Every crazed, spaced-out zombie who comes by wants to tell me how he did acid and talked to God in the woods. Well, we’re not into that. You want crazies, go talk to the Yippies.
Sometimes Keith Stroup worries about his image. It doesn’t seem to matter that he was once a lawyer for the President’s Commission on Product Safety, or that he is a registered Washington lobbyist with five years’ experience on Capitol Hill. Many Americans know him only as Mr. Marijuana, the first Pol of Pot.
It is a title, as a matter of fact, that Stroup doesn’t shrink from. As founder and director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, he has transformed the U.S. pot lobby from a scruffy high-by-night operation into a 20,000-member pressure group with five lawyers on its national payroll. So far Stroup’s forces have helped persuade legislators in 11 states to decriminalize the private possession and use of marijuana. (In these and all other states, growing, shipping and selling continue to be against the law.) “Keith is very dedicated and hard-working,” says Dr. Peter Bourne, head of the White House Office on Drug Abuse Policy. “He has almost single-handedly changed public opinion on this issue.”
Stroup, 34, is encouraged by such compliments and by President Carter’s cautious support for decriminalization. Nonetheless he is battling the federal government on the issue of paraquat. NORML lawyers have asked for an injunction to prevent the U.S. from helping Mexico spray its marijuana fields with the deadly herbicide, which is suspected of causing irreversible lung damage. “There are between 15 and 20 million regular marijuana smokers in the U.S.,” Stroup claims, “and maybe a few million of those smoke daily. Those people are the risk. Paraquat is a form of cultural genocide.” (A substantial group of doctors and therapists also still believe that habitual pot smoking, even without paraquat, can be physically and psychologically destructive.)
Though Stroup admits to having sampled almost every dangerous drug but heroin, he now confines himself to grass. Divorced five years ago, he lives in a shabby $123-a-month efficiency a few blocks from NORML’s headquarters. “I usually have my first joint in the evening while watching the news,” he says, “then maybe a couple later with friends. I don’t smoke when working or traveling.” He also abstains during the twice-monthly visits of daughter Lindsey, 9, a schoolmate of Amy Carter. “I don’t do it around her because she doesn’t like smoke or cigarettes,” Stroup explains. “I think that’s a good thing, and I want to encourage it. I try not to offend her space.”
But Stroup does not believe in deception either. “I don’t think parents should hide their use of marijuana from their kids,” he says. “You should tell them it is illegal—that there is nothing wrong with it, but that you have to be careful. Having a middle-class background and values, I tend to think that kids should avoid all drug use. But I’m not sure it’s going to tear them up so much if they smoke a couple of joints. Kids driving cars scare me a lot more.” Still, he feels strongly about keeping drugs out of the hands of juveniles. Stroup believes that 18 is soon enough for a “private decision” about using marijuana. “If Lindsey started to smoke,” he adds, “I would prefer her to grow her own. For one thing, it stops kids from dealing with people who have cocaine, LSD, uppers, downers and all that stuff. I would really be upset if my daughter tripped on LSD.”
The son of a struggling sheep farmer, Stroup was born and brought up in southern Illinois, an area he describes as “rural, redneck and Republican.” A sometime runaway as a teenager, he became a heavy beer drinker at the University of Illinois (he is a teetotaler now) and was suspended during his junior year. After graduation in 1965, he joined the Peace Corps, then enrolled in law school at Georgetown.
Stroup’s subsequent tour of duty with the Product Safety Commission gave him a chance to work closely with Ralph Nader’s Raiders. (Today he credits NORML’s success to the techniques he learned there.) When a friend was arrested for possession of marijuana in the late ’60s, Stroup took his case and won an acquittal. “I began looking around for basic data on marijuana, and there just wasn’t any,” he recalls. “You had the government putting out outdated, exaggerated antimarijuana claims, and on the other side you had a few Tim Leary types who were saying marijuana was the answer to all the world’s problems. That’s when I began to think about a middle-class, public-interest approach to the issue.”
With a $5,000 grant from the Playboy Foundation, Stroup set up shop in the basement of an old townhouse. Today NORML’s budget runs to $450,000 annually. Contributors include General Motors heir Stewart Mott, who gives $30,000 each year, and cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who allows the organization to auction off originals of his Doonesbury comic strips. Playboy is still NORML’s primary angel, however, contributing $40,000.
Despite his efforts on behalf of decriminalization, Stroup was among the nearly 400,000 Americans arrested last year for possession. While crossing the border for a lecture date in Calgary, he was searched by Canadian customs agents who noticed a gold marijuana plant pin in his lapel. They discovered he was carrying a single joint and took him to jail. Released after students showed up to post his bail, Stroup returned to Canada to face trial this spring. Leaving the country after paying a $100 fine, he was searched again and agents said they found another joint in his luggage. (“It surprised me. I was sure I was clean,” Stroup protests. “After all, I was up there for a trial.”) The result: $300 more in fines and another day in the slammer.
If Stroup has his way, of course, such indignities will become a thing of the past. Predicting that Michigan will strike down its law prohibiting small amounts of marijuana this year and that a dozen states may follow suit after the fall elections, Stroup hopes the battle for decriminalization will be won within three years. Already New Mexico and Florida have legalized the use of marijuana for treatment of glaucoma and to help relieve the pain of cancer patients. NORML is also researching pot’s effect on heroin and alcohol withdrawal. Stroup, however, is keeping a wary eye on prospects for eventual victory. “Being defined as a deviant or outlaw all those years certainly leaves a scar,” he says with a sigh. “I tend to be a bit jaded about the system. I don’t trust it a lot.”