When Keith Stroup founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws with some friends and fellow attorneys in 1970, they thought it might take them ten years to achieve nationwide decriminalization. And for a while, it looked like they were on track to meet that date — and maybe move even faster.
By 1978, NORML had helped eleven states decriminalize marijuana, and Stroup had successfully cultivated relationships within President Jimmy Carter’s administration, most notably Carter’s drug policy czar, Dr. Peter Bourne. More concerned with quashing the heroin epidemic, Bourne lent a sympathetic ear to Stroup’s cause, even attending NORML parties in New York, where Bourne was alleged to have partaken in some illegal substances of his own. Cocaine had entered the chat, and there was no going back.
Stroup’s relationship with Bourne blew up after a rumor leaked that Bourne did a line of cocaine at a NORML party, a story that Stroup admits to leaking to the press after he felt the drug czar wasn’t moving fast enough with pot reform. Bourne was forced to resign, Stroup was ousted by NORML’s board, and marijuana’s connection with the White House was gone. Ronald Reagan was elected less than two years later, with the Just Say No and D.A.R.E. programs coming right behind. After nearly a decade of hard-fought progress, public support for marijuana dropped in 1980 and stayed at less than 25 percent until 1996, when the medical benefits of cannabis began receiving attention.
Stroup goes into detail about the Bourne incident on Slate’s new podcast centered on the late 1970s, but the marijuana legalization movement’s momentum, then downturn, then rise currently have several parallels around the country. We caught up with Stroup, now a legal advisor for NORML, to see if history is repeating itself.
Westword: Considering your relationship with Peter Bourne and early ties to the Carter administration, did you think NORML might reach its goals inside of ten years?
Keith Stroup: Well, that’s an interesting concept. I realize when people go back and look at the Bourne incident and the Carter era, it’s easy to conclude that we blew a real opportunity to make headway. But, honestly, we didn’t have more than six or seven members of Congress at the time who’d even sit down with us. Gallup polling about marijuana legalization in 1969 showed only 12 percent of the public supported legalization.
The only reason we built some momentum in the ’70s was because of a 1972 report from the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. No one expected them to do an honest job, because nine of the thirteen members were appointed by Richard Nixon, and the other four were Congress members. They surprised us, though. They didn’t have the courage to recommend full legalization with a legal market and dispensaries, but they did say we should eliminate penalties altogether for the possession and use of marijuana, and they even recommended that adults should be able to share it with other adult friends without remuneration. That was a fairly progressive report, but that commission went out of business, so NORML spent the next seven or eight years traveling around the country, trying to convince any state legislature willing to consider decriminalization.
There was momentum, but the public support started at 12 percent, and it may have gotten as high as 26 or 27 percent in the mid-’70s. But then, in 1978, it started dropping again and stayed around 22 percent until 1990. The last state to adopt marijuana decriminalization in the ’70s was Nebraska, in 1978. We waited from 1978 to 1996 for a single statewide victory for decriminalization. We started dropping in ’78 and didn’t start inching back up until 1990. So the reality is, there was no way in hell we were changing federal law in the ’70s.
Now, I will say, Jimmy Carter did send a message to Congress to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. That never happened, obviously, and after the Bourne event, it didn’t come up again for a while. But we never had a committee hearing or vote in Congress on this. It’s easy for people to look back and say we missed a good shot. I totally agree it was not good strategy to blow that relationship apart, because we had a good bit of input with the Carter kids and his drug czar — but it wasn’t anywhere near sufficient enough to change laws. We needed public support to be well above 50 percent. The reasons we’re finally winning is because of public support, which is around 68 percent now.
What about an executive order from Carter? Was there any chance of that?
That wouldn’t have changed state laws, though. The most he could’ve done is probably given an order to the DEA to reschedule marijuana from something lower than Schedule I. But today we want it totally taken off the Controlled Substances Act.
Why do you think there was such a drop in public support for legalization through the ’80s?
There was a real change in the mood of the country. Those of us who were young and idealistic at the time, we thought it was only a matter time before we won the whole country over as we gained a couple points in the polls each year. But in 1978 or ’79, public support decreased. You had Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Just Say No movement and parents’ groups. We didn’t take them very seriously, because they were proposing we shouldn’t legalize anything that would be unsafe for children to do. Even though that sounded absurd to us and we ignored them, the public didn’t.
We were losing a lot of support every year until California resurfaced in the ’90s with medical marijuana, which was a new way to look at it. In the ’70s, everything was about decriminalizing the user, but after California in 1996, the issue was allowing patients to use marijuana as medicine. That was a new, reasonably appealing way to present marijuana reform to people who didn’t smoke. These people had enough stories from cancer and chemotherapy patients, and we all began to realize there was something to medical marijuana. And that’s when it really took off.
Much of the momentum in the ’70s was tied to marijuana’s relative harmlessness compared to the heroin epidemic going on. Flash-forward to the mid- and late 2010s, and marijuana garnered a similar reputation in comparison to opioids. But there’s recently been a rise in vocal groups of parents who don’t want to see commercial pot normalized. Does this sort of stuff always take two steps forward, just to take one step back?
It’s sort of fascinating to follow prohibitionist arguments over the years, like Project SAM‘s. Initially, they were all about reefer madness, but they weren’t winning that argument and started to back off. Now they don’t say marijuana is worse than heroin, but instead focus on dangers to kids or that there will be more stoned drivers on the road — even though our experiences with legalization haven’t shown that.
They’re still presenting their propaganda as if they’re holding back these evil forces. We now have eighteen or nineteen states that have fully legalized marijuana. I don’t want to suggest that once you legalize marijuana, the work is over, because it’s not. We want responsible marijuana smokers to be treated fairly in all aspects of their lives. We don’t want them to fight for custody of their child simply because a noisy neighbor smells marijuana and reports them to the child welfare agency. That still happens all the time.
How do you feel about proposed THC potency limits that are starting to gain steam in legalized states?
What all of the data suggests is that smokers who like potent concentrates adjust their intake. Marijuana is stronger than it used to be, but that’s all right. The question is, how does it impact you? Someone drinking hard liquor doesn’t drink the same amount as if they were drinking beer or wine. Going overboard makes you sick and makes you have a bad experience, and too much THC can do that, too. The argument against potency would essentially push people to buy off the black market again. Legalization is intended to bring the market aboveground, so marijuana is tested in certified labs, labeled accurately and doesn’t have pesticides. The argument for limits based on potency is foolish.
How much do these larger societal trends shift marijuana legalization support?
Whenever you have conservatism getting stronger, it makes legalization proposals harder to move. For the last several decades, conservatives have generally been in favor of treating anyone who uses drugs other than alcohol or tobacco as criminals. We hit 50 percent support nationwide in 2005 and it kept going up, though. None of us know precisely where the point is, but once you get enough support for the underlying issue, you’re home free. So many people today are comfortable with legalization. My generation was the problem. We lived through reefer madness and bought the whole line of shit, no matter how much information and advocacy we used.
You sort of see that with [President] Joe Biden right now. [Vice President] Kamela Harris supported legalization in the Senate, but I recognize Biden spent much of his life being a drug war hero. He’s largely responsible for minimum mandatory penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, which ruined countless lives over the last thirty and forty years.
On the other end, social equity is actually helping our cause a great deal. It’s allowed people like [New Jersey] Senator Cory Booker, for example, to come out as a full-bore advocate for legalization without saying it’s okay to smoke pot. He’s coming from a perspective of impacting minority communities. By including these social equity provisions, we now have this more appealing argument to help communities that were most impacted by prohibition. Politicians who sign off on it won’t seem as radical.