Cannabis Culture Q & A With NORML Trailblazer Keith Stroup

CANNABIS CULTURE – Mr. Keith Stroup is a Washington, DC public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970. Stroup obtained his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Illinois in 1965, and in 1968 he graduated from Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC. Following two years as staff counsel for the National Commission on Product Safety, Mr. Stroup founded NORML and ran the organization through 1979, during which 11 states decriminalized minor marijuana offenses.
Keith Stroup left NORML in 1979 to do some other public interest work and returned in 1994. Stroup stepped down in 2005 and now is legal counsel. Most of Mr. Stroup’s adult life he has either worked for or with NORML, and if it weren’t for the Vietnam Draft, Stroup wouldn’t have any interest in public interest law.
Stroup has also practiced criminal law, lobbied on Capitol Hill for family farmers and artists, and for several years served as executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

CC: Can you please tell my audience about yourself?

Keith Stroup: Well, I’m a 74-year-old public interest lawyer I got out of law school in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War and the antiwar demonstrations, and so my life and my professional direction was somewhat impacted by all of those people my age, back then they didn’t have a lottery. So if you were eighteen or older and you were not a full-time student, if you were a male, you were drafted. Most of us coming out of law school, we had sort of run out of excuses to stay out of the war. So we were looking around for ways to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

I tell you that only because it actually did play a role in why I ended up starting NORML. At first, I had first smoked marijuana in 1965 when I was a freshman at Georgetown law school, and when I got out of law school in 1968, I managed with the help of some lawyers from the national lawyers guild, an outstanding group of lawyers. They were providing free legal counsel for those of us who were trying to stay out of the war. Then they offered me options of going to Canada, but I wasn’t even sure I could get back in the country. As it turned out, President Jimmy Carter did let folks come back who had gone to Canada to avoid the draft after just a few years, but we didn’t know that. They offered to put me in touch with some psychiatrists in Baltimore who would say I was gay and back then if you were gay, it wasn’t don’t ask, don’t tell. They just didn’t want you in the military. I thought that was kind of an attractive option, but I was married, and had a child and my wife wasn’t comfortable with that.

So anyway, I ended up with the help of these lawyers getting something called the critical skills permit. It was a revision of the draft act that said that the work you’re doing on the domestic side of things is important though in rather than interrupting that important work well, let you stay in spending the two years you would have been in the military doing this important work back in the states. Well, I had been offered the job when I first graduated from law school. The Presidential commission called the national condition on product safety. It was an outgrowth of the work Ralph Nader had done. And so as a result for two years, I had the rare privilege of working downtown Washington working around Ralph Nader.

Our goal was to identify unsafe products, used in and around the home and we’d go back and write memos to the commissioner suggesting which products they should hold hearings on and perhaps propose legislation now I wasn’t enormously focused personally on unsafe products. But I was fascinated by this idea of public interest law where you use your law degree or your legal skills to impact public policy rather than to help the individual clients or to try to get rich. And Ralph had been sort of the person who defined public interest law. I never heard of that until I had the opportunity to work with Ralph and I was thrilled at the idea that I could do something more valuable with my life then just go back home and practice law. But again, by the time I was finished with the commission, it was a two-year commitment. I was too old to be drafted.

At that point, I was free to do anything I wanted. So I pulled together some friends and colleagues, and we started putting together the early documents to found NORML. We wanted to found a marijuana smokers lobby to try and end prohibition and change the law so that responsible marijuana smokers would no longer be treated as criminals. So that’s a little about me.

I started NORML in 1970. I ran it through a 1979 the first time. Then I was away doing some other public interest work for a few years and came back in 1994 and once again was executive director for ten years. Then in 2005 I stepped aside as the executive director, Allen St Pierre took over, but he asked me to stay on as NORML legal counsel, and that’s a position I still hold to this day. So most of my adult life I have worked with and for NORML and again I don’t think I ever would have had the inkling that inter public interest law, but for being radicalized by the Vietnam draft.

CC: That’s a pretty interesting story. I was not aware of that.

Keith Stroup: Well, I’m an older guy. Most of the people I deal with now, obviously you’ve read about the anti-Vietnam War era, but unless you’ve lived through it, I don’t think you probably fully appreciate just how alienating it was. I mean, it turned a whole generation of us into not just antiwar activists, but people who no longer trusted our government and spent a lot of our time trying to keep the government at bay.

CC: How do you believe American policies have played a role in the global cannabis market?

Keith Stroup: Well, I think mainly because of the enormous influence the United States has as long as we treat marijuana as a terribly dangerous substance and locked up large numbers of people and for long periods of time, most of the rest of the world was inclined to go along with that.

But once we began finally to loosen up our approach, that didn’t happen until when the marijuana commission came out with their report in 1972, recommending that we no longer treat marijuana smokers like criminals. They did not recommend we fully legalized marijuana, but they recommended that we stop treating smokers as criminals and that’s a concept that’s subsequently became known as decriminalization. In fact, Senator Schumer just last week indicated that for the first time he’d embraced marijuana decriminalization. I think it’s an indication of just how mainstream decriminalization has become.

Basically, once we decriminalized minor marijuana offenses in the early seventies and 11 us states, the first was Oregon in 1973, and the last was Nebraska in 1978, and then frankly, the mood of the country turned more conservative. We didn’t expect it. We thought we were well on our way to a full victory, but in fact, along came Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan and “Just Say No” and the parents’ groups and all of a sudden the question was no longer should we treat adults who smoked marijuana responsibly as a criminal.

The question they were asking and that people were listening to was what’s the impact on kids? In other words, if it wasn’t something that was safe for kids and they didn’t think we should allow it.

Think about that. That’s absurd.

You wouldn’t be able to get married or have sex or ride motorcycles or do all kinds of things that it’s perfectly acceptable for adults to do in our society, but of course, we don’t want kids doing. So we went from again in 1978 until 1996 without a single statewide victory.

Now I will say I was pleased that we were able to hold onto those 11 states that have decriminalized marijuana offenses. They did not backtrack. There were efforts made to change those laws back that we’ve managed to hold on to them, but we didn’t win a single statewide victory until 1996, and in 1996, the issue surfaced in California all of a sudden was the medical use of marijuana, Proposition 2-15.

And with that began a whole new progress that continues to this day in which more and more Americans are now on our side. When we founded NORML in 1970, the Gallup polling organization had just done their first poll, and only 12 percent of the American public agreed with us. 88 percent of the public would oppose what we were trying to do, but over these many decades, we continue to chip away and to try to re-educate people and frankly to some degree we outlived our opponents.

A lot of the most influential reefer maniacs were my age or older and obviously if they retired or died, younger people and younger people replaced them, whether they smoked marijuana or not, don’t have a big problem with it. I think it was 2010, we reached 50 percent support for the first time, and it just continues to go up.

Today we have four or five national surveys including Gallup that signed roughly 65 percent of the country now support full legalization, something like 90 percent support medical use, approximately 65 percent, two out of three now support full marijuana legalization regardless of why you smoke it.

So obviously we lead the world in the wrong direction for a long time in the sense that we were reinforcing the need to treat marijuana as a dangerous drug and treat marijuana smokers as dangerous criminals. As we have gradually begun to change our own laws, we have also had a favorable impact on many other countries in several western European countries. They actually were a couple of steps ahead of us. Certainly, Spain and Portugal and many of the western European countries now treat marijuana smoking as no big deal, for the moment I think the US has started leading the way Jamaica, for example, wanted to legalize marijuana and tried on two or three occasions I was down to testify before there legislature.

But every time they started to do it, the United States federal government started flexing its muscles and threatening that if they did it, we were going to cut off some of their aid and financial support we give them. So obviously they fell back into line. However, now that we’re finally legalizing marijuana in nine states and the District of Columbia, and we’re going to continue to add to that every year, countries like Jamaica say, Hey, we’re no longer going to be intimidated by the US. So they to legalizing marijuana as they are in Columbia and a number of other central and South American countries. It’s been a long trend to get from reefer mania to legalizing marijuana but, I don’t think there was any short way to do it. I think the only way you could do it as you had to have the hearts and minds of the majority of the American voters and we do now have that.

CC: You, you mentioned Chuck Schumer a little a little while ago. Can you talk about his proposed legislation a little bit more?

Keith Stroup: He hasn’t actually introduced it yet. He’s announced he’s going to and I think it will be introduced very shortly. Some of our staff have been working with his staff as well, but it’s simply going to remove federal penalties for minor marijuana possession offenses. It’s not going to establish a legally regulated market.

Now there are some other federal bills introduced by people like Senator Booker from New Jersey and Senator Gillibrand from New York and a third cosponsor I’m forgetting. What they’re proposing that we totally take marijuana out of the controlled substances act altogether, eliminate all federal penalties against innovation, cultivation, and sale, and simply allow the states to adopt whatever marijuana policy they want.

Now that’s the distinction that it’s important for people to keep in mind. No one is suggesting that the federal government should dictate marijuana policy to the states. We don’t want that. But if we had to wait around to get the federal government to dictate policy, we wouldn’t have any legalization yet, and we’d still be fighting prohibition. But all we’ve been trying to do for the last several years is keep the federal government out of the way into those state by state to legalize the responsible use of marijuana. And by doing that, it’s allowed us to establish a track record in states like Colorado, Washington for example. They’ve now got five or six years of actual on the ground experience of legalization and they know in fact it works well and there are very few unintended consequences. I think there was no shorter way to do it. I wish there were but there was a point there where I wasn’t sure if I was going to live long enough to see it happen, but in fact, I have, and we’re not done yet. I hope I can live long enough to see it completed. At least I think we’re past the tipping point at this point. I don’t see any way that the country heads back in the other direction.

CC: Okay, that brings up my next question. Everyone started to freak out when, when Jeff sessions rescinded the Cole memorandum, what do you think about the latest statements from President Trump and that he would sign legislation making cannabis legal federally?

Keith Stroup: Here’s what he actually said, it’s an interesting exchange between him and Senator Cory Gardner from Colorado. Cory Gardner is a Republican senator, he did not favor legalizing marijuana in Colorado when it passed, but no statewide officeholders in Colorado favorited it.

We passed it because it was a voter initiative and the majority of the voters favored it, but now that they’ve seen it up close, almost every statewide officer in Colorado, Washington and of the other legalization states and now embrace legalization. It raises a lot of money they can use for badly needed projects in their state, and a lot of it goes to education and things like that. It simply is a safer thing for society to bring the market above ground. You don’t have the ability to make the market disappeared. We had prohibition for 80 years, anybody who wanted could within five or 10 minutes in any major city in America to find marijuana on the black market can buy it. But the problem is that marijuana on the black market has not been tested in the laboratory.

You don’t know if it has dangerous moles or pesticides. It’s not labeled as the THC and CBD strains, etc. Whereas in the states that have legalized, it’s a far safer thing for those people who smoke marijuana. They know in advance what they’re getting, and they know it’s safe and affordable, and basically, it’s a safe habit to have, if you want to have a habit, smoking marijuana in a legalization state is about as safe as anything you can do.

We want the federal government eventually back out of the picture altogether, but until we have the support to get there, and we don’t right now, as I say we’ve got some pending bills in Congress, but we don’t yet have enough support to pass them. But we will, and I doubt that we’re able to do it until Trump’s out of office. I think we just have to bide our time federally until we get rid of Trump. But what Trump said the other day was, was fascinating. Cory Booker sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and therefore he gets the opportunity to vote on all judicial appointments and all DOJ appointments.

Trump was getting upset because any member on that committee can generally sit on nominations. You don’t have to move them forward; if a senator puts a hold on them, then they can’t vote on them. So Senator Cory had said to the president that, unless you give me some reassurance, you’re going to stay out of our Colorado legalization program. You’re not going to interfere. I’m not going to remove my hold. We’re not going to vote on any of your judicial appointments or DOJ appointments.

So the president finally blinked and said to Cory, if you take your hold off and let my judicial appointments be considered, I will give you an assurance that I will not allow the federal law to be used to interfere with states like Colorado. He not only told Cory that privately, the White House released a statement to the press confirming that arrangement. It’s not that I trust Trump, I wouldn’t trust him, as far as I could throw him but he know is, if he doesn’t stay true to that if he breaks that commitment, Cory Booker is simply going to sit on every appointment he makes for the rest of his term. I think we’ve got some leverage this time over President Trump.

CC: Do you do support home grow?

Keith Stroup: Yes. In fact, NORML has always thought that the right to cultivate your own marijuana is a basic part of our right to get marijuana legal and the reason it’s basic. If you have the right to grow marijuana, then if the industry that develops in a particular state fails to be responsive to the needs of the consumer, then the hell with it, you don’t buy their marijuana you just grow your own. Now we both know, it’s not so simple to grow high-quality marijuana. It requires a lot more than just dropping a few seeds in the ground and watering it occasionally. So most of us are probably not going to grow marijuana. Most of us don’t grow our own vegetables; obviously a lot of people have gardens and my wife has a garden, and we grow some of ours, but we still buy most of our vegetables from the store. I think marijuana smokers will be the same way so long as the marijuana that they provide us is high quality, safe, convenient and affordable.

I think, probably 98 percent of the population of the smokers would rather go buy it from a convenience store down the street. If in some state, because they limited the number of retail outlets, and therefore they got a monopoly, and they want to jack the price up too high and then we have some leverage we’ll just grow our own. Yes, at NORML we think personal cultivation is terribly important. The first nine states that legalized marijuana, only Washington state does not allow personal cultivation, and even in Washington, there are major efforts underway to amend that law so that they will within a few months hopefully have the right to grow their own in Washington as well.

CC: I read a news report that New Jersey did not support home grow either?

Keith Stroup: New Jersey for the moment, doesn’t have legal marijuana, they’re working on it. And fortunately the new governor, Murphy has said that in fact, he wants it by the end of this year. I think they are going to have legal marijuana within a few months.

One of the sponsors of the bill in the state legislature had proposed a version of legalization that would not have allowed home grow but that’s just one proposal. I can assure you we’re going to be doing our best with our supporters in New Jersey to make sure that whatever version of legalization they adopt that it does include the right to grow your own if you prefer.

CC: Are you familiar with Vermont’s of legalization?

Keith Stroup: Vermont by the way, is almost identical to what we have in the District of Columbia, it came about for different reasons, but in both jurisdictions, the individual, if you’re over 18 has the right to posse up to a couple of ounces of marijuana. You have a right to grow a few plants, and in the District of Columbia, they also have the right to give away up to an ounce of marijuana to another adult.

You can’t get any remuneration for it, but if it’s truly a gift, you’re allowed to gift marijuana to another adult. In Vermont, because it was done legislatively and they were a little cautious, they did not go the full step and establish a licensing system where people could get licenses to cultivate and commercially sell marijuana commercially.

So I’d say it’s a version of legalization, but it’s not perfect, and I would hope that over the next year or two, we’ll be able to convince Vermont to go ahead and establish a legalization system and bring that all above ground. In the district, our city council very strongly supports full legalization but remember; we’re not a state. We’re in territory basically, and every law or regulation passed by our city council the Congress has 30 legislative days that overrule it or to allow it to become law. They’ve simply passed a writer for the last two, three, four years that says that the District of Columbia may not spend any money to establish a legalization regulatory system for the cultivation and sale of marijuana.

We do have the right to grow our own. We have the right to possess up to two ounces, and we have the right to grow up to four plants. We’ve gained a lot of what we need in the district but obviously over the next two, three, four, years once we get rid of Trump again, I think we will be able to get that rider lifted on Congress and there’ll be able to go ahead and establish dispensaries.

Strangely, we have medical dispensaries in the district. Congress did not elect to try to stop those so if you’re a medical user and you’ve got a doctor’s recommendation, you can go to one of five or six dispensaries and buy your marijuana.

Obviously, it wouldn’t take much to convert those into full dispensaries simply were either patients or recreational users, could go but we can’t do it until we get the rider removed by Congress.

CC: You mentioned Trump, President Trump has been quoted as saying it’s a state right issue.

Keith Stroup: That man changes his position on issues from one day to the next. He’s an imbecile, I would suggest. He doesn’t know what the fuck he believes; I don’t think anyone should count on Trump following through on something he said.

Cory Booker has some leverage on him, I don’t think he has a lot of leeway right now to screw us around on the federal level, but it’s not because he’s an honorable man or is consistent in his policies. I think he’s a total imbecile and he’s totally inconsistent.

CC: Have you found it difficult to lobby for the inclusion of home grow?

Keith Stroup: No. When you first start off, if you’re talking to the average state legislator, for example, oftentimes they have had a history of supporting prohibition had been opposed to legalization because legalization for the last three, four decades was generally considered a kind of a radical proposal and it’s only been in the last eight or ten years where we’ve had a significant sections of the American public approaching 50 percent or higher, who have begun to come around and say, no, we support legalization.

And by the way, it’s interesting, even when the polls showed that we have as high as 65 percent support when you drill deeper into those survey questions, it’s not because the majority of those people are pro-pot. It’s because they’re anti-prohibition. They have concluded, like most of us concluded a long time ago that prohibition causes more problems than the use of the drug itself. So it doesn’t make any sense. Frankly, it’s the same thing we learned at the end of alcohol prohibition. I don’t know why we have such a hard time applying that for marijuana, but in essence, it’s because very few white mainstream Americans smoke marijuana it was mostly by Hispanics and blacks and other minorities, and so they didn’t have the political power.

Roughly 14 percent of the adult population in this country are current marijuana smokers. If you talk about how many people have smoked at some time in their life, it’s over 40 percent and in some surveys as high as 50 percent of the adult population. But regarding current smokers, it’s only about 14 percent, and that’s true whether you’re talking Hispanics or blacks or whites. Now you realize when you think about that is if we only have 14 percent who are smokers, we can’t win this issue without the work of a majority of the nonsmokers. It is terribly important as we continue forward that we keep in mind that we’re winning this not because a majority of the country wants to get high or wants to smoke marijuana. It’s because the majority of the country has finally concluded that prohibition is a failed public policy, but it means that we have to make sure and frame our arguments in such a way that we maintain that support of nonsmokers because otherwise, we could not pass another state bill.

CC: You have to frame your argument in such a way that it can be beneficial to people that don’t necessarily smoke?

Keith Stroup: You can convincingly make the argument that legalization is a better policy for everyone whether you smoke or not because of the harms of prohibition. You avoid most of those times by legalizing it. But frankly, we don’t care whether that 86 percent of the country who are not currently smoking, we don’t care whether they smoke or not. Our goal is not to turn on America. Our goal is to end marijuana prohibition so that those people who want to smoke can do so and be left alone by the government. As I say, I’m perfectly happy having the support of people who may think marijuana is something that they don’t ever want to use and they’d rather not even smell it or not the around it, that’s fine. As long as they understand that prohibition doesn’t work and they support full legalization, then we’re on the same page

CC: In a few states paraphernalia has been specifically left out in some legalization and it’s odd to think that the plant is now legal, but we forget to say that the pipes to smoke it are as well and so my question is, do you specifically push for that and remind legislators to include verbiage to unwind the prohibition on pipes, bongs, rolling trays, etc?

Keith Stroup: I’ll tell you how that comes about in two ways. First off, anytime you have a voter initiative, then when it’s being drafted, you simply make sure and include language in the initiative repealing the paraphernalia provisions as it applies to items that one would use when your smoking marijuana.

In the states that have medical marijuana approved and there are 29 states right now that have meaningful medical marijuana statutes. In those, even if they still have a paraphernalia law on the book, it wouldn’t apply to marijuana paraphernalia if you were an authorized patient, all of a sudden it becomes a medical delivery device, not drug paraphernalia.

If you would go into a store in a state that has medical marijuana and your unauthorized medical patient, if you go out and buy that pipe, it’s perfectly legal. On the other hand, if they don’t recognize full legalization and you go in and buy that pipe and say to the person selling it, I want a pipe to smoke marijuana, he can’t sell it to you. He wouldn’t take a chance on being busted, so it’s a little awkward when we’re going from prohibition to medical use to full legalization, but essentially the paraphernalia laws generally don’t apply. Certainly not if you’re an authorized medical user and certainly not if you’re in a full legal state, the nine legalization states and the district have repealed their paraphernalia laws as it applies to marijuana. They’ve still have paraphernalia laws for people shooting up heroin.

CC: In 2013, you published a book titled “It’s NORML to Smoke Pot, The 40 year Flight For Marijuana Smokers Rights“, it covers a vast period of changes on cannabis legalization. But my question is, what was the most stunning setback you encountered in your years during this flight? And at what point do you think the tied changed?

Keith Stroup: I think during the Carter Presidency, I ended up getting in a brouhaha with the president’s drug czar, a gentleman named Dr. Peter Bourne. As a result of that, we were fighting over the government spraying paraquat on marijuana in Mexico. We were worried that it was coming across the border and being sold with Acapulco Gold because it turned the marijuana into a sort of gold color and we were concerned that marijuana smokers were going to be poisoned. I convinced the drug czar to take some samples along the Mexican border to see and sure enough, but there was 18 or 20 percent of their samples were contaminated with paraquat, one of the most dangerous pesticides in the world but they refused to stop using it. So we ended up having a falling out the drugs czar ended up being embarrassed.

He had snorted some cocaine, and a NORML party and the press got ahold of it, and so that was a setback. There were a few years where the people in Congress, most people in Congress, and certainly the rest of the Carter Presidency, even though he had sent a message to Congress, urging the Congress to decriminalize minor marijuana offenses and both of his sons were marijuana smokers. I used to smoke with them actually, so that was a big setback.

I’d say for five to 10 years, NORML had to outgrow that reputation of being too hot to handle. The other setback would be the rise of the parent’s groups in the late seventies, early eighties. We did not see that coming at all. We were not taking them seriously, and we were used to doing all kinds of national media and the media was fascinated by legalization. We thought we were on a roll and all of a sudden “20/20”, “60 Minutes”, all of those programs, every time they had a new show on marijuana it was focusing on kids. These kids who allegedly used marijuana and got them started down the road and they ended up… god only knows what happened to them.

Usually, in those early a fictionalized accounts, they ended up being a heroin addict. I think the fact that we went those 18 years between 1978 and 1996, without a single statewide victory, that’s about as difficult a period politically as a movement could ever have and still and still be alive. In some ways, I’m just pleased that we didn’t lose funding, and the movement didn’t go away completely. Fortunately, by the time the issue surfaced 1996, it had been reframed by Dennis Peron and others in California as the medical use of marijuana and all of the sudden that had a cleaner impression for people, they could take a fresh look and when they found out that people undergoing cancer chemotherapy benefited from marijuana. It’s helped with the side effects of their medication. People with MS and the other major disease categories benefited from the use of medical marijuana and all of a sudden, they couldn’t justify considering marijuana, this terribly dangerous drug. If, on the other hand, it seemed to be helping grandmother stay alive.

Once the medical use of the medical issue began to surface, it was all moving in our direction, and it’s never turned back. In fact, I try not to get too comfortable and confident, but I think we’re past the tipping point. When you got 65 percent of the country that agrees with full legalization, even if you had a year or two where for whatever reason, the country focused on some of the negative side effects or adolescent drug use or whatever, it’s hard to imagine we would ever lose our majority support.

I think quite honestly, it’ll continue to go up. I think eventually we’ll probably have 80 or 90 percent of the country support full legalization by the time the last few states flip over; I think it will be a fait accompli.

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