The Playboy Interview With Keith Stroup
Feb 1, 1977    63 min read

A candid conversation about pot smoking, drugs and legal hassles with the young director of NORML, who is spearheading the reform of marijuana laws

Interview by
Patrick Anderson
Photographed by
Ed StreekyCamera 5
Drugs & Leisure

Keith Stroup, the 33-year-old director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has been called “a turned-on Nader,” “Mr. Marijuana” and “the first politician of pot.” He’s surely the most unusual lobbyist in Washington, and he just may be, dollar for dollar, the most effective. We at Playboy have known Stroup since 1970, when the Playboy Foundation put up the money to start NORML, and over the years we’ve heard intriguing reports of his adventures as he has crisscrossed America seeking marijuana-law reform.

Then we began to hear of some remarkable political achievements as well. Between May and August of 1975, the legislatures of five states—Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine and Ohio—voted to remove criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. South Dakota and Minnesota followed in 1976, making a total of seven states to join Oregon, which had voted “decriminalization” in 1973, pioneering a new, more rational national policy toward the fact of widespread marijuana use. Those state legislative actions amounted to a dramatic breakthrough for the reform movement, and since Stroup was at the center of the battle, we decided it was time we went to him for his and NORML’s full story. For the assignment, we chose Patrick Anderson, a novelist and political journalist who has known Stroup for several years and who in 1973 wrote one of the first major magazine articles on NORML for The New York Times Magazine. Since conducting this interview, Anderson was hired during the 1976 Presidential campaign as Jimmy Carter’s top speechwriter. Anderson reports:

”Interviewing Keith Stroup is a piece of pie. Keith has no secrets and he has plenty of opinions, so all I really had to do was turn on a tape recorder and get down some of the discussions of drugs and politics we’ve been having since I first met him. The interview sessions took place in NORML’s offices in an old, three-story town house in a rather disreputable block of M Street, about halfway between the White House and Georgetown. I don’t know what people would expect a marijuana lobby’s offices to be like—sinister? paranoid? zonked out?—but NORML’s are cozy, informal and quite businesslike. There’s a portrait of George Washington over the mantel and a lot of Doonesbury cartoons and pro-marijuana posters on the walls; the phones ring a lot and there are usually good sounds—Elton John, say, or Jimmy Buffett—coming from the stereo in Keith’s office. The staff bustles about, usually wearing jeans and sometimes NORML T-shirts, and takes care of business with the easy efficiency of people who’ve known one another a long time. Indeed, Keith and Larry Schott, who runs NORML’s tax-exempt Center for the Study of Nonmedical Drug Use, have been together since NORML was started in the fall of 1970. More recent arrivals include Peter Meyers, NORML’s chief counsel; Mark Heutlinger, who came from California to be NORML’s business manager when NORML merged with Amorphia, the West Coast reform group; Gordon Brownell, also of Amorphia, who runs NORML’s West Coast office; and Frank Fioramonti in the New York office. All these people took 25 percent pay cuts in 1975 because of NORML’s financial problems, but the cuts haven’t bothered their morale. On the contrary, thanks to the political successes they have achieved since May of 1975, morale at NORML has never been higher.

”Since his divorce four years ago, Keith has been living in a room on the third floor of the town house—his lavish penthouse suite, we call it—and it was there that most of our conversations took place, mostly on Sundays, when his phone doesn’t ring so much. The challenge in interviewing him was to strike a balance between the two sides of his personality. The most obvious thing about Keith is that he’s a funny, colorful, zany guy, with a rare talent for laughing at himself and at the madness of the world. The other, less obvious fact is that he’s an exceptionally bright, tough, dedicated reformer who’s done a remarkable job of spearheading the national battle for marijuana-law reform. In his way, Keith is just as impressive a figure as Ralph Nader and—knowing both men—can testify that he’s a hell of a lot more fun to be around. I was particularly pleased to do the interview, because it seems to me that our ultra-respectable national media have largely ignored the story of the remarkable burst of recent marijuana-law reform and it appears appropriate that Keith should be allowed to tell the full story himself, since he did so much to make it happen.”

Playboy: Keith, you’ve been lobbying for marijuana-law reform for six and a half years. Eight states have abolished criminal penalties for the smoker, with similar reforms currently being considered by the Congress and more than 30 other states. How does this success make you feel?

Stroup: It makes me feel great. I’ll tell you how it feels. I was in Ohio in 1975 on the day the new law went into effect. I spoke at Kent State and there were these guys in the audience in bright-colored bandleader costumes, like the Beatles wore on the Sgt. Pepper album, and afterward, I talked to them and they turned out to be dealers, just messing around, celebrating the new law. That night, I went to a party some good old country freaks gave to celebrate. They rented a union hall outside Akron and hired a band and decorated the place with papier-mâché joints and marijuana plants and invited 200 or 300 other freaks. Now, obviously, the local police knew those people were smoking in there and they could have caused trouble—

Playboy: What could they have done, under the new law?

Stroup: For possession, they could have fined everyone $100, which in that case would have meant some $25,000 in fines for that little community. But the point is that the police chose to leave them alone, to give the new law a chance, and everybody had a fine time. Those Ohio people were really happy. Some of them had attended our first NORML conference, back in 1972. Now they have a tremendous feeling of pride at being part of this successful political movement. I feel that way, too.

Playboy: You mentioned your 1972 conference, which was something of a fiasco. It, in itself, is a measure of how far NORML has come, isn’t it?

Stroup: I think so. We made every possible mistake on that conference, beginning with its name—the First Annual People’s Pot Conference. People’s had the wrong connotation; it sounded like a meeting of doped-up Communists. At that point, we were trying desperately to develop a middle-class constituency for the marijuana issue, but we had the conference in the middle of the week, when middle-class people were working, and we didn’t charge admission, so we ended up with 90 percent freaks, people who couldn’t help us because they weren’t plugged into the political system.

Playboy: And somebody got busted.

Stroup: He was an activist from Texas, a disc jockey who had some wet marijuana. So he raised the hood of his car to dry it on the engine, at which point some plain-clothesmen marched over from across the street and busted him. Which, of course, became the big news story of our first conference. Not a great start. But, as you point out, by the time of our third conference, in 1974, the issue had progressed. Dr. Robert DuPont, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and President Nixon’s main drug advisor, was our main speaker, and he took the occasion to call for decriminalization. The next year, we featured Ramsey Clark, and this past year, the program included both Hunter Thompson and then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s advisor Dr. Peter Bourne. So I guess you could say we’ve gone respectable.

To the establishment, marijuana was seen not simply as a mild intoxicant but as a symbol of radicalism and permissiveness—everything that threatened them.

Playboy: What do you think caused the dramatic increase in marijuana use in the U. S. in the past ten or twelve years?

Stroup: I think it was part of the social upheaval caused by the war in Vietnam. Many young people were rejecting establishment values in various ways. They wanted their own styles of dress, their own music and even their own way of getting high. So they rejected alcohol and made marijuana a symbol of their freedom from the old values. Of course, I happen to think it’s a better high, too. But the symbolism cut both ways. To the establishment, marijuana was seen not simply as a mild intoxicant but as a symbol of radicalism and permissiveness—everything that threatened them.

Playboy: Given that hostility—some of which obviously still exists—how was it possible to get a reform movement started?

Stroup: It was possible because more and more white, middle-class kids were getting arrested every year. In 1975, there were more than 400,000 arrests. Something had to give. Even the politicians were getting those calls that begin, “Dad, I’m in jail.” That’s a cruel way to change attitudes, but it forces busy people to take a hard look at the issue. Mike Stepanian, a San Francisco defense attorney, and I have been working on a case in the Ozarks in southwest Missouri, where a 19-year-old sophomore was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling five dollars’ worth of marijuana to a friend. Most parents, forced to decide either that their child is a criminal who should be jailed or that the law is an ass, decide that the law is an ass.

Playboy: And many parents have come around to feeling the law was—or is—an ass?

Stroup: Yes, and the clearest evidence came in 1970, when Congress finally lowered the Federal penalty for marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Now, this same law included some terrible provisions, such as classifying marijuana on Schedule I, along with heroin, thereby making it unavailable as a medicine, even if a physician had a legitimate need for it. That is particularly ironic in light of recent research—corroborated by the government—indicating its effectiveness in treating glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness, and in treating the side effects of chemotherapy experienced by many cancer patients. NORML has a suit pending against the Drug Enforcement Administration seeking the reclassification of marijuana to a lower schedule, once again making it available as a medicine.

But the penalties for marijuana possession were lowered. Within four years, virtually every state had followed suit. And, of course, that was the time we were starting NORML, so as the states were going from a felony to a misdemeanor, we were saying, “Hey, let’s go a step further and remove criminal penalties entirely.”

Playboy: Perhaps you’d better make clear the difference between decriminalization and legalization.

Stroup: Well, when possession is classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony, that means smoking grass is a criminal offense for which you can be arrested and jailed. At the other extreme, you have legalization, which means marijuana could be produced and sold commercially, like cigarettes or alcohol. There would be a legally regulated market. Decriminalization is a kind of halfway step, a cease-fire. It means that you stop arresting people for smoking marijuana, while maintaining a criminal prohibition against sellers. Smoking is still discouraged, but the penalty, if any, is a fine, not jail, enforced with a citation rather than an arrest.

Playboy: Does NORML advocate legalization?

Stroup: No. We would like to see some serious study undertaken to develop and analyze various potential legalization models, so that states in the future will have the information they need, should some of them decide to take this step. But for now, we view such a change as premature. Our immediate goal is decriminalization.

Playboy: But you do see legalization of marijuana at the end of the road, don’t you?

Stroup: Definitely. I think that by 1978, about half the states will have decriminalized, and the debate will start to focus on legalization. I expect the first states to legalize within five to seven years. Some will legalize and some won’t, just as the states have different liquor laws.

Playboy: How would legalization work?

Stroup: No one knows. If legalization came tomorrow, we’d probably follow the alcohol model, with private production and state regulation and taxation. Probably, the tobacco companies would take over the business, since they already have the land and the facilities to produce and distribute marijuana cigarettes. Personally, however, I wouldn’t want to see that happen.

Playboy: Why?

Stroup: I’d like to see nonprofit corporations grow and sell legal marijuana, with the profits going to drug education and rehabilitation programs instead of to the tobacco companies. But I recognize that they probably have the power to take over the business.

Playboy: What happens then?

Stroup: Once legalization arrives, we’ve entered the consumer phase of the marijuana issue and the goal will be to see that the marijuana user gets a fair deal.

Playboy: In what regard?

Stroup: For one thing, we need laws that permit the user to grow his own marijuana—private cultivation. So far, even the states that have decriminalized use have kept criminal penalties for cultivation, except Alaska. That doesn’t make sense—to say you can smoke it but you can’t grow it—but it’s a political trade-off we had to accept. What we do, once we get decriminalization, is to go back the next year with a cultivation bill, or challenge the constitutionality of the cultivation penalties in the courts. We’re doing that now in Oregon and California.

Playboy: If people can grow their own, will they buy legalized marijuana?

Stroup: Sure. You can grow your own tomatoes, but most people prefer the convenience of buying them at the supermarket. The things we’ll have to push for, once grass is legal and regulated, are that the regulators provide a decent quality of marijuana, the price is fair, the place and hours of sale are reasonable, things like that.

Playboy: You mentioned regulation. How do you think taxes should be handled?

Stroup: If marijuana must be taxed, I’d like to see the money go for drug education and rehabilitation. We in the drug culture should admit there are casualties to drug use and we should take responsibility for them, just as the alcohol and tobacco people should take responsibility for their casualties!

Playboy: What about advertising?

Stroup: I’m totally against it. We want legalization without commercialization. People should be educated about drugs, and what they do to you, but they shouldn’t be pressured into using them.

Playboy: Where does the best marijuana come from?

Stroup: I think Southeast Asian grass is the best in the world. And there’s grass coming out of the island of Maui, Hawaii, that costs $200 an ounce and that is the best I’ve ever smoked. The people from High Times magazine brought some to the NORML conference last year.

Playboy: What other good grass is there?

Stroup: Well, on the East Coast, you get a lot of good Colombian, selling for $30 to $50 an ounce. And there’s good grass out of Jamaica. But 90 percent of the grass sold in this country still comes from Mexico, although it’s not the highest grade.

Southeast Asian grass is the best in the world. And there’s grass coming out of the island of Maui, Hawaii … that is the best I’ve ever smoked.

Playboy: Who’s bringing in all this marijuana? Is it organized crime?

Stroup: Not in the sense of the Mafia. What you usually have are groups of six or eight college students, or young professionals, who put up a few thousand dollars each and rent a plane and fly to Mexico or Colombia and bring back several hundred pounds of marijuana. It’s middle-class organized crime, people who wouldn’t deal in heroin or cocaine but who think there’s a certain glamor to dealing marijuana. It’s an outlaw culture, with the dealer as the modern Jesse James. They’re in it for the mystique as much as for the profits.

Playboy: What have been your contacts with marijuana dealers?

Stroup: When I speak on campuses, often some dealer will come up and identify himself. He’ll say something like, “Those of us in the business appreciate what you’re doing.” They want recognition, like anyone else. We have other contacts. For example, a dealer recently gave us two ounces of good Colombian to use at NORML’s conference party.

Playboy: Do they ever offer money?

Stroup: Sometimes. I think some dealers aren’t sure how to relate to us. After all, if we brought about legalization, we’d put them out of business. But occasionally we receive anonymous contributions, a few of which may come from dealers.

Playboy: How much?

Stroup: The only large gift was $10,000 left in small bills at our Washington, D.C., office. A stranger left the money, along with a note claiming it was from a confederation of dealers.

Playboy: What did you do?

Stroup: I called the press.

Playboy: Why?

Stroup: I thought it might be some kind of setup by the government. I wanted some witnesses.

Playboy: Were you able to keep the money?

Stroup: Absolutely. I would add, however, that it could wipe us out politically if we were seen as some sort of front for dealers. No respectable politician could work with us. So we now have a policy to segregate all money that purports to come from dealers and use it only to defend indigent marijuana defendants.

Playboy: Some people think that the way to handle legalization would be simply to legalize the existing system—in other words, to let dealers operate openly. The idea is that those people ran the risks when grass was illegal and should reap the profits when it’s legal. How do you feel about that?

Stroup: A legal version of the neighborhood-dealer system just might work. I think we should end the bootlegger/black-market system, because it always means abuses, whether it’s in whiskey or in marijuana. You don’t have age controls or quality controls. And those are basic consumer-protective devices the government provides in other areas and should provide here. I appreciate what the dealers have done, and we’ve all felt a sense of brotherhood in the past few years. But whatever system of sales is adopted should include some method for protecting the consumer against the traditional abuses of the market place.

Playboy: You mean like bathtub gin during Prohibition, which was supposed to make you go blind?

Stroup: Right, and dope spiked with PCP can mess your mind up. I mean, it’s just crazy not to regulate it. Right now, it’s as easy for a 13-year-old kid to buy unregulated marijuana as it is for me.

Playboy: You smoke a lot of marijuana. Why?

Stroup: Because it’s fun. Because I enjoy it. Of the available recreational drugs, marijuana suits my lifestyle best. It doesn’t leave you with a hangover and it’s less damaging to your health than other stuff. Actually, I think there are two levels to the use of marijuana or other recreational drugs. The first is sheer fun—the pleasure of the immediate high. I smoke because it feels good or because I’m working on a project that’s boring and it’ll put me in a better frame of mind. But there’s a second level, at which you begin to develop a better sense of awareness of yourself and your place in the universe. Drugs can take you out of your hectic, trivial everyday life and into a cosmic level where you think about where the hell we all came from and where the hell we’re all going. In that sense, I think drugs can have very positive emotional and philosophical benefits.

Playboy: The main argument for recreational drug use is that it enhances your various experiences—whether it’s sex or music or watching the sun rise or whatever. But can’t people have equally good experiences without drugs? We’re thinking of prayer, meditation, self-awareness, and so on—nonchemical highs.

Stroup: Certainly, some people have always used prayer and meditation to reach a high state, a state much like the one other people get from drugs. Andy Weil, the author of The Natural Mind, argues that the goal for most of us should be the ability to reach that state without drugs, because it would be a pure high. I would agree with that.

Playboy: Then would you agree that in the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn’t have drugs?

Stroup: Well, in the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn’t use drugs destructively. But I’m not willing to rule out recreational drug use. The thing is, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. In this world, we should have the goal of minimizing destructive drug use, but I don’t think we should interfere with the individual who wants to use drugs in a positive way.

Playboy: You usually refer to marijuana as grass. Some people say pot. There are other terms. Can you explain that?

Stroup: There are a lot of terms. Some of them are interesting. Boo is one I’ve always liked. That’s what blacks in and around New Orleans used decades ago. Of course, you’ve got tea, maryjane, reefer, marijuana, grass, dope, hemp, pot, weed. I think that sometimes politicians play games with these names. If people in the media, for example, have a particular ax to grind, they make it sound either less or more threatening.

Playboy: Grass is a friendly word.

Stroup: Yeah. Pot is hard and harsh, I think. Dope is terrible. You will notice that some headline writers refer to all marijuana arrests as dope busts.

Playboy: Doesn’t the word marijuana have a sinister, foreign sound?

Stroup: Well, we all have xenophobia. You’re right. I suspect that if marijuana had a good, American-middle-class-sounding name, rather than a Mexican name that has a soft J sound, we might have moved along on this issue a little quicker.

Playboy: How about marigold?

Stroup: Right. Wasn’t that what Senator Everett Dirksen wanted to make the national flower?

Playboy: Yes, and we suppose there are people who’d like to make marijuana the national flower.

Stroup: Listen, for some of us it has been for quite a while. In fact, in a recent poll taken by the florist group FTD to select a national flower, marijuana was the leading write-in candidate.

Playboy: There’s an entire marijuana culture springing up in America, isn’t there?

Stroup: Yes, there are at least 13 million regular smokers in America and NORML represents them politically. In publishing, you have High Times, Rush and Head, all magazines directed to smokers that have reached mass circulation now. You have hip businessmen—the marijuana millionaires. Not just the dealers but people who are into paraphernalia, head shops, things like that. I know a fellow who started out selling cigarette papers about the time we started NORML who’s now the major distributor of paper and paraphernalia in the U. S. and grosses about $8 million a year. Every year in New York, the nation’s boutique owners have a convention, and there’s a section of head-shop people and it’s a wild scene. You go from booth to booth, sampling drugs they’re giving away—grass, cocaine, even laughing gas they pass out in balloons.

Playboy: Let’s talk about how NORML operates and what you’ve done to get the laws changed. You mentioned the 1970 federal law lowering the penalties for possession. Were there other milestones?

Stroup: Yes. The next milestone—perhaps the biggest one of all—was the report issued by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse in March of 1972. Here you had a Nixon-appointed, blue-ribbon, ultra-respectable commission, which conducted the most exhaustive study ever made of marijuana use, spending two years and $4 million, and concluded that marijuana was relatively harmless when smoked in moderation and that its use should be decriminalized.

Playboy: Nixon rejected the report, didn’t he?

Stroup: He not only rejected it, he denounced it. He implied that all those ultra-respectable figures he’d appointed to the commission had somehow turned into crazies. That was an election year, of course, and George McGovern favored decriminalization, so, naturally, Nixon opposed it. But the point is that it didn’t matter what Nixon said. The report spoke for itself. No honest, open-minded legislator could ignore it. From that point on, decriminalization was just a matter of time.

We should have the goal of minimizing destructive drug use, but I don’t think we should interfere with the individual who wants to use drugs in a positive way.

Playboy: And Oregon led the way.

Stroup: That’s right—Oregon was the next milestone. In October of 1973, it became the first state to decriminalize. Its legislature made the possession of up to an ounce punishable by a maximum civil fine of $100. Frankly, we were surprised. We didn’t expect them to move so quickly.

Playboy: Why did they?

Stroup: It was a combination of things. The bill had support from then-governor Tom McCall, a progressive Republican. It also had the support of Pat Horton, an innovative district attorney who had experimented with decriminalization in Lane County. He testified that marijuana arrests were a waste of police resources. The influential Portland City Club was persuaded to endorse decriminalization. And several young legislators made marijuana-law reform a high-priority issue. They persuaded a 61-year-old conservative Republican hog farmer—literally, a hog farmer—named Stafford Hansell to cosponsor the bill.

Playboy: What was the impact of Oregon’s action on other states?

Stroup: No other state took action for more than a year. But Oregon gave us invaluable data to use in other states. A lot of people had assumed that if you decriminalized, suddenly everyone would be stoned all the time. In fact, surveys by the Drug Abuse Council have shown that the rate of smoking stayed the same. So we began flying around the country to dozens of states, armed with the marijuana-commission report and the Oregon data. NORML had a kind of portable task force of experts we would make available for state legislative hearings.

Playboy: Who were some of your experts?

Stroup: Dr. Tom Ungerleider, a psychiatrist at UCLA who was a presidential appointee to the Commission on Marijuana; Pat Horton, the district attorney from Oregon; University of Virginia professor Richard Bonnie, former associate director of the marijuana commission; Dr. Dorothy Whipple, who’s both a grandmother and a noted pediatrician; Dr. David Smith, who founded the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic; Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard, who wrote Marijuana Reconsidered; Dr. Norman Zinberg, also of Harvard, a noted researcher and author; John Finlator, who retired a few years ago as the deputy director of the old Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs but who now speaks out for decriminalization.

Playboy: Do most people who are active in the reform movement smoke grass?

Stroup: Most do but by no means all. I’ve visited about 40 states, and smoked in all of them, often along with young doctors, lawyers and legislators who are supporting reform. There was a time in January of 1974, when I arrived in Pierre, South Dakota, with some of our expert witnesses. One was Finlator, the country’s former number-two narc. John enjoys a few drinks. Another was Dr. Whipple, a lovely woman, 76 years of age, who continues a full pediatric practice while lecturing as a clinical professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine. It was a Sunday night, and about 20 degrees below zero, and as soon as we’d checked into our motel rooms, John and Dorothy said they were going down to the bar to get a drink. I said I thought I’d just stay in my room. Well, a few minutes later, John called from the lobby and said, “There’s no bar—this damn town is dry on Sunday!” I said, “Well, my friend, we smokers don’t have that problem. We carry our bar with us.” So they came back to my room and we all smoked grass. The crazy thing was, there were some whiskey lobbyists in the next room—the motel owner told us about them—and we could hear them laughing and drinking booze while we marijuana lobbyists laughed and smoked grass in our room.

I remember one time late in 1972 when I was in Texas and I’d been out smoking the night before. The next afternoon, we were touring the Texas state prison, talking to those poor bastards who were in there for ten to twenty years essentially for doing the same thing I’d done the night before. So that’s what it’s all about—fighting the injustice of people locked in prison for getting high.

Playboy: Is that your basic motivation, outrage at the fact that people are being jailed for smoking marijuana?

Stroup: Certainly that’s an outrage, but it goes even deeper than that. The fact is that most smokers don’t go to jail. But we’re still an oppressed minority. There’s a loss of human dignity. You’re subject to the arbitrary power of any cop on the street. I can assure you that I feel the same emotional outrage when I hear some legislators discussing whether or not I should be subject to arrest that a black person or a woman does when he or she’s being denied equal rights.

Playboy: Are all those people in Texas out of prison now?

Stroup: Most of them are. In 1973, Texas reduced possession from a felony with a possible life sentence to a maximum six months in jail. We got a provision in the bill that made it possible for those then in prison to apply for resentencing under the new law; in other words, you applied the new penalties to people who’d been imprisoned under the old law—but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in a really shoddy decision, struck down the resentencing provision. Finally, due largely to the efforts of then-Representative Ronald Earle, Governor Dolph Briscoe set up Project Star, a parole program for marijuana offenders. It took several months, but more than 500 prisoners have been released.

Playboy: To pick up the thread of our chronology—

Stroup: Where were we? You pick it up.

Playboy: Oregon was the first state to decriminalize, in 1973; no states acted in 1974, then things began to break loose in 1975.

Stroup: That’s right. As the year began, we knew that several state legislatures were close to decriminalization and, as it turned out. Alaska was the first to act.

Playboy: What happened up there?

Stroup: There was crucial leadership by one young state senator, Terry Miller, a conservative Republican who had previously sponsored a right-to-privacy constitutional amendment. People understood that he wasn’t a spokesman for the drug culture but was truly interested in individual rights. And, as in Oregon, you had a fairly loose, independent-minded society, willing to try new ideas. So the bill passed in May, providing for a $100 fine, but the governor, a Republican named Jay S. Hammond, threatened to veto it. We quickly flew Dr. Ungerleider and Horton to Alaska and they talked to the governor and to the head of the state police, who’d been a leader of the opposition, and by the time they finished, the governor had decided not to veto the bill.

Playboy: And then the state supreme court stepped in.

Stroup: Shortly after the bill passed, the Alaska Supreme Court held unanimously that under the state constitution, an individual’s right to privacy included the right to grow marijuana and smoke it privately. The court said, “The effects of marijuana on the individual are not serious enough to justify widespread concern, at least as compared with the far more dangerous effects of alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines.” So Alaska is now the only state where it’s perfectly legal to grow it smoke it and give it away—in private. The only thing you can’t do is to sell it. NORML is now raising similar constitutional issues in a dozen federal and state courts.

Playboy: And they probably grow lousy grass.

Stroup: I haven’t had the pleasure of testing their local product, but they claim it’s good. It’s a short growing season, but they have that 24-hour day up there.

Playboy: Alaska white?

Stroup: Well, they claim to grow cabbages double size, so who knows about marijuana? I think there’ll be more than oil coming down that new pipeline.

Playboy: Which states acted next?

Stroup: Both Maine and Colorado passed decriminalization bills in June of 1975. California was a more complicated political battle. To begin with, you originally had Governor Ronald Reagan and the repressive mentality he represents. During his term, he vetoed three bills to lower marijuana penalties, so you still had a law that permitted a ten-year felony sentence for possession of a single joint. Over 100,000 Californians each year were receiving felony records for minor marijuana offenses.

Playboy: You’d had some political frustrations in California back in 1972, hadn’t you?

Stroup: Oh, yes. That was the year that Amorphia, the counterculture group started by Mike Aldrich—who happened to have the first Ph.D. in marijuana folklore—and the California Marijuana Initiative, founded by Bay Area attorney Leo Paoli, collected 340,000 signatures to get a decriminalization referendum on the 1972 ballot. Now, that was a major achievement in itself, but when it came to publicizing the issue, we had some differences in style. They were forming groups with names like Grannies for Grass and Jocks for Joints, and in one town they wanted to sponsor a softball game, with the Jocks for Joints to play stoned, against some straight guys, to prove that grass doesn’t impair you physically. That sort of thing drove me up the wall. We at NORML were trying to make marijuana a serious issue and they were going to settle it with a softball game. It was a classic conflict between the middle-class reformers and the counterculturists.

Playboy: What was the outcome?

Stroup: The initiative was defeated by about two to one. Which is a bad defeat in terms of conventional politics, but it was still impressive that almost 3 million people voted for a decriminalization initiative in 1972. And the public debate that resulted during the initiative campaign helped bring about a vastly enlightened public view about marijuana.

Playboy: Eventually, you merged with Amorphia, didn’t you?

Stroup: Yes. Its president, Gordon Brownell, who, incidentally, prior to 1970, had worked in the Nixon White House and later for Reagan, became NORML’s West Coast coordinator, and Mark Heutlinger moved to Washington, D.C., to become NORML’s business manager.

Since the marijuana-commission report in 1972, every reputable study has confirmed its finding about marijuana’s causing no serious physical or mental ill effects.

Playboy: So in three years you’d gone from Jocks for Joints to a victory in the California legislature.

Stroup: Essentially, yes. It was all part of the process. As 1975 began, California had a new governor, Jerry Brown, who favored decriminalization, and by the spring, a decriminalization bill was moving through the legislature right on schedule. It passed the traditionally conservative state senate with the sponsorship of George Moscone, who was the Democratic majority leader and then became mayor of San Francisco. Then it went over to the more liberal assembly, where our sponsor was Alan Sieroty, a Democrat from West Los Angeles and a longtime supporter of decriminalization, and where we thought we’d have no problem. But we were wrong.

Playboy: Why?

Stroup: We had underestimated the conservative Republicans from Southern California and how far they would go to play politics with the issue. We needed 41 votes to pass the bill and we were counting on four Republican votes, along with 37 Democratic votes. But a Republican maverick, a John Birch type from Orange County named John Briggs, invoked the unit rule on his delegation. That meant that because two thirds of the Republicans opposed the bill, the others had to oppose it, too, or risk being drummed out of the party. Several younger Republicans who wanted to vote with us, some of whom were smokers themselves, were anguished by this, but they weren’t willing to defy their party leadership.

Playboy: What was the Republican leader’s motive?

Stroup: Well, to begin with, he was an absolutely incredible character, right out of the Thirties. He talked about marijuana addicts and sexual orgies—he believed the whole “reefer madness” thing. Beyond that, he thought he saw a good political issue. Most Democrats had previously supported a sexual-rights bill, and he thought he could brand the Democrats as the party of gay sex and marijuana. But he had to keep all the Republicans in line to make it stick.

Playboy: Did he?

Stroup: On the first roll call, we got only 38 votes, all Democratic, out of the 41 we needed. The bill was tabled until we could come up with three more votes.

Playboy: Was that when you went out to California?

Stroup: Yes. I spent three weeks there before the second vote was taken.

Playboy: Doing what?

Stroup: The first thing I did was to contact some prominent Democrats in California, some celebrities, some businessmen, some who smoke, some who’d given money to NORML in the past, and I made sure they called or sent a telegram to the Democratic leaders in the assembly to let them know that it wasn’t just a freak issue, it was a priority issue with the kind of people who give money to Democrats.

We then pitched our argument to the Democrats in Sacramento: “Look, 105,000 people were arrested for marijuana in California last year and if you don’t release four votes, it’ll happen again next year.” I don’t know if they were swayed by the merits of the argument, by the state-wide letter-writing campaign our California office had coordinated, by the influential Democrats who were calling the capitol, or by the calls that Governor Brown made; but when the second vote came, four Democrats miraculously supported the bill who hadn’t supported it before, and we won, 42-34, without a single Republican vote. So now, it’s the only misdemeanor in the California code for which you can’t be arrested, only cited and fined up to $100.

Playboy: And, finally, you got to Ohio.

Stroup: That’s right, and I think it’s another milestone.

Playboy: Why?

Stroup: Because it’s traditionally such a conservative state. You’d expect us to win in Colorado or California, which have well-defined marijuana cultures; but when you win in Ohio, you’re moving into middle America, the real heartland.

Playboy: How did it happen?

Stroup: Essentially, it happened when we were able to mobilize conservative political support.

One of the most dramatic things that happened was Art Linkletter’s supporting decriminalization before the Ohio legislature. His daughter fell—or jumped—out a window and was killed several years ago, supposedly while using LSD, and after that, he was an antidrug crusader for a while, but he told the legislators. “We’ve sent far too many young people to jail…. I’m not soft on drugs, I’m soft on people.”

I think the Ohio victory opens up the entire Midwest. I don’t see how Illinois and Indiana and those other Midwestern states can keep locking kids up for smoking grass after Ohio has decriminalized. That was evident in 1976, an election year and thus an extremely difficult time for social issues, when South Dakota and Minnesota joined the list.

Playboy: What states do you expect to decriminalize next?

Stroup: I expect the rest of the upper Midwest to pass bills this year—that would include Wisconsin and Michigan and possibly Illinois. Also, Hawaii and Washington should act—that would complete the West Coast states. On the East Coast, we hope to win Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. New York, which has one of the worst marijuana laws in the country and one of the highest concentrations of smokers, is our number-one priority. Frank Fioramonti, NORML’s New York coordinator, is optimistic about getting a bill through this year. In the Southwest, we are targeting our efforts in Arizona and New Mexico. Beyond that, the Midwest and the South will take longer but are beginning to move. We expect to have bills considered in at least 30 states this year.

No one was doing serious, realistic work on [marijuana reform]. It was as if, in 1965, you’d discovered there was a war in Vietnam but nobody had started an antiwar movement.

Playboy: We’ve been talking about your successes, but you’ve had your setbacks, too. Washington, D.C., was one.

Stroup: It sure was. The new D.C. city council first voted for decriminalization by eight to four. We thought that was it. But under pressure from Congressman Charles Diggs, the chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, and from a coalition of Baptist ministers, the city council reversed itself on a second vote and tabled the bill indefinitely. So marijuana remains illegal in D.C., and each year another 2,500 people are needlessly and tragically arrested. We are going to try again this year in the District.

Playboy: You seem to rely heavily on media exposure for your lobbying efforts.

Stroup: That’s right. I can’t go to a Senator and say. “Either you support my bill or we’ll defeat you in the next election!” The National Rifle Association can say that, because it’s got computers, millions of dollars and millions of organized voters. So NORML’s main leverage comes from being better informed than our opponents and getting the facts out through the media.

Playboy: Have the media been receptive?

Stroup: Yes, I think they want to do a fair job. Certainly, a good number of younger reporters are smokers. The trouble was that for 35 years you heard only the antimarijuana side of the story. One of NORML’s biggest jobs is to counter false and misleading statements about marijuana, particularly medical statements.

Playboy: Despite the marijuana commission’s report, which said that moderate marijuana use was harmless, we continue to see newspaper reports of medical studies that say marijuana makes men impotent or causes birth defects or whatever. How do you explain this?

Stroup: The fact is that of the hundreds of researchers in this country and abroad who are studying marijuana, there are a few who are simply antimarijuana. Their research always supports their preconceived notions. Traditionally, they’ve gone before Senator James Eastland’s subcommittee and we’ve had another day of hearings on the “killer drug” that Eastland says is turning young people into “semi-zombies.” But upon examination, almost all of these studies prove to be inconclusive or misleading. We’ve had a lot of success in knocking them down and discouraging others. The fact is that since the marijuana-commission report in 1972, every reputable study has confirmed its finding about marijuana’s causing no serious physical or mental ill effects. This includes studies by Consumers Union, the Drug Abuse Council, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the U. S. Army.

Playboy: The Army says marijuana is OK?

Stroup: Yes. The Army spent $382,000 to have Dr. J. H. Mendelson of Harvard Medical School conduct a comprehensive study to see if heavy marijuana smoking—seven to ten joints a day!—would hurt young men. Well, for better or worse, his finding was that it didn’t. And do you know what the Army did with that report? Sat on it for 15 months, until NORML’s chief counsel, Peter Meyers, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see it. Needless to say, if the study had shown that marijuana was harmful, the Army would have released it immediately, probably at a press conference.

Playboy: We’ve discussed state legislation. What about the effort to get a decriminalization bill through the U. S. Congress?

Stroup: We’ve made very little progress there. Decriminalization has run up against the seniority system. In the Senate, Eastland won’t let it out of his Judiciary Committee. In the House, it has been blocked by Paul Rogers, who’s the chairman of a subcommittee on health. We continue to talk to Rogers and to urge our Florida members to write to him. He’s not opposed to decriminalization, but he says he doesn’t think his constituents are quite ready for it yet. Realistically, we expect the first serious consideration in Congress during the current session.

Playboy: Who have been your main supporters in Congress?

Stroup: In the House, Ed Koch, a Democrat from New York. He conceived of the Commission on Marijuana and introduced the first decriminalization bill, which now has about 30 cosponsors in the House. On the Senate side, Jacob Javits of New York, who served on the marijuana commission, and Birch Bayh of Indiana have been our strongest supporters, with others including Gary Hart, Alan Cranston, Gaylord Nelson, Floyd Haskell and Ed Brooke. If decriminalization came to a vote, we might have the support of 40 Senators, mostly liberals, but what we don’t have yet are the major conservatives such as Barry Goldwater. Once we pick them up, we’ll win in Congress, just as we won in Ohio and Colorado when we got conservative support. I think the conservative politicians understand the issue now, but they don’t think their constituents are ready to accept a new marijuana policy. Actually, a true Jeffersonian conservative would say the government has no business telling people what they can grow and smoke.

Playboy: Let’s talk about how you got into this rather strange business. You have a pretty straight, middle-American background, haven’t you?

Stroup: Straight as an arrow. I grew up on a farm in southern Illinois in a society that was rural, redneck, Republican and Southern Baptist. My father was a farmer, later a modest building contractor, and finally a government housing bureaucrat. My mother works as a nurse’s aide. We were really dirt poor, but we didn’t know it, because so was everyone else we knew. It was a society that thought pleasure was a sin and you had to suffer your way into heaven.

Playboy: Then you went off to college and discovered pleasure.

Stroup: Right. I went off to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, which, of course, I thought was the pinnacle of academic excellence. I had been near the top of my class in high school, and had been vice president of my class, so a fraternity took me in and I spent the next couple of years discovering booze and women and trying to become Joe College.

Playboy: But having a few disciplinary problems, we believe.

I don’t do cocaine much, because it’s terribly expensive and the legal risk is incredible. It’s not addictive, but the authorities treat it as if it were heroin.

Stroup: Yeah, this fraternity brother and I would occasionally get drunk and call a pizza place and have them deliver a pizza to the sorority house across the street; then when the deliveryman would walk up to the sorority-house door, we’d rip off a couple of pizzas from the back of his truck. But eventually, we got caught and I was put on probation.

At that point, I didn’t know what marijuana was. I think I saw some once at a party, but the people using it were artsy-craftsy types, the kind we considered crazies on the left, and I never thought of using it. Actually, the first drug I ever used was uppers—amphetamines. We’d get them from the football players in my fraternity. They used them to play football and we used them to study for exams. But it never occurred to us to use them for fun.

Playboy: A boozer, a pizza thief, a speed freak—what came next?

Stroup: The summer after my sophomore year. I was in summer school and I was living in a house off campus. I was then vice president of my fraternity and we decided to have a rush party for new pledges in the house I was renting, so we could have beer and women, which were forbidden in the fraternity houses. So we had our illegal party, but one of the rushees was the son of a campus cop, and he turned us in. Since I was already on probation, they kicked me out of school for “conduct unbecoming a student.” Try explaining that to your Southern Baptist parents.

Playboy: What did you do then?

Stroup: What could I do? I joined the Peace Corps. They sent me to New Mexico for training and I eventually figured out that my training class was a special group of fuck-ups of various sorts. And they were training us—losers that we were—to build adobe shithouses in rural Colombia. Well, I’d just spent 18 years on a farm, and there was no way I was going to spend two years building adobe shithouses in rural Colombia.

Playboy: So you became a Peace Corps dropout?

Stroup: Right. I wrote the Peace Corps a long essay, telling them exactly how fucked up I thought they were—that was my first official lashing out at the system, I guess, the first time I thought maybe the system was wrong instead of me. But I still couldn’t get back into the University of Illinois, so I finally found a little teacher’s college in Murray, Kentucky, that would take me. It was in a dry county and some of us made spending money bootlegging, running whiskey in from Paducah.

Playboy: Dealing, you might say.

Stroup: We thought of it as a public service. Anyway, the University of Illinois finally let me back in for my senior year. When I graduated in the summer of 1965, I hopped into my car and started driving east. I was so glad to get out of the fucking Midwest that I didn’t know what to do.

Playboy: You looked over your undergraduate career as pizza thief, campus troublemaker, Peace Corps dropout and bootlegger, and you decided your best move was to go to Washington, study law and enter politics. Is that correct?

Stroup: Well, you could put it that way. I was interested in politics, and law was the traditional way that ambitious farm boys got ahead. I had the idea that I’d get my law degree, practice in Washington for a couple of years, then go back to southern Illinois and run for Congress. I was accepted by Georgetown University Law School and graduated in 1968, and I had a good offer to go back home and practice law; but by then, I’d decided I didn’t want to go back to southern Illinois and, instead, I took a job as a lawyer with the President’s Commission on Product Safety. It was a two-year commission, created by Congress, that examined household products to decide which ones were dangerous and should be taken off the market. I got to set up hearings, select witnesses, write testimony for the commissioners and stimulate press coverage of the hearings. It was a good education in public-interest law.

Playboy: How did you progress from product safety to marijuana?

Stroup: It was a combination of things. A friend of mine got busted for possession of marijuana and asked me to handle his case. I began looking around for basic data on marijuana—how many people smoke, what its effects are—and there just wasn’t any. 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 the world’s problems, but you had no one doing serious, realistic work on what public policy should be toward marijuana smokers. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if, in 1965, you’d discovered there was a war in Vietnam but nobody had started an antiwar movement.

Playboy: You’d started smoking by then, we take it.

Stroup: Yes. The first time I smoked was in law school, which seems appropriate, but I didn’t even get high that first time. Then, after I joined the product-safety commission, a fellow gave me some grass and that weekend I was playing bridge with friends and I said, “Hey, let’s smoke some marijuana. I tried it once and it doesn’t do anything to you.” So we proceeded to pass five or six joints around the bridge table, reassuring ourselves that nothing was happening. We didn’t realize that a time delay was involved. Then one of the players started to laugh a lot and everybody quit caring about the bridge game. I got so high I didn’t know what was happening.

Playboy: How did your friend’s arrest lead to NORML?

Stroup: Well, I got my friend acquitted, because the police had searched his car illegally. As far as NORML was concerned, I began to think about a middle-class, public-interest approach to the marijuana issue. I talked to some friends who worked for Nader and they encouraged me. I did some reading: John Kaplan’s Marijuana: The New Prohibition and Ramsey Clark’s Crime in America, both of which call for legalization.

Playboy: You eventually went to see Clark, didn’t you?

Stroup: Yes. From his book, he seemed to be one of the few big-time politicians who really cared about people, little people. So I called his secretary and eventually convinced her he should see me. That was late in 1970. And he was tremendously helpful.

Playboy: How?

Stroup: For one thing, I had the idea of the name, NORML, but to stand for National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws. He correctly pointed out that repeal was a scare word and that I could more accurately use reform, still keep my acronym and sound like part of the traditional reformist movement this country had always supported. But more important was just that he took me seriously, that he thought my idea was not an erratic, bizarre gamble, that it wasn’t a decision a madman would make but a decision a committed man would make. His attitude was, “You’re 26 years old; what have you got to lose?” Well, I had a house I was afraid I might lose and a family to support, but ultimately, he was right. When I left his office. I was fired up.

Playboy: But you still didn’t have any money.

Stroup: That’s right. In October of 1970, I contacted nine or ten small, traditionally liberal foundations, but they all turned me down. They weren’t ready to see marijuana as a legitimate issue. Then, one day, a friend of mine asked if I’d tried the Playboy Foundation. I didn’t even know there was a Playboy Foundation. But I wrote to them, and we exchanged calls and letters, and eventually they sent a man to Washington to talk to me and two friends who were helping me, Larry Schott, one of the top people at the product-safety commission, and Larry DuBois, the writer. They’re both now directors of NORML. I think the Playboy executive was impressed to find out that we were serious—we weren’t a bunch of fuck-offs. A few weeks later, I got a call saying that we should submit a budget and I should go to Chicago and meet Hugh Hefner. So we drew up a proposed budget for $60,000 a year and I flew to Chicago to meet Hefner.

Playboy: How did the meeting go?

Stroup: It had its ups and downs. To begin with, the night before the meeting. Burton Joseph, a Chicago lawyer who’s the director of the foundation, took me out to dinner and I drank too much. To tell you the truth, I was nervous, and I was into grass by then and hadn’t drunk much alcohol in a couple of years, and I just got drunk and stayed out too late. So the next morning, we had the meeting scheduled for 11 o’clock. Several people had pointed out to me that Hefner seldom got up that early, that he was making a special point to come to this meeting. So I arrived at the Mansion hung over, nervous, my hands shaking, but wearing my best suit and tie and determined to make a good impression. And this beautiful young lady sat me down and a butler in a tuxedo brought me coffee on a silver tray. I mean, it was incredible. My dreams had come true. So finally, Joseph appeared and took me into the living room of the Mansion, where the meeting was being held, and I walked in and I could see Hefner and eight or ten of his executives sitting at a table and I was nervous as hell, and as I started down the steps, I slipped on a step and nearly fell flat on my ass. Literally, I was down on the floor. I figured I’d blown the whole thing and Hefner could see through my apparent sophistication and tell that I was obviously some fuck-up of a farm boy who couldn’t even walk into a meeting right.

Playboy: Hell, Hefner probably didn’t like meetings any more than you did.

Stroup: Actually, Hefner tried to put me at ease. He said something about the floor’s being slick, and gave me a chair beside him, and started asking me questions about my proposal. There was discussion, and some of his executives questioned whether that was the time to get into the marijuana issue, and it was clear to me that Hefner was more sympathetic than some of the others were.

Those poor bastards were in prison for ten to twenty years for doing the same thing I’d done the night before. That’s what it’s all about—fighting the injustice of people locked up for getting high.

Playboy: What was the upshot of the meeting?

Stroup: When I got back to Washington, Joseph called and said the Playboy Foundation would give us $5,000 to start NORML. I almost turned him down. At that time, I had a wife and a child and a new house, and he wanted me to go out into the hard, cruel world on $5,000. But he convinced me that if we did a good job, there’d be more money coming, so we took the $5,000 and in January of 1971, NORML officially began operations in the basement here on M Street.

Playboy: What were you doing in those early days?

Stroup: Not a lot. Putting together an advisory board. Trying to find out what was happening around the country. The first big thing that happened was when PLAYBOY agreed to give NORML a free, full-page ad in the magazine. We thought that would solve our money problem. It had given the Vietnam Veterans Against the War an ad, and it had brought in more than $100,000. We thought we’d get that much, too.

Playboy: What kind of ad did you run?

Stroup: It was headed “Pot Shots” and had a mug shot of a young guy who’d been arrested for marijuana and it told about NORML. So the ad ran in PLAYBOY and we received maybe $2,000 as a result of it. The thing was, people didn’t know if we were for real. NORML didn’t exist except in my basement and in my mind. People weren’t going to send us money and their names and addresses, not knowing if we might be a front for the Bureau of Narcotics.

Playboy: So you had to start organizing?

Stroup: That’s right, we had to do some work. But we still didn’t have any money. All we had were a lot of letters the ad had brought in—from smokers, from people in jail, from people who wanted to help—and I was becoming a pen pal to all of them. I’d write back and say, “Thanks for writing, we agree with you, we’ll be back in touch with a project.” But we didn’t have any projects. We didn’t know what the hell to do. We had no money, we couldn’t travel, we had no programs. I was afraid we were becoming a sham. I didn’t want to be part of that. So late in 1971, I went back to Playboy and said, “Look, let’s either get in or get out. Give us a year’s budget so we can do some work.” And Playboy gave us a commitment of $100,000 for the next year. That obviously was a whole new trip.

Playboy: There were some strange goings on in the early days NORML. We’re thinking of things like the Free John Lennon rally and the guy in Florida who wanted to give you money. Do you remember those?

Stroup: How could I forget? The Lennon rally was in 1971. I had met this successful young home builder in Phoenix who was very interested in the marijuana issue. That was when the government wanted to deport Lennon because he’d been convicted in England on a marijuana charge. So this fellow decided to stage a rally to get money and support for Lennon’s cause. Some of us thought that Lennon had the means to take care of himself, but that’s what this guy was determined to do.

Playboy: Who came to the rally?

Stroup: Every radical activist he could find. Black activist Lee Otis Johnson was there and poet John Sinclair, both just out of prison on marijuana convictions. And I and writer Karl Hess and Tony Russo, from the Pentagon-papers trial, and Vernon Bellecourt, one of the leaders of the American Indian movement. Our host rented a speedway for the rally and there were helicopters to fly us in from the airport and chauffeured Lincoln Continentals to ferry us around, and air-conditioned trailers for us at the speedway, and security police to protect us from the hordes of Lennonites who were supposed to fill the speedway.

Playboy: What happened to the hordes?

Stroup: They never showed up. There were maybe 400 people instead of the 40,000 or 50,000 he’d expected.

Playboy: But the show went on?

Stroup: Oh, sure; we had to make all our speeches to the empty bleachers. We all felt like complete fools.

Playboy: Did Lennon show?

Stroup: He not only didn’t show, he didn’t even recognize it as an official function. He wouldn’t even say a few words via long-distance phone. It was one of those cases where you give a party and nobody comes. But I will say this, it was an interesting weekend.

Playboy: Tell us about your benefactor in Florida.

Stroup: That was in 1972. This fellow called me and said he’d inherited a lot of money from his uncle and he wanted to give NORML $100,000 and be our Florida coordinator. Needless to say, I was on the next plane to Florida, and he met me at the airport. He was a lawyer and an average-looking fellow. We drove to his house and it was in a neat, well-trimmed, prosperous neighborhood, and suddenly you reached his house and there was this jungle. Overgrown with weeds and vines and hedges and trees—nothing had ever been trimmed. There wasn’t even a path. You had to fight your way through—you needed a machete. We struggled into the house and the fellow explained that he didn’t believe in killing anything that lived, and that included grass and weeds and trees. Well, the inside of the house was bizarre, too—filthy, stacks of junk everywhere, the classic hermit’s abode. People kept coming by and telling him hard-luck stories, and he gave away $10,000 or so while I was there.

Playboy: But you didn’t get any?

Stroup: No, because I decided the fellow probably wasn’t competent and it might have been criminal, or at least unethical, to take his money. I left town and never heard from him again.

If marijuana must be taxed, I’d like to see the money go for drug education and rehabilitation. We in the drug culture should admit there are casualties to drug use and take responsibility for them.

Playboy: Let’s talk about the drug scene in general. Besides marijuana, what drugs have you used?

Stroup: I’ve tried just about every drug, except heroin.

Playboy: How do you rate the others?

Stroup: Well, cocaine is an interesting drug to use occasionally. I wouldn’t want to do it often, because you’re very conscious that you’re under the influence of a drug. But you get a lot of work done. If you’ve got a paper to write, for example, and you’ve been putting it off, you can take a couple of good hits of cocaine and 12 hours later you’ve got your paper. The reason I don’t do cocaine much is, first, it’s terribly expensive and, second, the legal risk is incredible. It’s not an addictive drug, but the authorities treat it as if it were heroin.

Playboy: Shall we tell the world about NORCL?

Stroup: Why not? That’s kind of an inside joke around here, that after NORML comes NORCL, the National Organization for the Reform of Cocaine Laws. Actually, I think it’s a legitimate issue, but at this point, the government is so uptight about cocaine that I think whoever started NORCL would spend a significant part of the first five years in and out of jail.

Playboy: What about heroin?

Stroup: I’ve never tried it. I’ve never even seen any. Once people become strung out on heroin, they are caught in a miserable situation. It’s a medical problem. They need help, not punishment. Nonetheless, it’s not a culture I can in any way identify with.

Playboy: What about LSD?

Stroup: Three or four years ago, some friends and I experimented with hallucinogens, and I have a great deal of respect for the positive side of the whole hallucinogenic family—LSD, MDA, psilocybin and the others.

Playboy: What’s the positive side?

Stroup: I found myself, like most people who trip, thrown into a sense of cosmic awareness, of wanting answers to questions about life. Everyday things seemed trivial—I felt like I wanted to spend a few years up on a mountain, thinking about things. It was much like a religious experience. There were the same kinds of questions you don’t have the answers for. It was frightening the first time, but I came to enjoy it as an intellectual pursuit.

Playboy: That’s the good news; what’s the bad news?

Stroup: Well, you have to be willing to simply drop out of touch for 12 hours or so, which isn’t practical on a day-to-day basis. And you need a day or two afterward before you’re really ready to do any work. I think the main danger with hallucinogens is juveniles’ using them, in a black-market situation, whose minds aren’t mature enough to handle them. It can be a frightening, dangerous experience—especially if the stuff is adulterated.

Playboy: What’s your feeling about uppers?

Stroup: I don’t like them. As I said, we used uppers—amphetamines—to help us study in college. Kids today use them for the sense of euphoria they give, but from all I’ve seen and read, the effects of amphetamines are very negative. Real speed freaks seem to go through negative personality changes and become very hostile to people around them.

Playboy: What about downers?

Stroup: I don’t like the effect of the high. The downer high, whether it’s from barbiturates or soapers or Quaaludes or whatever, is very similar to the one you get from alcohol. It makes you sloppy physically. You run into doors—the kids call them wall bangers. Downers, whether pills or alcohol or even heroin, are preferred by people who want to escape reality, to be out of touch. That’s an important distinction. If you want to escape some pain or some problem, you don’t take marijuana, because it makes you more in touch, more sensitive. Downers make you feel good in the sense that you don’t feel at all.

Playboy: A lot of people use them with sex, don’t they?

Stroup: Yes, but to me, that’s the worst kind of sex, the kind we used to have when we were drunk. You know, the college boy who had to get drunk before he had the nerve to make his move and the woman who had to be drunk before she’d get into bed, and by the time you got in bed, neither of you could feel a thing. You could have a three-hour sex bout and not remember a thing the next morning. So I see downers as drugs taken by people who want to escape, and I see that as basically destructive.

Alaska has that 24-hour day up there, and they claim to grow cabbages double size, so who knows about marijuana? I think there’ll be more than oil coming down that new pipeline.

Playboy: Are there drugs that you think do enhance sex?

Stroup: Marijuana and cocaine, I would say.

Playboy: Would you clarify how you feel about the legalization of the various drugs other than marijuana?

Stroup: I think all drug use should be decriminalized. In other words, you shouldn’t put people in jail for using any drug. The question is, do you keep criminal penalties for the sale of the various drugs or do you go ahead and legalize and regulate their sale?

Playboy: How do you answer that?

Stroup: At the one extreme, I think that marijuana is substantially harmless and should be legalized. At the other extreme, I think heroin is dangerous and addictive and should not be legalized. In between those extremes, there are a lot of drugs, like cocaine and hallucinogens, that I’m really not sure about. I don’t think we yet know enough about their effects to legalize their sale. But, I repeat, I don’t think people should be jailed for using them.

Playboy: What about alcohol?

Stroup: I truly think this country would be better off if the 100 million people who currently drink alcohol would try marijuana.

Playboy: Given your strong distaste for alcohol, would you like to see more laws regulating it?

Stroup: No, not really. More than six years with NORML have given me a strong sense of libertarianism. But I think people should be educated to the problems of alcohol.

Playboy: You’re an admitted drug user and you’ve been an outspoken critic of the government’s drug policies. Why do you think the authorities—presumably, the Bureau of Narcotics undercover agents—have never tried to bust you?

Stroup: Perhaps I should say, having confessed to all this drug use, that the only drugs I use these days are marijuana and a little wine. So if anyone wanted to bust me, it’d only be for possession of a small amount of marijuana, and it would obviously be for political reasons. I guess if they’ve ever considered that, they’ve decided it might backfire.

But you never know. I had a strange experience recently. I had gotten to know a top-level narcotics agent when we both testified—on opposite sides—before the Maryland legislature. He invited me to speak before a seminar of Washington-area narcotics agents. So I addressed a couple of hundred undercover narcotics agents—young, mostly white and male, with longer hair than mine—and I’d never encountered such hostility before. After I said I smoked grass, one of them said, “By the way, Mr. Stroup, I didn’t get your address,” and another one stood up behind me and started frisking me—that was their idea of humor, to joke about busting me. When one of them asked why I didn’t turn in people who sold me drugs, and I said that wasn’t my job, that I wasn’t a police agent, they started booing me. The whole thing freaked me out.

Playboy: To have a narc frisk you is fun and games, but you were involved in one encounter with the Bureau of Narcotics that was deadly serious. We’re thinking of the trial of Bobbie Arnstein and her suicide. Would you summarize what happened?

Stroup: Yes. Bobbie was a close friend of mine, and we used to talk on the phone almost daily. I had to watch while the narcs framed her, put the screws to her and finally caused her suicide. She was an extraordinary woman and I feel the loss very personally.

Bobbie was Hugh Hefner’s executive assistant, a very important and valued employee. She was 32 years old, lived in the Chicago Playboy Mansion, enjoyed drugs, but, essentially, she was a hard-working professional woman, and she certainly never dealt any drugs. In fact, she had never been arrested for anything. Her trouble began when she was going out with a guy who was a street dealer. She took a trip to Florida with him when he brought back some cocaine. And when he got caught, the Drug Enforcement Administration, backed by U. S. Attorney James Thompson, decided to bring Bobbie to trial along with him. She denied knowing anything about the drug deal in Florida, but they made a deal with the cocaine dealer in Miami and he said she carried the package of cocaine back to Chicago. Normally, you don’t try a dealer’s girlfriend along with him, someone who was just along for the ride. But this wasn’t any ordinary girlfriend, this was Hefner’s assistant, so an ambitious prosecutor saw a chance to get some publicity and maybe build some kind of case against Hefner. So they tried her and convicted her on perjured testimony. She was provisionally sentenced to 15 years in prison. But all the while, they weren’t after Bobbie, they were just trying to make a deal with her. They were saying, “Tell us about the drug use in the Mansion, tell us about Hefner, and we’ll let you off.” They thought she’d implicate Hefner before she’d go to prison. But Bobbie knew Hefner wasn’t involved at all, and so she chose an alternative. She killed herself. After that, the DEA closed the whole investigation, announcing that it had found no evidence of any hard-drug use in the Playboy Mansion. But the point is that the bastards killed her, just as surely as if they’d shot her, because some publicity-hungry narc wanted to make a case against Hefner. Bobbie simply couldn’t stand the pressure, so she took the only way out she could find.

Playboy: What have been your dealings with Hefner?

Stroup: I’ve gotten to know him socially—Bobbie was really the person who brought me in contact with him. I see him occasionally and I try to keep him briefed on what NORML is doing. The point I would make about Hefner is that I think he deserves a lot of credit. In the Fifties and Sixties, he led the fight against the censorship laws, and in the Seventies, he’s led the fight against the drug laws. And, as Bobbie Arnstein’s case suggests, he hasn’t done it with impunity. He’s taken some heat, because he’s stood up for what he believes in.

The bastards killed Bobbie Arnstein, just as surely as if they’d shot her, because some publicity-hungry narcs wanted to make a case against Hefner.

Playboy: Despite NORML’s political successes, you’ve had serious financial problems, haven’t you?

Stroup: Yes, funding for NORML has always been a problem. We continue to raise more money each year, but our programs also grow. Altogether, we raise and spend around $300,000 a year.

Playboy: What have been your main sources of income?

Stroup: During 1975, in round numbers, we took in $130,000 from memberships and donations, $70,000 from the sale of NORML T-shirts and bumper stickers, $50,000 from the Playboy Foundation, $20,000 from High Times and $20,000 from lecture fees.

Playboy: What are your own future plans?

Stroup: I don’t really know. I think that within two or three years, the issue of marijuana decriminalization will be settled, and then the issue will become what kind of legalization system we should develop. I hope NORML will continue to exist and be involved in that issue, and perhaps I will be, but I have serious doubts that I want to stay through that phase of it. I think I’d like to write and perhaps start working on some other public-interest project, one that has nothing to do with drugs. I also want to spend more time with my eight-year-old daughter, Lindsey.

Playboy: You must have been discouraged sometimes, both with the political obstacles you’ve encountered and with the financial problems.

Stroup: Yeah; my salary is $13,500, I’m paying child support out of that and I’ve been living for four years in a room above my office. But you don’t go into public-interest law expecting to make much money. And being broke doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a failure. I think it’s been worth it, because I’ve had the chance to do such creative, stimulating work. I was very lucky to stumble onto the idea of NORML at the time I did.

I’ve been able to play a part in the end of an era of prohibition, a significant social change, and those opportunities don’t come along very often. So I feel lucky to have been able to participate. If I had been a few years older or a few years younger, there might not have been such a fascinating project around.

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