bourne and a prescription. On Tuesday, the eighteenth, back at the White House, Powell checked on the problem and was told that Bourne was discussing it with Bob Lipshutz, the White House counsel. Powell somehow remained ignorant of the fact that the Washington Post was on to the story and was trying unsuccessfully to reach Bourne for comment.
    It was the next morning, Wednesday, that the Post broke the Quaalude story, and for the rest of the week there was chaos in the White House, as the Carter administration, the press corps, and NORML were caught up in an unfolding drama that lurched between tragedy and farce. Peter Bourne went to the White House that morning with a proposal: He would issue a statement explaining his action, but he would give up his role as the president's drug adviser (which of course he wanted to be rid of anyway) and continue only as a health adviser until the official investigation of his action was complete.
    The men who mattered, Jody Powell and Ham Jordan, were not sure that was enough. They were faced with a crisis, and they were starting from scratch. They had to have facts, they had to talk to lawyers, before they could decide what the president should do about Bourne. For Bourne, that Wednesday became an agonizing day of waiting for Powell and Jordan to settle his fate. As he saw it, if they'd only let him issue his statement that morning, it would have ended the story right there. Instead, by midafternoon the reporters were in a frenzy, tasting blood, and Ham and Jody's inaction had turned his minor error in judgment into another Bert Lance affair.
    As Jordan and Powell saw it, the Lance analogy applied quite differently. A year earlier, when Lance's financial dealings had come into question, they and Carter had defended Lance month after month, revelation after revelation, until by the time he finally resigned, the Carter administration had been bled white. Powell and Jordan could not let that happen again. Peter Bourne was not Bert Lance, a South Georgian, to be protected to the bitter end.
    There had to be a quick decision. Hovering in the background of their deliberations was a furious Jimmy Carter, who had just returned from the economic conference, who was trying to demonstrate his global leadership, and who had a news conference scheduled the next evening. The last thing he needed was a drug scandal involving a man he had often called one of his closest friends.
    Late in the day, at a tense meeting in Jordan's big corner office in the West Wing, Jordan announced the verdict: Bourne must take a leave of absence, continuing to draw his $51,000-a-year salary, until the matter was cleared up. That news was given to the waiting reporters, along with statements by Bourne and Metsky.
    Those statements differed in their explanations of why the prescription had been written to the fictitious Sarah Brown. Bourne's statement stressed Metsky's desire for confidentiality. But Metsky's raised the specter of sinister forces lurking in the background: "I know of the controversies in which Dr. Bourne becomes engaged regarding drug policy. His prescription number and name, as well as my name, are well known in the area of drug law enforcement. Consequently, I feared that my name would become known to those who might attempt to influence that policy."
    There, at the end of that long, agonizing Wednesday, the matter rested: Bourne was on leave with pay until it was clear what the legal repercussions of the false prescription might be. If (as proved to be the case) no charges were brought against him, he might have quietly returned to the White House in a few months. Metsky's statement had already laid the groundwork for a portrayal of him not as a man who had done something stupid but as a liberal martyr who was somehow being persecuted by nameless drug-law-enforcement officials in retaliation for his enlightened policies. Whether Bourne would have been reinstated will never be known, for the next day, Thursday, for the second straight morning, Bourne woke up to a devastating body blow: Shortly after 7:00 A.M., Jack Anderson charged on ABC's Good Morning America that Bourne had used cocaine at the NORML party eight months before.

    On Wednesday morning when the Post broke the Quaaludes story, Stroup got a call from Gary Cohn, his friend on Jack Anderson's staff, who said he had to see him at once. Stroup told him to come by his office.
    "We've got to go with the story about Bourne using cocaine," Cohn said when he arrived. "I've kept it off the record, but it's going to break now. Somebody will break it. Can I go with it?"
    Stroup knew that question was coming, but he did not know how important his answer would prove to be. "I won't tell you not to use it," he said. "But you can't use me as a source."
    "I don't need you as a source," Cohn said, and left quickly, lest Stroup change his mind.
    By the rules of Washington journalism Stroup could have forbidden Cohn to use the story. Cohn had two other sources, but they were two people whose names Stroup had given him back in February, when Stroup was angry at Bourne about the Angarola letter. Stroup was still the source of Cohn's information, and he could have stopped Cohn, or tried to, but he didn't. It was the most important decision of his career, and he made it quickly, on the basis of his anger at Bourne over the paraquat issue.
    Gary Cohn hurried back to his office and called the two people at High Times whose names Stroup had given him back in February as witnesses to the cocaine incident. Both of them, before responding, called Stroup for guidance. They were torn between anger at Bourne's paraquat policy and a strong sense that people who used drugs shouldn't burn other people for using drugs. They looked to Stroup for guidance, but Stroup was still playing God. "Do whatever you want to do," he told them. "As head of NORML I can't be a source, but I think Bourne deserves it."
    So the two witnesses confirmed the story of Bourne's cocaine use, and that evening, as Bourne left the White House, his leave of absence announced, his ordeal seemingly over, Gary Cohn was a few blocks away, banging out the story that would cause the scandal to explode anew the next morning.
    It may be that if Stroup had not given Cohn the story about Bourne, it would never have been published. A Washington Post columnist later revealed there were three Post reporters in the room when Bourne used cocaine, but they had decided not to report the incident, as had Craig Copetas of High Times. There were difficult questions involved for the young reporters. Not the least was that some of them were using drugs, too, as were hundreds of other people at the party. Was Bourne to be singled out for exposure? Or were certain social situations implicitly off the record? There were no clear-cut rules to follow. Cohn, driven by his fear that someone would beat him to the story, made the rules for everyone else. He got the exclusive, and the Post reporters got criticism from their superiors for sitting on what the editors considered a legitimate story.
    As Cohn was writing his story, Stroup was at the Biltmore Ballroom meeting Lynn Darling, a tall, slender, twenty-six-year-old reporter for the Post. When the Quaalude story broke that morning, Darling's editor assigned her to do a piece on drug use in Washington, and she called Stroup and asked for an interview. When Stroup arrived at the Biltmore, Tim Kraft and some other White House people were there, and he joined them at the bar and sipped a mimosa as they gloomily discussed the Bourne affair. One young woman, Missy Mandel, who was a friend of both Bourne and Metsky, was close to tears. Stroup began to see that this was not only a policy dispute but was also a personal tragedy. As the talk went on, Stroup grew increasingly depressed. He knew something his White House friends did not—that Jack Anderson was going to break an even worse story the next morning—and he began to realize that he should have said nothing to Gary Cohn, that he'd blundered badly, that this might be the last time he'd be seeing some of his White House friends for a long time.
    That midnight Stroup was asleep in his room at the Marcheta when the phone awoke him. It was Gary Cohn, who told Stroup he wanted to read the story to him. Stroup was hesitant. He was still not a source on the story. Cohn told him he didn't want him to be a source, only to warn him if there was anything seriously wrong with his account of the cocaine incident. "I can't stop the story now," Cohn explained, "not unless there's something terribly wrong with it. But I want to double-check." Gary Cohn was scared, scared by what this story would do to Bourne and scared by the uncertain ethics of it. He read it over the phone and then Stroup was scared too, as he realized the finality of what he had done. "It's accurate," he told Cohn. It took him a long time to get back to sleep.
    Jack Anderson, a Mormon who used no drug stronger than coffee, had no trouble sleeping that night. He arose early Thursday morning, and broke the cocaine story as scheduled on Good Morning America. Soon thereafter, Peter Bourne had reporters and photographers banging on his door, camping on his lawn, as they had on the lawns of Dean and Magruder and Haldeman in the heyday of Watergate. Bourne hurried to the White House, where he nervously told his version of the cocaine incident. Yes, he had gone to the NORML party. Yes, he had gone to the private room on the top floor of the town house. Yes, Stroup and Copetas and others had been passing around vials of cocaine. Yes, he had held them, examined them, joked about them. But no, he had not actually used the cocaine. The distinction was more political than legal, since federal law prohibited possession of cocaine, not use.
    Bourne's superiors at the White House later told reporters that they did not find his denials entirely convincing, but at that point whether or not he actually inhaled the cocaine hardly mattered. For Jimmy Carter's chief adviser on drug policy to admit he had knowingly attended a party where cocaine was used was politically devastating. Possibly Bourne might have survived that revelation alone. Possibly he might have survived the fake prescription alone. But he could not survive both. "Things were out of control," one of his White House colleagues told a reporter. "There was no way he could stay on."
    The Bourne affair had to be resolved before the president's 7:00 P.M. news conference, and it could only be resolved by Bourne's resignation. Hamilton Jordan persuaded Chuck Morgan, Bourne's friend and lawyer, of that fact, and by midafternoon Morgan had persuaded Bourne. With tears in his eyes, Bourne sat in his windowless office in the White House basement, writing a letter of resignation to his friend Jimmy Carter.
    It was an emotional letter, written by a man under enormous strain. He said, "Though I make mistakes, they are of the heart and not of the mind." He twice noted that "law enforcement officers" had been the source of the "grossest innuendo" against him. "I have never intended to do anyone harm," Bourne said. And he concluded, "I fear for the future of the nation far more than I do for the future of, Your friend, Peter."
    With Bourne's resignation in hand, the president's next problem was his news conference that night. He faced a no-win situation. There was nothing Carter could say about Bourne, either to defend him or deplore him, that would do Carter any good. He therefore announced at the outset of the news conference that he would not answer questions about Bourne. It was a stunning gambit—for a president to open a news conference by saying he would not talk about the biggest news story of the month—and to their credit some reporters would not stand for it. Daniel Schorr asked if Bourne had ever written prescriptions for Carter or his family. Carter said he had not. Sam Donelson asked if he agreed with Bourne that the attacks on him were really attacks on Carter. Carter said grimly that he would prefer not to answer that question.
    Then Craig Copetas had his chance.
    Twenty reporters were on their feet, waving their arms, shouting for the president's attention, but Craig Copetas shouted the loudest. He was a man with a mission, an avenger. Copetas had waited for this moment for a long time. He passionately believed that the government was deliberately poisoning marijuana smokers. He had been working on the story for almost two years; he had gone to Mexico; he had interviewed people who thought paraquat had damaged their lungs. That morning he had talked to a woman who'd had an abortion because she feared that smoking contaminated marijuana had damaged her unborn child.
    All things considered, Copetas asked his first question to the president fairly calmly. He noted that the NIDA report had warned of lung fibrosis to American marijuana smokers. He outlined the Percy Amendment and asked if Carter would support it.
    Carter replied, "I am not familiar with the bill. My understanding is that American money is not used to purchase the paraquat. I think Mexico buys this material from other countries and they use their own personnel to spray it with. My preference is that marijuana not be grown or smoked. It is illegal."
    Craig Copetas went berserk. He knew he was going berserk, right there on national television, and he didn't care. He's lying, Copetas thought. The president of the United States is lying to the American people. Wild-eyed, barely coherent, he shouted out a follow-up question.
    "What about the thirteen million dollars a year that is being channeled into Mexico now, that is being used with the helicopters to go out spraying the fields, or DEA, Drug Enforcement Administration, intelligence that goes out to help eradicate these fields?"
    Copetas's outburst was the best thing that had happened to Carter all day. Confronted on national television by a bearded, shouting, pro-pot journalist, Carter could play the role of the patient statesman who was protecting America from the international drug conspiracy.
    "I favor this relationship with Mexico," Carter said smoothly. "When I came into office, about seventy-five percent, for instance, of all the heroin used in our country was coming from Mexico. Because of the work of Dr. Bourne and the officials of the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, we and the new president and officials of Mexico, President L6pez Portillo, we have mounted a very successful campaign, and now we have almost stopped the flow of heroin, for instance, from Mexico to our country. Marijuana happens to be an illicit drug that is included under the overall drug-control program, and I favor this program very strongly."
    With that ringing endorsement of the paraquat-spraying program, Jimmy Carter concluded one of the more difficult days of his administration.
    It had not been a good day for Keith Stroup, either. Dozens of reporters were calling, wanting him to confirm Jack Anderson's story of Bourne's cocaine use. Stroup tried to tell them the issue should be paraquat, not Bourne's personal drug use, but of course that wasn't the issue anymore. And when he was pushed, Stroup told reporters he would not confirm Anderson's story but would not deny it, either. A Post reporter, aware that he had denied the cocaine story several times in months past, asked if his new nondenial was significant. Yes, Stroup said, it was significant. It was one last bit of grandstanding for the media, and it would soon come back to haunt him.
    The next morning's newspapers carried front-page accounts of Bourne's resignation, and the Post also carried Stroup's remark that it was "significant" that he no longer denied the reports of Bourne's cocaine use. It was not a comment that meant much to the world at large, but it meant a great deal to the staff and supporters of NORML. Stroup had not been named in the Jack Anderson story, but now he had linked himself, by name, to Bourne's downfall. Now it was no longer a matter of Bourne's bringing himself down; the head of NORML had helped destroy him. NORML supporters were troubled by a question of ethics: Should Stroup in any way have contributed to Bourne's downfall, paraquat or no paraquat? Wasn't that playing DEA's game? Wasn't it dangerously close to informing, which NORML's legal committee had officially denounced? There was a question of practical politics: Would this make it impossible for NORML to work with the Carter administration? And finally there was a personal question that many scientists and lawyers and political activists were asking themselves. Many of the people who supported NORML used illicit drugs to one degree or another, and many of them could not afford to admit it. Now they had to ask themselves, If Keith would get mad and blow the whistle on Peter Bourne, when might he blow the whistle on me?
    Finally, as the calls poured in, from people who were angry, from people who were worried, from people who were disbelieving, Stroup realized how disastrously he had blundered. By evening, he wanted nothing more than to escape the controversy. It was then that the drama moved toward comic relief. It happened that Willie Nelson was back in town, playing a concert at the Meriwether Post Pavillion. Someone in Nelson's entourage had sent thirty complimentary tickets to the White House, and one of Stroup's friends there had sent several of them to NORML. Stroup decided to go to the concert, get high, listen to Willie, and get his mind off his troubles. He and Fred Moore, Billy Paley, George Farnham, and a few others piled in a car and drove out to the concert in Columbia, Maryland. They arrived late, and slipped into their seats after Emmylou Harris, who opened the show, had started singing. Stroup noticed a couple of Secret Service men as he entered, but he took that to mean that Chip or perhaps Jeff was around somewhere. When they were settled in their seats, Fred Moore lit a joint and passed it to Billy Paley, who had a hit and passed it to Stroup, who had a hit and passed it back to Moore. Just then, someone spoke to Stroup from the row behind.
    "Do you really want to smoke that?" the voice demanded.
    Stroup was indignant. Of course he would smoke a joint. Everyone smoked at concerts. 'Why not?" he snapped.
    "Because the president is right behind you," the man said.
    Stroup turned and saw, to his horror, that it was true. Jimmy Carter was sitting in the row behind him, about five seats to the right. Stroup turned to Moore.
    "Fred, put that fucking thing out!"
    "Carter's behind us."
    Seeking to escape from Jimmy Carter, Stroup and his friends got up and went backstage. A few minutes later, Carter and his entourage also went backstage. Stroup was starting to panic: He couldn't get away from Jimmy Carter. As it happened, one of Stroup's friends didn't want to escape the president. His name was Stuart Levitan and he was a long-haired underground reporter. Without identifying himself as a reporter, Levitan buttonholed Carter and asked him about Peter Bourne's remark, printed in that morning's New York Times, that there was a "high incidence" of marijuana use among the White House staff, and "occasional" cocaine use. That was true enough, but politically harmful, and no one was sure if Bourne had just blurted it out in a moment of candor or was deliberately embarrassing the White House for what he saw as shoddy treatment of him in his hour of need. In any event, Carter, according to Levitan, replied, "I'm sure many people smoke marijuana, but I'm not going to ask them about it."
    The interview was soon terminated by Carter aides Jody Powell and Frank Moore, who dragged Levitan away, but the damage was done. Levitan wrote a story, which appeared on the front page of the Washington Star, in which Carter's remark was used to suggest that Carter condoned marijuana use by his staff.
    Meanwhile, Stroup and Paley had sat down on two empty chairs at the edge of the stage and were sharing a joint and watching the show. Someone tapped on Stroup's shoulder. He turned and saw a Secret Service agent. "Sorry, sir, those chairs are for President and Mrs. Carter," he said. Sure enough, there were the Carters, waiting to claim their seats. Stroup and Paley fled to the other side of the stage, where they joined Emmylou Harris and were finally able to smoke in peace. They were watching contentedly a few minutes later when a grinning Jimmy Carter skipped out onto the stage and joined Willie Nelson in a duet of "Georgia on My Mind."
    The fiasco continued over the weekend. When reporters interpreted Carter's "I'm not going to ask them about it" comment to Levitan as presidential approval of pot-smoking, Jody Powell denounced Levitan as "a nut," a "bongo," and "spacy," and also accused reporters of a "witch-hunt" and "cheap shots" in their efforts to document drug use by people in the White House. Powell also denounced the media for hypocrisy, noting in particular that Jack Anderson's account of the cocaine episode had not revealed that his reporter, Gary Cohn, was a guest at the party. There was some merit in what Powell said, but it was too late to matter. The Bourne affair, plus Bourne's charges of both marijuana and cocaine use among the White House staff, had raised the specter of reefer madness surrounding the born-again president, and in the weeks ahead political commentators had a field day. Editorial cartoonists, in particular, conjured up visions of presidential aides smoking joints, popping pills, snorting powder, bouncing around the ceilings of the West Wing. All of which, if unfair, was also politically devastating.
    People at NORML were also feeling devastated that weekend, and not only Stroup. One example was Mark Heutlinger, whose work in the reform movement went back to Amorphia in 1972. Heutlinger had been worried ever since Wednesday morning, the day the Quaaludes story broke, when he saw Gary Cohn go into Stroup's office. He knew why Cohn was there. Heutlinger had been afraid this would happen ever since the party. Keith's knowledge of Bourne's drug use was like a rock he had clenched in his fist, Heutlinger thought, and he knew Stroup's temper and knew his loathing of Bourne, and so he had thought it inevitable that Keith would throw that rock sometime. The only question was when.
    Heutlinger, like all the NORML staff, had for a long time coexisted uneasily with Stroup's temper, his underlying anger. His anger had fueled his tireless work at NORML, had enabled him to create the pot lobby and finance it and publicize it. No one on the staff imagined he could have done those things half as well as Stroup had. But they had also seen the times when Stroup felt wronged or rejected and his anger would explode into wild, irrational rages. Stroup's anger had been like a time bomb, ticking away, and this time Heutlinger feared the explosion was coming and the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.
    The next morning, Thursday morning, when the cocaine story broke and press calls were pouring in, Keith had handed him the phone when a Post reporter wanted details of the NORML party. "Was there cocaine use at the party?" the reporter asked. Heutlinger thought that was the dumbest question he'd ever heard. "Sure there was cocaine use," he said. "What do you expect when you have six hundred people at a party?" So the next morning, Friday morning, in the same story that had Stroup saying his nondenial was "significant," there was Mark Heutlinger saying sure there was cocaine use at the NORML party, and suddenly he realized, My God, I am in the middle of this disaster. As soon as he could, Heutlinger left town for a weekend at Rehoboth Beach.
    Running away didn't help. At the beach on Saturday he couldn't get Peter Bourne out of his mind. Finally he called Gordon Brownell in California and Larry Schott and Peter Meyers in Washington to see what they thought. They were concerned, troubled about the morality of what Keith had done, but they seemed to think the crisis would pass. Heutlinger was not so sure. As he saw it, Keith had thrown the rock into the pond and the ripples had started flowing outward and no one could say how huge they might become or what damage they might do. Everything was out of control. Heutlinger was worried, and he was ashamed, too, because he had made his career in the reform movement and he had made sacrifices, but he had always thought that changing the drug laws was right, was good for the country, was patriotic. Now he feared the movement had done something that hurt the country, hurt the political process, something that could not be defended. Finally, as he sat on the sandy beach staring out at the ocean, Mark Heutlinger knew what bothered him most. It was his fear that when he got back to NORML the next week, and he and Keith sat down to talk it all over, Keith would never admit he had been wrong.

Chapter 18

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