High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
High in America ©1981 by Patrick Anderson
Published by The Viking Press, New York
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.
"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 marijuanaI'd
tried it only twiceand 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
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 marijuananot
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
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
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
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 thereblack and white,
Protestant and Catholic, North and South, immigrant and bluebloodwaiting
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'sacid, 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 angrilyand
rashlyleaked 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
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.
"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 citethose who say marijuana is virtually
harmless and those who believe it presents real or potential health
hazardsand 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.