By Peter Carlson

WASHINGTON -- Keith Stroup's mouth is dry. His brain is foggy. America's most famous marijuana lobbyist admits that a powerful drug has messed up his mind.

The drug isn't marijuana, although he smokes that nearly every night. It's a cold medicine. He took some this morning, he says, and it made him feel goofy, spacy, stoned.

"I hate taking it," he says. "But my nose was running and I kept sneezing and I thought, 'I gotta take something.' "

Wearing a bright white shirt and dark blue suit, Stroup is sitting at his impeccably neat desk in the tidy K Street offices of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He founded NORML in 1970 and now, 34 years later, he's retiring at 61 as the pot lobby's executive director.

"When I turned 60, I looked in the mirror and I saw this gray-haired old man and I said, 'I think we need younger leadership,' " he explains. "It has to do with more energy, fresh perspectives, new ideas. It's not like I'm ready for the old folks' home. I just think we need somebody younger running the organization."

Allen St. Pierre, 39, NORML's second-in-command for the past decade, is taking over. Stroup, who recently married for the third time, will become a consultant and lecturer.

On the wall is a photo showing Stroup in jeans addressing a crowd of hippies in front of the White House in the '70s.

"We used to have a July 4 smoke-in every year in Lafayette Park," he says. "I like this just as a period piece. Look at those ragtag folks! Look at the guys without their shirts on!"

Decorating his filing cabinet are stickers -- "Just Say Yes to Legalization" -- and a backstage pass from a Willie Nelson concert. Nelson, famously fond of the weed, is a longtime NORML supporter.

Back in the '70s, Keith Stroup was about as close to rock stardom as Washington lobbyists ever get. He hung out with the Allman Brothers and Jimmy Buffett. He partied with Willie Nelson and presidential son Chip Carter. He had sex in the fabled grotto at the Playboy mansion, where Hugh Hefner hosted a NORML fundraiser.

The man they called "Mr. Marijuana" grew up on an Illinois farm, graduated from the University of Illinois in 1965 and headed for Washington, enrolling in Georgetown Law School and landing a $50-a-week job in the office of Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, which gave him a taste for Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing.

Meanwhile he had begun smoking pot and marching in anti-war demonstrations, sometimes simultaneously.

He finished law school in 1968, married and took a job on the newly formed federal Commission on Product Safety. Inspired by the work of hot young consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Stroup got an idea: He'd create a consumer group for pot smokers, an organization to lobby for legalization. It was the kind of pipe dream that floated through the heads of countless pot smokers, but Stroup actually did it -- hustling $5,000 in seed money from the Playboy Foundation and opening an office in his basement.

Courting respectability, Stroup assembled a board of directors that included Harvard professors, former Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark and, later, Sens. Phil Hart and Jacob Javits. Stroup made his pitch on TV, lectured at colleges, and testified before Congress and state legislatures.

A positive report

In 1972, Stroup got unexpected help from an unlikely source: The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, appointed by President Nixon, issued its final report, concluding that marijuana is relatively harmless and that possession of less than an ounce should be legal. Nixon rejected the report, which Stroup used as a lobbying tool in his increasingly successful campaign to reduce penalties for pot.

In 1975, five states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine and Ohio -- removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the weed. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, who during his campaign had advocated decriminalizing pot, was elected president. In 1977, Stroup visited the White House to meet with Carter's drug policy adviser, Peter Bourne. Soon NORML would be playing the White House in softball.

It seemed like high times for NORML. Publicly, Stroup predicted pot would be legal in a couple of years. Privately, he and his NORML pals joked about forming an advocacy group for another drug they'd begun to enjoy -- cocaine.

Then in October 1977, Canadian customs agents found a joint in Stroup's pocket and busted him. That wasn't too bad: Canada had liberal pot laws, and the judge let him off with a $100 fine.

Kicked out of Canada

But at the airport on his way home, Canadian customs agents searched his bags and found a joint and a vial containing traces of cocaine. Busted again, he was fined $300 and kicked out of Canada.

Back in Washington, he was lobbying for a bill to ban federal funding of a controversial program that sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat, shown to cause lung damage in people who smoked the tainted weed. Stroup asked Bourne, Carter's drug adviser, to support the bill. Bourne refused. Stroup was outraged. To him, it was a moral issue: The feds were deliberately poisoning pot smokers!

Seeking revenge, Stroup leaked a secret to newspaper columnist Jack Anderson in 1978: Bourne had snorted cocaine at NORML's 1977 Christmas party. When the story broke, Bourne told reporters he'd only handled cocaine at the party, he hadn't snorted any. Bourne lost his job.

But so did Stroup. The folks at NORML didn't like snitches.

"When I look back on it," Stroup says, "it was probably the stupidest thing I ever did."

Nobody "in their rational mind," he adds, would jeopardize a relationship with a high White House official over a minor policy dispute.

Is it possible that he wasn't in his "rational mind" because he was too stoned too often?

"Yes," he says. "I think it is possible that my own personal use of cocaine played into that."

In those days he, like many people, thought coke was harmless. Now he knows better. "Cocaine is deadly," he says.

After leaving NORML in 1979, Stroup spent four years as a defense attorney. "Every client I had was a drug offender," he says. "The only people who'd heard of me had been arrested on drug charges."

Unfortunately they weren't the kind of drug offenders he liked -- folks who had been caught with a little weed. They were mostly cocaine smugglers and, he soon realized, a lot of them were thugs.

"So I stepped aside," he says, "and went back into public-interest work."

Stroup, who had remarried, held lobbying positions as well as that of executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In 1995, NORML, split by infighting, asked Stroup to come back. The movement to legalize marijuana had run aground. In the 1970s, 11 states had decriminalized pot; in the '80s, none did. Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" crusade and the deadly spread of crack cocaine had led to a backlash against drugs. NORML was nearly broke, politically impotent and beset by feuding factions.

Stroup saved NORML from self-destruction, St. Pierre says, but "could not replicate what he did in the '70s."

NORML now limps by on about $750,000 a year, most of it raised from dues paid by about 12,000 members. It's not enough money to do much politicking, so NORML is now largely a service organization for pot smokers, providing tips on beating drug tests and legal advice for arrested smokers.

Tom Riley, official spokesman for federal drug czar John Walters, says, "Keith and people like that have banged their heads against the wall for years saying `Legalize pot.' But they're farther behind now than they were 20 years ago."

A daily drag

"I have no doubt I'll be smoking marijuana the day I die," Stroup says. He smokes it nearly every night. He comes home, pours a glass of chardonnay, lights up a joint and turns on the TV news. He doesn't smoke pot when he has to work or drive, he says.

His new wife doesn't share his passion for pot. Neither does his 35-year-old daughter, who recently had a baby boy, making Stroup a grandfather. He doesn't care that they don't smoke and he doesn't think anybody should care that he does.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with it," he says, "and it should be of no interest or concern to the government."