High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
One frigid February morning in 1977, soon after Jimmy Carter was
inaugurated, Keith Stroup came in from the cold.
Or so he thought.
He walked the dozen blocks from NORML'S office to the White House,
but it was more like a walk through time, from one life to another.
Six years earlier, when he started NORML, Stroup had been a freak,
an outlaw lobbyist who dealt with the White House only via angry
letters and defiant gestures. Now, incredibly enough, he was the
leader of a respected national lobby, and he was on his way to
see his friend Dr. Peter Bourne.
Two months earlier, during the post-election transition period,
when every lobbyist in Washington was scrambling to get a handle
on these unknown Georgians, Stroup had persuaded Bourne to be
the keynote speaker at NORML'S annual conference. That had been
an impressive show of the dope lobby's intimacy with the new administration,
but today's visit was what counted: Stroup was going to the White
House to talk policy, to try to define how NORML and the Carter
administration could work together toward common goals.
He marched up briskly to the guardhouse outside the West Wing
and announced that Mr. Stroup had arrived to see Dr. Bourne. There
was a brief delay, as there always is, but that was all right.
The trick was to be cool, as if you came to the White House every
day, and not to notice the tourists who gawked and wondered who
you were. Stroup was wearing jeans and a blue blazer with his
gold marijuana-leaf pin in its lapel. He had thought it over and
decided he couldn't not wear it just because he was going
to the White House. After a moment the guard gave Stroup a pass
and pointed him up the driveway to the West Wing door.
For all his professional cool, Stroup felt his heart beat faster
when he stepped inside the White House. You couldn't deny it:
There was something awe-inspiring about the place. If you were
a power groupie, this was your Mecca, your Rome, your rainbow's
end. Stroup did a double-take as he started down the stairs to
Bourne's office. James Schlesinger had passed by, puffing on his
pipe. Stroup thought about lighting a joint, and laughed.
In truth, Stroup was already high, but not on drugs. No more would
he have to do battle with hostile, faceless bureaucrats. He would
be dealing with friends now, with Peter Bourne and with Mathea
Falco, from the Drug Abuse Council, whom Peter had put in the
top drug-policy job at State. These were people who knew the score,
people now with the power to pick up the phone and make the bureaucrats
And it was more than Peter and Mathea. A new generation of political
activists, smokers, had come to power. He'd heard plenty of stories
about people using drugs in the Carter campaign. Hunter Thompson
had found himself doing so many drugs with Carter staff that he'd
pulled back, gone home, because he'd become one of them instead
of a journalist. And it didn't stop with the staff. Carter's three
sons had all smokedtheir mother told a reporter this during
the campaignand the oldest one, Jack, was booted out of the
Navy for smoking.
Bourne's was a windowless office in the White House basement (the
Ground Floor, its occupants called it). Bourne was waiting there,
and he seemed stiff at first, uncomfortable. Stroup wasn't surprised.
That was the purpose of this meeting, really, to clear the air.
Stroup had some specific points to discuss, but mainly he wanted
to say to Peter, in so many words, Okay, what are the rules? How
do we play this game? Are we the outsiders rattling your cage,
or are we insiders?
The meeting stayed stiff until the door burst open and Bob McNeally
ran in the started shooting pictures and yelling, "Blackmail!
Blackmail! I've got you now, Bourne!"
McNeally was a friend of Stroup's who'd signed on as a White House
photographer. His office was next to Bourne's, and this was his
idea of a jokebusting in, as in a raid on a motel room, and
photographing the dope lobbyist and the drug-policy czar.
After that the meeting loosened up. Stroup thought Bourne was
pleased that he hadn't made any demands, hadn't set any deadlines,
had only set out NORML'S agenda and his hopes of working cooperatively.
Bourne must have been pleased, because he suggested that Stroup
stay for lunch in the White House mess.
Ellen Metsky joined them. She was Peter's assistant from the campaign,
a plump, pleasant young woman with dark hair, a sly smile, and
oddly slanted, feline eyes. The mess was subdued and elegant,
with dark walls and red leather furnishings, and it offered excellent
food at ridiculously low prices. Stroup tried not to rubber-neck
as he ate, but it was difficult. He saw Jody Powell across the
room, and Stu Eisenstat, and once or twice someone had a phone
plugged in beside his table so he could solve some crisis while
Stroup believed there was no such thing as a free lunchcertainly
not in the White Houseand he wondered why Peter had brought
him here. Perhaps he wanted to show off his hip friend to his
White House colleagues, to show he wasn't as stuffy as they thought.
Or perhapsand this bothered Strouphe was trying to co-opt
him, trying to "stroke" him, as the Nixonites put it.
It worried Stroup because he saw how seductive this whole White
House routine could be. It was hard not to start thinking in terms
of "we happy few who run the world."
Still, Stroup left the White House that afternoon feeling that
everything had gone just as it should. They had spoken frankly,
neither side had made demands, and they had opened communications.
It was clear that Peter would deal with him as an insider, as
the spokesman for a legitimate and important constituency. Stroup
was jubilant as he walked back to his office. He liked the view
from the inside.
The honeymoon was soon over. Within a week Stroup had managed,
quite deliberately, to outrage Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn
Carter, Chip Carter, Jody Powell, and Hamilton Jordan, among others,
and in the process to make himself persona non grata at
the White House.
It was quite a remarkable performance, and to understand how it
could have happened, it is necessary to consider not only Stroup's
volatile, very personal view of drug politics but also Peter Bourne's
ambiguous, even precarious position in the Carter circle.
Peter Bourne's father, Dr. Geoffrey Bourne, was a distinguished
Australian scientist whose career took him first to England, where
Peter was born, in Oxford in 1939, and then in 1957 to Atlanta's
Emory University, where he became the director of the internationally
known Yerkes Primate Research Center. From the first, Peter Bourne
seemed destined for a career as distinguished as his father's.
He earned his medical degree at Emory, studied psychiatry, and
in the mid-1960s served his adopted country as a U.S. Army doctor
in Vietnam. He was shocked by the violence and human misery there,
so much so that when another Army doctor, Howard Levy, was court-martialed
for refusing to train Green Berets, Bourne agreed to testify in
his behalf. It was a courageous act for Bourne, a rather shy,
diffident young man, quick to blush, anxious to please, and having
thus outraged his military superiors, he proceeded, soon after
his release from the Army, to help organize Vietnam Veterans Against
He returned to Atlanta to teach at the Emory medical school, and
he might have proceeded to a quietly distinguished academic career
had he not happened to catch the eye of the state's new governor,
Jimmy Carter, and thus make his way into the world of politics.
Heroin use was increasing in Georgia, particularly among blacks
in Atlanta, and the local newspapers had declared a state of emergency.
At Carter's invitation, Bourne set up a program that soon converted
several thousand drug addicts from heroin to methadone. The program
was hailed a success, and Bourne began advising Governor and Mrs.
Carter on ways to improve the state's mental-health program. Bourne
began to develop a national reputation, and in 1973 he took a
job in the Nixon White House's drug-policy office, which was encouraging
methadone-maintenance programs across America. But Bourne, with
his English accent and his liberal views, was an outsider in the
Nixon White House, and he stayed less than a year. By then, his
friend Jimmy Carter was planning to run for president, and Bourne
intended to help him.
Tom Bryant was an old friend of Bourne's from the Emory medical
school, and he made Bourne a consultant to the Drug Abuse Council,
with plenty of free time for politics. Bourne, with his knowledge
of medical and health matters, was in effect Carter's first issues
adviser. In mid-December of 1974, only days after Carter amused
the political world by announcing he would run for president,
he spoke at a drug conference in San Francisco. Bourne wrote Carter
a statement in which, without really committing himself, he said
it bothered him for young people to go to jail for using marijuana,
and he would be watching the results of the Oregon law with interest.
Later, Chip Carter would push his father toward outright endorsement
Bourne's job, for all of 1975 and half of 1976, was to be Jimmy
Carter's man in Washington. He arranged Carter's meetings with
reporters and courted the local political establishment, and when
the candidate came to town, Bourne gave him a bed in his Capitol
Hill town house. Bourne's was a thankless tasktrying to sell
an anti-Washington candidate to Washingtonand he probably did
it as well as anyone could. Certainly the candidate had nothing
but praise for him; in the early days, when reporters would challenge
Carter to name someone of importance who supported him, he would
often mention his good friend Dr. Peter Bourne, the distinguished
psychiatrist and former White House adviser. But even as Bourne
was pleasing the candidate, he was running afoul of the two big,
tough, shrewd young South Georgians who were his closest advisers,
Jody Powell, the press secretary, and Hamilton Jordan, the political
It was possible to distinguish between Powell and Jordan on a
personal levelPowell's hair was light and Jordan's was dark,
and Powell was the more intelligent and stable of the twobut
politically they were indivisible. They had learned, back when
Carter was governor, that if they stuck together, they could rule
Jimmy Carter's world, Powell as Mr. Outside, managing the media,
and Jordan as Mr. Inside, controlling politics and patronage.
They were indispensable to Carter because they could see people
he didn't want to see and do the dirty work he didn't want to
do. To win their favor, via loyalty and humility, was to rise
in Carter's world; to lose it was to twist slowly in the wind.
They were proud, cynical men, and it was Peter Bourne's misfortune
that they came to view him with what was, even for them, a high
degree of scorn.
Graham Greene wrote of a character in one of his novels, "There
are men whom one has an irresistible desire to tease, men whose
virtues one doesn't share." Peter Bourne was like that, as
he tried to find his place among Carter's cadre of Georgians.
He was so different from them, and particularly from Powell and
Jordan. They were tough as nails, battle-hardened veterans of
the political wars, and Bourne was a soft, uncertain man, a political
amateur. They were hard-drinking, rough-talking, boots-and-jeans
South Georgia shitkickers, and he was an effete Englishman with
a flaky accent who drank sherry and wore fancy tweed coats and
striped ties, like the Harvards. They had no ideology except winning,
and Bourne had liberal ideas that annoyed them, intellectual concerns
that wasted their time.
Most of all, Jordan and Powell didn't like the fact that Bourne
fancied himself their peer. Their annoyance reached a peak on
the morning of June 21, 1976, when a long article about Bourne
appeared in the Washington Post. Its headline proclaimed
Bourne as Carter's "closest friend," and its first sentence
read, "Peter Bourne was the first person to tell Jimmy Carter
four years ago he should run for President."
Powell and Jordan happened to disagree with both those assertions,
and soon after that story appeared Bourne's star went into rapid
Little items began to appear in various newspapers and magazines,
items that were critical of Bourne's performance in the Carter
campaign. Peter Bourne was losing influence with Jimmy Carter,
the items would say. The candidate and his top advisers felt Bourne
was getting too much publicity for himself, or was becoming too
fond of Georgetown cocktail parties, or wasn't a shrewd enough
politician, or whatever. The criticisms were anonymous, or vaguely
attributed to "top campaign aides," so that when Bourne
went to Powell and Jordan, to ask what he was doing wrong, they
could of course tell him he wasn't doing anything wrong, and commiserate
with him about what horseshit those goddamn columnists would print.
Still, within a month of the Post story, Bourne was out
as Carter's Washington representative.
Peter Bourne was thus one of the first people to be taught a lesson
in humility by Powell and Jordan. Later they would give the same
treatment to many others: Jack Watson, a talented Atlanta lawyer
who seemed to challenge Jordan during the post-election period;
Midge Costanza, Carter's first adviser on women's issues; independent-minded
Cabinet members such as Califano and Blumenthal; even Vice-President
Mondale, when he once or twice got out of line. The treatment
was always the same: critical, sometimes humiliating leaks to
the press until the troublemaker repented, resigned, or was driven
out. It was a foolproof system. The reporters went along with
Jordan and Powell's anonymous quotes because they would continue
to be important sources, whereas the people they were humiliating
or driving from government might soon be nobodies. It worked nicely
for Carter, too, for he could remain everyone's dear friend while
Powell and Jordan attended to the necessary unpleasantries.
Thus, as Peter Bourne entered the White House in January of 1977,
he was not the powerful figure he seemed to outsiders. He had
spent the final months of the campaign in agonizing limbo, and
he was very much on probation as he started his new job. Jordan
had not granted him the top-level title of assistant to the president
but rather the second-level title of special assistant to the
president. Jordan had not assigned him one of the choice offices
upstairs in the White House but rather a windowless office in
the basement. Bourne did not even have the job he wanted. He was
special assistant on mental health and drug abuse, and he had
not wanted to work on the drug issue at all. He wanted to advise
Carter on broader issues, on world hunger and national health
insurance, but over the years Carter had come to think of Bourne
as his drug-policy man, and Bourne was stuck with it. Still, he
hoped that he would be able to spend less than 10 percent of his
time in the White House on drug-related matters. That wish would
not come true, in part because of his friend Keith Stroup.
One of the questions Stroup raised with Bourne that February morning
was how the White House could help the passage of decriminalization
bills in state legislatures across the country. Stroup had a specific
suggestion. There would be a hearing in New Mexico in a few weeks.
The vote was expected to be close. Why didn't Chip Carter, the
president's son, go testify on behalf of the bill?
The proposal had a certain logic. Carter had said, in his
campaign, that he favored decriminalization. And Chip, the second
of his three sons, was the most politically active of them, an
attractive and articulate young man who would make an excellent
spokesman for reform. Bourne promised Stroup that he would take
it up with Chip. He did, and Chip rather liked the idea. Chip
Carter was very much a part of the 1960s generation: He had smoked
dope, worshipped Bob Dylan, opposed the war, and the idea of speaking
for marijuana-law reform appealed to him. However, when he took
the proposal to Powell and Jordan, they suggested, in the gentle,
roundabout way they used with their employer's family, that maybe
it was not such a good idea, not just yet.
It was, of course, a crazy idea. Jordan and Powell knew that in
an instant. Send Chip to testify for marijuana? Sure, and why
not send Rosalynn to testify for abortion too? That'd be swell
on the evening news. The fact that Bourne would even take such
an insane proposal to Chip was an example of why Powell and Jordan
held him in such scorn. Anyone who understood anything about Jimmy
Carter would know there was no way in hell that he would ever
let Chip do such a thing.
After a few days, still thinking he was about to bring off a great
political coup, Stroup called Bourne's office to find out what
had happened. Bourne was out, but Ellen Metsky called back with
the bad news: Hamilton had advised Chip that to testify in New
Mexico would not be a good use of his time.
Stroup might have taken this news philosophically. He might have
said, "Well, win a few, lose a few," and reasoned that
the White House would owe him one the next time around. That would
have been the reasonable thing for a Washington lobbyist to do.
Instead, Stroup exploded. Those bastards had campaigned as pro-decriminalization,
and now they were backing away. The fucking hypocrites! They all
smoked dope, knowing they'd never be busted, but they wouldn't
lift a finger to keep kids out of jail in New Mexico. But it wasn't
just the kids in New Mexico. This was a personal rebuff to Stroup.
He had spent six years being treated as a political outcast, and
he had trusted the Carter people; they were his contemporaries,
his peers, they were smokers. But now, in Stroup's very
personal view of the world, they had betrayed him. Hamilton Jordan
may not think the marijuana issue is important, Stroup raged,
but it's my whole fucking life!
So he decided if he could not get Chip Carter to testify, he could
at least get some mileage out of the episode. He would show those
bastards that they couldn't play games with him, that he couldn't
be bought off with lunch in the White House mess.
He began calling reporters, telling them how Hamilton Jordan had
refused to let Chip Carter testify in New Mexico. He added his
own allegation that senior Carter staff figures had smoked marijuana
during the campaign. "Maybe the police ought to make some
arrests closer to Sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue," he
The newspapers were delighted with the story; the White House
was not. Rosalynn Carter in particular was outraged, and blamed
Bourne for getting her son into this controversy. Bourne was stunned
by Stroup's political bomb-throwing, and he did not invite Stroup
back for lunch in the White House mess a second time. Mr. NORML
was out in the cold again.
It was the first of a series of events that would prove that Stroup
was better prepared, by temperament and training, to function
as an outsider than as an insider. Stroup had let himself expect
too much from the Carter administration. His mistake was in thinking
that the change in administrations meant that the White House
was suddenly populated with his friends instead of his enemies.
The Carter people were closer to the drug culture than were their
Republican predecessors, but that didn't mean they would let it
cause them any political problems. To Stroup, that was outrageous
hypocrisy. To Jordan and Powell, who had shed a lot of blood to
get where they were, it was elementary, Politics 101. It was Stroup's
misfortune to have let his hopes rise too high. It was Bourne's
misfortune to be caught between Powell and Jordan and the political
realities they embodied, on the one hand, and the angry zeal of
Stroup and the smokers on the other. There was no way to win,
not for Bourne, not for anyone.
On March 14 the House Select Committee on Narcotics opened two
days of hearings on marijuana decriminalization.
Peter Bourne, the first witness, declared that the Carter administration
wanted to discourage all drug use, including alcohol and tobacco,
but it didn't believe that putting people in jail was the answer
to the marijuana problem. He said the administration favored the
decriminalization approach, and he cited the success of the Oregon
law, as proved by the Drug Abuse Council surveys. He noted that
moderate marijuana smoking caused no known health problems. Finally
he stressed that the Carter administration opposed the legalization
of marijuana, and would vigorously enforce the laws against smugglers.
Another administration witness was Dr. Robert L. DuPont, director
of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, who supported decriminalization
and noted that the laws seemed to have little effect on people's
decisions to use or not use marijuana. Other pro-decriminalization
witnesses included two black political leaders, Mayor Richard
Hatcher, of Gary, Indiana, and California representative Yvonne
Braithwaite Burke, as well as spokesmen for the American Bar Association
and the ACLU.
Bourne's was the most progressive statement any senior government
official had ever made about marijuana. The reefer-madness mythology
seemed finally dead and buried. A new era of drug policy seemed
at handan era of humanism, Bourne liked to call it.
All of which did not make Stroup any happier when he arrived to
testify the next day. Stroup felt vast frustration as he took
his place at the witness table and looked up at the congressmen
seated before him. In particular, he resented the roles that two
of them, Paul Rogers, of Florida, and Lester Wolff, of New York,
had played in blocking marijuana-law reform.
Rogers was the chairman of the House Sub-Committee on Health,
which had authority over marijuana legislation, and for years
Rogers had refused even to hold hearings on a decriminalization
bill. Stroup found this particularly galling because Rogers, who
was a doctor, had been a member of the Marijuana Commission.
With Rogers refusing to act, the initiative had passed to Lester
Wolff, the chairman of this "select committee." Stroup
viewed Wolff as a lightweight who wanted to use the marijuana
issue only to gain all the publicity and round-the-world junkets
he could. The cold fact was that this select committee had no
legislative authority over marijuana, and these hearings were
only Lester Wolff's publicity circus. It was the ultimate congressional
Catch-22: The committee that could legislate wouldn't hold hearings,
and the committee that would hold hearings couldn't legislate.
Adding to Stroup's anger was the fact that he had clashed several
times with the select committee's chief counsel, Joseph Nellis,
during the negotiations that led up to his testimony. First, Nellis
wanted him to testify along with Peter Lawford, the actor. Stroup
refused. He thought it would make him look silly to be paired
with an aging English movie star. Nellis, a heavyset man with
slicked-back hair, warned that if Stroup wasn't careful, he might
not get to testify at all.
"Joe, you don't have to let me testify," Stroup shot
back, "but if you don't, I'll testify in the hallway outside
your hearing room, and I'll get more press than you will."
Stroup got to testify inside, and after his opening statement,
he was delighted to find his nemesis Paul Rogers questioning him.
They parried on whether or not decriminalization caused increased
smoking, and then, when Rogers finished and started to leave,
Stroup turned the tables by demanding to be told why Rogers had
never held hearings on decriminalization bills. Rogers answered
rather lamely that his committee had more important health issues
to consider. Stroup shot back: "We feel that elected officials
should by this time be willing to take a position. Either you
favor criminal penalties for us or you do not. Right now you are
not voting; you are ducking."
It was a sweet moment for Stroup. For years he'd dreamed of having
a chance to put Paul Rogers on the spot, and to get a shot at
him in a public hearing was almost too good to be true. Their
exchange was the day's dramatic highlightlobbyists do not often
put important congressmen on the defensiveand it made the day's
news. The Washington Post's headline was "Angry Marijuana
Backer Tells Hill: 'You're Ducking."'
Once again Stroup had won the battle for the headlines, but his
opponents in Congress were still winning the war. And of course
he had done himself no good with Congressmen Rogers and Wolff,
or with Chief Counsel Joe Nellis, by upstaging them at their own
hearing. Nellis, in particular, would be heard from again. Later
that year he would play a role in a slapstick, pie-in-the-face
comedy that, as much as anything, would lead to Stroup's downfall.
The good news that spring was mostly from the states.
In 1976 only one state, Minnesota, had passed a decriminalization
bill, becoming the seventh state to do so. But that was an election
year, always a slow time for reform, so NORML had high hopes for
1977, particularly with the new administration supporting reform.
In April, Mississippi became the first Southern state to decriminalize.
It seemed quite a dramatic breakthrough, but Stroup had mixed
feelings about it. The $250 fine for first-offense possession
was part of an otherwise harsh, Rockefeller-style omnibus drug
law. Stroup was increasingly concerned that in these legislative
trade-offs the reformers were "only trading prisoners for
prisoners." He thought NORML'S Mississippi coordinator, a
handsome, thirty-year-old insurance executive named Doug Tims,
had been too quick to make deals with the law-enforcement officials
who opposed reform. At one point Stroup and Tims had clashed because
of some pro-cocaine statement Stroup had made on television. It
was another example of the difficulty of holding together a national
coalition that stretched from a Mississippi insurance man on the
right to Tom Forcade on the left. More and more Stroup wondered
when the whole damn thing was going to explode.
As Mississippi took a small step forward, South Dakota took a
big step back. In the spring of 1976 its legislature enacted the
lowest fine in the nation, $20 for simple possession. Unfortunately
the new law did not take effect until 1977, and by then a more
conservative legislature had been elected. It amended the new
law, before it even took effect, to allow a $100 criminal fine
and thirty days in jail for possession. It was a blunt reminder
of how fragile reform could be.
In June, after a bitter political struggle, New York became the
ninth state to decriminalize. Reform efforts had been under way
since the Rockefeller law passed in 1973. NORML'S Frank Fioramonti
had journeyed to Albany almost every week to meet with legislators
and lobbyists and, like Brownell in California, had made himself
central to the reform campaign. A bill was introduced in 1977
with support from the state's new Democratic governor, Hugh Carey,
but worried Democrats, along with the state's Conservative party,
killed the bill in May. There could be another vote, however,
and pressures for reform came from many directions.
William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote a column headed "A Cry from
the Heart," warning that the conservatives were writing off
young voters by their anti-marijuana stand. Governor Carey declared
he would personally campaign for any legislator who needed help
because of a pro-reform vote. In time a compromise bill passed
that provided a $100 fine for possession of an ounce, twice that
for a second conviction, and fifteen days in jail for a third
North Carolina was next, the tenth state, with a bill providing
a $100 fine for possession of an ounce and up to six months in
jail for second offenders. With bills passed in Mississippi, New
York and North Carolina by summer, it seemed that the dam was
finally breaking, that five or even ten more states might act
before 1977 was over. They did not. The surge of reform that began
in Oregon in 1973 was almost over. No more bills passed in 1977
and only one, in Nebraska, in 1978. Increasingly, a new issue
would preoccupy both the reformers and the government and bring
them into sharp conflict: paraquat, a herbicide that was used
to kill marijuana plants in Mexico and that, NORML feared, was
also killing marijuana smokers in America.
In 1971 the Nixon administration, anxious to stop marijuana from
entering the U.S., offered helicopters and airplanes to the Mexican
government for a program to defoliate marijuana fields. That was
at a time, however, when much of the world disapproved of the
U.S. defoliation of forests and rice fields in Southeast Asia,
and the Mexican government indignantly rejected the offer. "Mexico
will never allow itself to be used as a proving ground for herbicides
nor to suffer damage to the ecology of our country," declared
the Mexican attorney general.
By 1975 the situation had changed. There was a new government
in Mexico, and it was concerned about the hundreds of thousands
of acres in the Sierra Madre that were being used to grow marijuana,
as well as poppies from which heroin was made. Their concern had
little to do with the health or welfare of American drug users
and much to do with Mexican politics. Mexico was then supplying
some 90 percent of America's marijuana and receiving in return
some $2 billion a year. But who was getting that money? The Sierra
Madre was a twenty-three-thousand-square-mile region that had
never been under effective government control. Promises of land
reform there had been made but not kept, and peasants were starting
to take over large farms by force. There were revolutionary stirrings
in the region, and the millions of dollars pouring in could only
aid potential revolutionaries. That was the ultimate fear: that
American drug users might unwittingly finance a Mexican revolution.
The Mexican government therefore decided to carry out a major
program to eradicate poppy and marijuana fields, and it wanted
American money and technical assistance. The Americans were glad
to oblige, for a number of reasons. For the DEA and the White
House, it would be part of the war on drugs. For the CIA and the
State Department, who didn't want a Mexican revolution any more
than the Mexicans did, it was an excellent excuse to have Americans
keeping a close eye on what happened in the Sierra Madre. Finally,
there was the new factor that had revolutionized U. S.-Mexican
relations: oil. The discovery in 1972 of vast new oil and gas
deposits in Mexico, at a time when the U.S. had a desperate need
for new energy sources, had changed everything. U.S. presidents
and secretaries of state, after years of giving orders to Mexican
governments, were now forced to go to them, hat in hand, in hopes
of winning favorable oil agreements. If the Mexican government
wanted a few million dollars and a few dozen helicopters to spray
marijuana fields, the U.S. government would be glad to oblige.
John D. Ford, an aviation-services adviser to the Agency for International
Development, was one of the Americans who went to Mexico in the
fall of 1975 to help set up the spraying program. During test-spraying
in October of that year he noticed, and reported to his superiors,
something quite unexpected when he returned one day to a marijuana
field he had sprayed. "Upon landing, we discovered that a
large portion of the field had been harvested after it was sprayed."
What Ford did not understand, but what was quickly apparent to
the Mexican peasants, was this: If they harvested the sprayed
plants quickly, before the herbicide turned the leaves brittle
and the taste bitter, the contaminated plants could still be sold
to the Yankee drug dealers. Just what might happen to people who
smoked that herbicide-drenched marijuana was not of great concern
to the peasants, for whom a marijuana crop could mean, by one
estimate, the difference between an income of $200 a year and
$5000 a year.
Thus, aided by $15 million a year in U.S. money, the spraying
program began and some unknown amount of contaminated marijuana
began making its way back across the border into the U.S.
It was well known at this time that paraquat would kill people
who swallowed it. Scientists say that more than two hundred cases
of fatal paraquat poisoning have been reported in medical journals.
A single mouthful will kill an adult, and even a taste will kill
a child. There have been several cases in which adults put paraquat
in a cola bottle to pour on weeds and then left the bottle in
a garage or tool shed; a child, thinking it a bottle of soda,
would drink it and die a horrible death. Paraquat, if swallowed,
gravitates to the lungs and causes slow suffocation. There is
All this was known. What was not known was what would happen to
people who smoked marijuana that had been sprayed with paraquat.
Stroup first heard reports of the spraying program from drug dealers
who attended the NORML conference in December of 1976. Craig Copetas,
of High Times, said he had been hearing the same thing.
Stroup, at his meeting with Peter Bourne early in February, asked
if there was some sort of herbicide-spraying program going on,
and Bourne promised to check into it. On February 16, after his
leak about Chip Carter had angered Bourne, Stroup wrote Bourne
and formally asked how extensive the program was and what was
known about the effects on people who smoked marijuana that had
been sprayed with a herbicide.
It was a month before Bourne replied. He said it was true that
the Mexican government was using herbicides to eliminate illegal
opium-poppy and marijuana crops. The U.S. government, he said,
"has nothing to do with the selection, procurement, payment
or reimbursement in regard to the herbicides." He added that
the experts he had consulted did not know the effect, if any,
the poisoned marijuana might have on the health of people who
Stroup, at that point, was at a dead end. He didn't know anything
about the spraying program, and having outraged Bourne and the
White House, he couldn't look for much cooperation there. And
yet if what he feared was true, millions of Americans were smoking
Fortunately, as he pondered the paraquat problem, Stroup was able
to turn to a powerful ally: Stuart Statler, his friend since they
were young lawyers at the Product Safety Commission a decade before
and who had gone on to Sen. Charles Percy's staff, eventually
to become chief counsel for the Republican members of the Senate
Permanent Investigations Sub-committee, which oversaw, among other
agencies, the DEA. It had been in large part because of Statler
that Senator Percy had held hearings, back in 1973, into ODALE's
no-knock drug raids, and now, in 1977, Statler would become an
important ally for NORML on the paraquat issue.
Stu Statler was a short man with a thatch of unruly reddish-brown
hair. Despite the conservative way he dressed and the careful
way he spoke, he had a certain aura of the leprechaun about him.
He liked Stroup and admired the work he'd done at NORML. He felt
he'd kept the reform movement from being taken over by the crazies,
whose work would only be counterproductive. As a lawyer Statler
was concerned by what Stroup told him about the spraying program.
One of the basic principles of law, Statler felt, was foreseeability.
If you could foresee that your action would harm someone, then
you had an obligation not to take that action. It seemed clear
to Statler, therefore, that if the U.S. government's support of
the Mexican spraying program was foreseeably harming American
citizens, then that support should stop. The first step, however,
was to learn more about the program, and to that end he persuaded
his boss, Senator Percy, to write to Peter Bourne and request
Prodded by Senator Percy, and by his own concerns, Bourne then
took two steps that indicated his determination to get the facts
on the Mexican spraying program. First, he and Mathea Falco flew
to Ixtepec, Mexico, for a first-hand look at the spraying program.
They walked through fields of ten-foot-high marijuana plants and
examined them before and after spraying. Everything Bourne saw,
and everything the U.S. and Mexican officials told him, indicated
that the sprayed plants would turn brittle and wither away before
they could be harvested and shipped back to the U.S.
Pursuing the matter, Bourne next called a meeting in his office,
on May 27, of representatives of the DEA, the Food and Drug Administration,
the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, and
the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), all to discuss the
facts and implications of the spraying program.
For Peter Bourne, at that time, the trip to Mexico and the meeting
were just further examples of how drug-related issues were taking
more and more of his time.
Unexpected controversies kept arising. The president had caused
one of them. Bourne went to his office one evening to review his
work. Carter asked if there was anything more he should be doing
about drugs. Bourne was not caught unprepared. "One thing
we could do is take barbiturates off the market," he said.
He explained how barbiturates were over-prescribed, and how more
people died from their misuse each year than from heroin. Bourne
was pleased by Carter's keen interest in what he said, but he
was stunned at what Carter did the next day. Carter had his first
radio call-in program that afternoon, and when someone asked him
what he was going to do about the drug problem, he declared that
he was going to ban the sale of barbiturates.
It was an example of Carter's habit of shooting from the hip,
and Bourne was kept busy for several days picking up the pieces,
explaining what the president really meant and meeting with the
drug industry and the AMA and the FDA to work out a compromise
whereby the drug industry could "voluntarily" phase
There were other controversies. Just a few days before the May
27 meeting in his office, Bourne had testified before a Senate
committee, and someone had asked if he'd ever smoked marijuana
himself. He admitted that he had, with some friends, when he was
an Army medical officer stationed in Vietnam, and to his amazement
that became the day's big story, in newspapers across the nation.
It was incredible, he thought, that so much attention would be
paid to one man's admission that he'd smoked.
And there were the mothers. All over America, it seemed, community
anti-marijuana groups were springing up. They wrote letters to
the president, hundreds of them. Sometimes they came to see the
president. "How can we control our children when you're talking
about making marijuana legal?" they would demand. There was
one group in Decatur, Georgia, that had direct access to Carter.
They would send their delegations, and often he would send them
down to talk with his expert on drugs. Bourne would have to listen
to their outraged complaints. They didn't want to hear about the
Marijuana Commission report, or scientific findings that suggested
marijuana was not harmful, or the arguments for decriminalization.
All they knew was that they didn't want their children smoking
the stuff. Their passions were as intense as those of the right-to-lifers
during the campaign. "You're destroying our children!"
they would cry. And Peter Bourne, a gentle man who did not want
to destroy anyone's children, would smile and take the heat.
And now there was paraquat.
The meeting in Bourne's office that day happened to include, in
addition to the people from State, DEA, FDA, and other executive
agencies, a young man named Daryl Dodson, who was a $125-a-week
intern on the Senate Permanent Investigations Sub-Committee staff
and who was present representing Stuart Statler. More than a year
later, when paraquat had exploded into a national controversy,
Dodson described the meeting in Bourne's office to Jesse Kornbluth,
who was writing an article about the issue for The New York
"The opinion of almost everyone there was that people didn't
want to spend resources testing for paraquat poisoning. 'This
may be the biggest breakthrough in drug abuse yet,' someone said.
There were jokes like, 'Well, we've finally found a way to stop
pot smokers.' Richard Dugstad [of the State Department] continued
to say there was no evidence contaminated marijuana was being
harvestedyet he had forwarded the Ford memos, which directly
contradicted him, to us. Over and over, people asked, 'Why are
we even concerned about this?' until Peter Bourne said, 'Because
we have a responsibility.'"
It was Dodson's impression that Bourne alone, of those at the
meeting, was seriously concerned about the possibility that the
spraying might present a health hazard to American smokers. Bourne's
subsequent action suggests that. He ordered DEA to provide NIDA
with samples of marijuana confiscated at the Mexican border, and
NIDA to test them for paraquat contamination. Because of his own
observations in Mexico, Bourne doubted that any contaminated marijuana
would be found, but he wanted to find out, if only to settle the
matter once and for all.
The meeting in Bourne's office, as described by Dodson, first
revealed the attitude that would be taken time and again by federal
bureaucrats, which was that marijuana smokers simply had no rights.
If paraquat had been accidentally sprayed on a tobacco field in
North Carolina, or spilled at the Lem Motlow distillery in Tennessee,
the U. S. government would have moved heaven and earth to be sure
that no cigarette smoker or whiskey drinker was harmed. But because
marijuana was illegal, the bureaucrats reasoned, it was all right
for the government to take actions that might harm them. To Stroup,
who for years had resented the idea that he and other smokers
were second-class citizens, it was the ultimate indignity: The
government thought it could poison them with impunity.
Despite his clash with the White House in February, Stroup was
dealing socially with members of the White House staff more and
more as 1977 progressed. In part this was because of his friendship
with two young entrepreneurs, Fred Moore and Billy Paley. Moore
was slender and bearded, a lawyer turned restaurateur in his mid-thirties.
Paley, still in his twenties, was the son of CBS founder William
S. Paley and Babe Paley, a legendary figure in American fashion
and society. Billy Paley was a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered
man with a jet-black beard, one earring, and a taste for beautiful
women, flashy sports cars, and fancy night life. Together Moore
and Paley opened a restaurant on Capitol Hill called the Gandy
Dancer, which they hoped to make the sort of hip, fashionable
spot that would attract media figures and the younger Carter crowd.
To that end, Moore appeared in Stroup's office one day early in
1977 and said he admired the work NORML had done and hoped Stroup
would patronize the Gandy Dancer. In fact, Moore said, Stroup
could have a "tab," which meant that his food and drinks
would be free. Stroup appreciated the offer and frequently took
advantage of it. Moore and Paley were equally successful in attracting
some of the Carter people, and Stroup began to meet them at the
Gandy. Bill Dixon, who'd run Wisconsin for Carter in 1976, was
often there, as were Stroup's photographer friend Bob McNeally
and Tim Kraft, Carter's appointments secretary. A lot of people
from Capitol Hill and the D.C. government hung out there, too,
and entertainers, like Jimmy Buffet, would drop by when they were
in town. For a time the Gandy Dancer was the in spot for Washington's
younger political crowd, much as Duke Ziebert's restaurant had
been for the older political generation. For Stroup it became
a social headquarters, a place to entertain, to see and be seen,
and Moore and Paley became, in effect, NORML'S social chairmen,
most notably when he entrusted to them the planning of the NORML
conference parties in 1977 and 1978.
If drugs were one of the common denominators that united Washington's
younger political crowd, another was rock music. When Willie Nelson
or Jimmy Buffet or the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac came to town for
a concert, it was important to be there, to be backstage, to be
at the post-concert parties, and it was at these concerts that
Stroup met many of the Carter people. Often, when a favorite rock
group was comingusually to the huge Capital Centre, a long
ride out from downtown WashingtonFred Moore would get tickets,
organize a party, and the Gandy Dancer crowd would all ride out
together. The first time Stroup rode on a bus with some White
House people, he was very straight. Beer was being passed around,
and he took one and sipped it. Then a Carter aide yelled across
the aisle, "Hey, Stroup, don't you have any dope?" Stroup
shrugged, pulled out a joint, and shared it with the more adventurous
In July, Fleetwood Mac played a concert in Washington. They were
trying to get approval for a tour of Russia, and they attended
a party at a Washington hotel that was mainly for members of the
White House staff. Stroup was one of the few outsiders to attend.
He saw Chip Carter there and was about to introduce himself and
to say he was sorry about the incident in February, but one of
his other White House friends advised him against it. Before he
left he chatted with Pat Caddell, the president's pollster, and
Barry Jagoda, Carter's television adviser; the next day he wrote
them both letters and enclosed NORML brochures. That was the point
with Stroup: The others were playing, but he was working.
As it happened, the biggest favor Stroup got from the White House
that year didn't come from one of his friends at the Gandy Dancer
but from a little-known presidential speechwriter named Griffin
Smith, who had been assigned to draft a presidential message to
Congress on drug abuse.
Smith was a plumpish, soft-spoken man in his early thirties who
in 1972-73, as a legislative aide in Texas, had been a key figure
in the passage of that state's reform bill. Stroup had known and
admired Smith back then and had been delighted when he'd emerged
as a member of Carter's speechwriting staff. They talked a few
times in early 1977, and in the summer Smith called and asked
Stroup to send him ideas for the president's drug statement. Stroup
quickly did so, and Smith later called again and invited Stroup
to come by his apartment to make suggestions as he wrote a final
draft of the statement.
By that point Griffin Smith was a very demoralized, discouraged
man. He had come to Washington quite by accident, because of his
friendship with Jim Fallows, Carter's senior speechwriter, and
he had not expected to be such a small frog in such a large pond.
It sounded impressive to say you were one of the president's speechwriters,
but the truth was he'd met Carter only once, and he'd soon learned
that speechwriters were supposed to keep quiet and write what
they were told to write. This drug message was typical of the
frustrations of his job. He kept writing good, strong drafts of
the message and sending them to Peter Bourne, and Bourne kept
watering them down and sending them back.
He invited Stroup over for moral support, and also just for the
hell of it. What Smith wanted to do was to write the strongest
possible message, yet consistent with the president's policy as
he understood it. But that left room for a good deal of rhetorical
flourish, and as the evening progressed, Smith and Stroup inserted
into the proposed message such statements as "Marijuana has
become an established fact throughout our society and the sky
has not fallen," and "States should repeal criminal
penalties, thus bringing to a close an unhappy and misguided chapter
in our history."
A few days later this draft reached the desk of Stu Eisenstat,
Carter's top domestic adviser, a cautious man, who was shocked
at what he read. In a memo to Carter, Eisenstat said, "I
am very concerned about the marijuana section of this message."
He warned that the section on marijuana was "written in an
almost laudatory tone," and that some of the statements almost
seemed "to be a positive recommendation of the drug."
Eisenstat's analysis was perceptive, and Carter, heeding the advice,
personally edited out the most blatantly pro-pot rhetoric. Still,
even as edited, Carter's message called for decriminalization
and was excellent from NORML's point of view.
For Stroup it was yet another lobbyist's dream come true: to help
the president's speechwriter write the presidential message to
Congress in the area of his concern. And of course it also made
a nice, self-serving story to drop to his friends at the Gandy
Dancer. Stroup seemed to be riding high as the summer ended. The
paraquat issue was at least temporarily on the back burner, as
both sides awaited the results of the tests Bourne had ordered.
Meanwhile, Stroup partied with the Carter crowd and helped write
Carter's drug message. He had intimacy with the people in power,
and yet he remained his own man.
In fact, Stroup was riding for a fall, and when it came, the only
real surprise was that it happened in Canada instead of in Washington.