Many legalization proponents today owe the success of their cause to the pathway carved out by lawyer Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a front lines consumer activist organization.
Created in 1970, NORML was tasked with the goal that many activists have adopted today of creating an environment for the safe, legal consumption of cannabis. While NORML had some impressive wins early on, getting decriminalization for 11 states within their first decade of work, they hit a brick wall during the Regan administration and “Just Say No” campaign.
But Stroup and NORML carried on, and rode the wave of changing public opinion that changed dramatically for the better in the 90s, and has brought the cannabis industry to where it is today in its legalization efforts.
It’s been a long road to victory for him personally and professionally where—now in his early 70s—he has stepped down as executive director of NORML, but continues as the organization’s spokesperson, legal counsel and legalization icon. “I think that people today will someday be amazed that there were people fighting this fight before they were born,” Stroup says.
DOPE visited with Stroup at the national headquarters of NORML in downtown D.C.
DOPE: What motivated you to create NORML and work toward the legalization of marijuana?
Keith Stroup: It was a combination of working with Nader and public interest law, and then being radicalized by the Vietnam War and the draft. Once you began questioning the war, you became interested in questioning the government about a whole lot of other stuff that they were doing. And there was a sense then that everybody should dedicate a couple of years of their life to doing something to make the world a better place. And NORML was my version of doing that.
DOPE: What was the struggle like to make a difference in those early days?
KS: We knew that a lot of people were not going to take NORML seriously. So you had to have thick skin. You had to have a good sense of your own mission in life and not be blown one way or another by public opinion.
DOPE: Were the NORML offices ever raided or put under surveillance?
KS: There used to be a kind of van that sat across the street from the NORML office and we just presumed that was the Drug Enforcement Agency because it was there for the longest fucking time. We assumed that they would probably use the criminal justice system to shut us down. So we had to keep our conduct fairly clean. On the other hand, we weren’t going to fight to legalize marijuana and not be smoking. Fuck that. That’s not what it is about.
DOPE: There is a new generation of activists working on this issue, and some engage in street theater and other ways of getting attention. What’s your take on that work?
KS: Back in the 70s, it was a David and Goliath thing. We were fighting against the government and willing to use street theater to get attention, because otherwise nobody would notice you. But now, we are not having trouble getting noticed. President Obama has given the legalization movement the biggest favor we could ever have. Any prior president, if you had a state like Colorado that legalized recreational marijuana, the Department of Justice would have gone into federal court and asked for an injunction to shut it down under the supremacy clause. And that president would have gotten it. We would never have had the opportunity to demonstrate that legalization actually works, because it was a theoretical argument up to then. Now we have two states with four years of experience, and two states with two years of experience. That’s real data.
DOPE: With California and other states set to legalize recreational use, is there a sense that you are done with your mission?
KS: I am almost hesitant to say that we have reached a turning point because to be honest, we thought we had reached a turning point in the late 70s when we decriminalized in 11 states. We thought within four or five years, we would have them all. But then we didn’t win another state for 18 years. And when you look at Gallup polls you can see why—public support was declining. It started back up about 1990. Now we are getting to the point where states are insisting that marijuana be tested by labs. So I am looking at working on the refinements that we really wanted to do four and a half decades ago. NORML was always about consumer protection. But what we had to do first was work to stop arresting smokers before you could get to the point of consumer protection.