Activist lawyer Keith Stroup has busted his ass at the front lines of cannabis policy reform longer than almost anyone else alive. He came in with one of the earliest waves of advocates to work the issue, not long after Allen Ginsberg first donned his sandwich sign proclaiming “pot is fun” to New York indifference and right before Harvard professor Lester Grinspoon’s Marihuana Reconsidered challenged the medical assumptions of the day. The organization he founded – the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws – is well known nationwide for its pioneering decriminalization work in the seventies and beyond. Although Stroup stepped down from his role as Executive Director in 2005, he remains active in the group he founded in 1970, serving as legal counsel and mentoring the next generation of activists.
Washington and Colorado have notched the movement’s greatest victories to date, the 69 year old veteran of the culture wars takes a look back. His new memoir, It’s NORML to Smoke Pot: The 40-year Fight for Marijuana Smoker’s Rights, chronicles his life from early childhood right up to the historic 2012 vote, providing the newest generations of activists with seasoned insight, refreshing candor, and occasionally hilarious anecdotes of his encounters with some of the world’s most famous celebrity stoners. While the narrative gets bogged down in mundane detail at several points, the reader is advised to stick through to the end, where some of the choicest nuggets reveal themselves.
The book opens with a picaresque frivolity it struggles to maintain. The opening chapter draws the reader in with a nearly surreal litany of Stroup’s firsthand encounters near the beginning of NORML’s tenure, when the author first met (and got high with) the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Forçade, the founder of High Times. These were the best days for Stroup and NORML, when his self-proclaimed “marijuana smoker’s lobby” became well known at the chaotic 1972 Democratic Convention as the host of the best activist parties — all-night bacchanalia where Stroup and other activists unashamed of their drug use could take a break from the political scene. Poignantly, these fun-filled passages foreshadow terrible tragedy, as many of Stroup’s closest friends of the seventies would go on to take their own lives, and NORML’s fun-loving reputation would set the scene for the greatest mistake in Stroup’s professional life.
By comparison, the following chapter on Stroup’s early life falls with a dull thud, seasoned only with Stroup’s frank candor (“I was a draft dodger, but I had found a legal way to do it”). One gets a little impatient with Stroup at this point, wishing he would get back to the juicy bits.
Which he does. Once Stroup returns to his story of founding NORML, the book really hits its stride. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes of pot-friendly celebrities, including the likes of Willie Nelson, Hugh Hefner, Woody Harrelson, Bill Maher and more, interspersed with gems of hard-won wisdom on how to be an effective cannabis reform advocate, gleaned from forty years at the front lines. While some of the advice boils down to “make rich friends” (where would NORML be without the Playboy Foundation or High Times?) much of it remains practical advice for any activist of any means.
The crown jewel of the book comes in the middle, when Stroup relates his greatest mistake. In the early days of the Carter administration, NORML had attained the height of its influence. Nearly everyone expected that cannabis would be legalized within just a few years. Stroup and NORML decided to start the party a little early, in a DC house party which attracted even national drug czar Peter Bourne. By that time, NORML had become well-known for its permissiveness toward more than one kind of drug, and Bourne discreetly asked Stroup where he could find some cocaine. Stroup, whose caution had been displaced by hubris, invited Bourne to a private upstairs room, where he and the drug czar did lines in full view of the press. That was bad enough; but after Stroup’s relationship with Bourne went downhill, Stroup made the critical error of verifying the incident to a major news outlet, sparking off a controversy which derailed Carter’s legalization drive and instantly smearing Stroup’s cachet among the movement — the country’s biggest drug reform advocate had just turned snitch. This incident of extraordinary historical importance had been covered in other books, but never before in such detail, from someone right in the middle of the action.
Alas, the narrative peaks at that point. Stroup’s subsequent career as a lawyer in private practice provides no anecdotes as interesting or insightful as contained in the book’s frenetic first act; and by the time he finally returns (in 1995) to the organization he founded, Stroup finds the group somewhat sidelined by the nascent medical marijuana movement which took a rhetorical stand somewhat opposed to NORML’s traditional mantra of “I smoke pot and I like it a lot!” But the reader who slogs through the boring bits to get to this point is well rewarded by the wise observations of an old culture warrior learning how to get along with a big tent of activists. Stroup’s storied relationships with quirky characters like Jack Herer and Ed Rosenthal earn a few good laughs even while subtly instructing the reader on how to diplomatically navigate a movement which has grown far beyond the monolithic lobby Stroup founded. At the end, when other lifelong activists might be forgiven a grumble or two over a bitter fight, Stroup shows uncommon class by graciously acknowledging the work of groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and ASA, even while distinguishing NORML’s message and highlighting the staff which has taken over in his increasing absence.
Every activist should know the history of their movement. It’s NORML to Smoke Pot provides that and more, from the mouth of the man who lived the struggle longer and more intimately than any other.
First appeared in Issue 6 of Cannabis Now Magazine.
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