At 61, Longtime Marijuana Lobby Leader Keith Stroup Is Finally Leaving the Joint
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer

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 Tylenol cold medicine. He took some this morning, he says, and it made him feel goofy, spacey, 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 back 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."

That somebody is Allen St. Pierre, 39, who has served as NORML's second-in-command for the past decade. St. Pierre took over yesterday, while Stroup, who recently got married for the third time, headed off to his Falls Church home to become a consultant and lecturer.

But now, Stroup, stoned on cold medicine and nostalgia, starts showing off the strange souvenirs of his strange lobbying career.

He pulls a black-and-white photo off the wall. It shows him in jeans and a jacket 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!"

He points to a poster on the wall and reads its message aloud: "It's only a weed that turns to a flower in your mind." He laughs. "That's a period piece, too."

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.

"Over the years, we've built up a nice friendship," Stroup says. "He's going to sponsor a celebrity NORML golf tournament in 2005."

Stoned golf?

Stroup laughs. "It's a lot less competitive," he says

He picks up a picture frame that contains a typed letter. It's the note that accompanied $10,000 in cash left on the doorstep of NORML's office in the summer of 1976.

"Officially, it was an anonymous gift," Stroup says, smiling mischievously, "but I knew who it was."

The money came from Tom Forcade, the legendary pot smuggler who founded High Times, the marijuana magazine, in 1974 and helped bankroll NORML before he committed suicide in 1978. Forcade's letter claimed the $10,000 was a donation from "The Confederation," a fictitious group of dope growers and smugglers. It concluded: "Karma prevails. Venceremos."

Stroup turned that gift into a media event, calling a news conference and spreading the well-worn $10 and $20 bills across a table for photographers.

Today Stroup is a bit embarrassed by that publicity stunt. "It was a little close to the line," he says. "I was nervous about the whole thing going down, but I played along with it. If I did that today, the FBI and the DEA would have me before a grand jury in no time."

Back in the '70s, though, it seemed perfectly normal for NORML to call a dope smuggler when it ran short of cash. One day, Stroup recalls, he called Forcade for a donation and the smuggler told him to come to an address on New York's Lower East Side.

"I got up there and it's an apartment with no electricity," he says, "and I walk in the door and the whole room is filled with bales of marijuana! It was a stash house! And I'm saying, 'Forcade, what are you doing? I don't know if I'm being followed.' But we needed the money and I took the money."

On a Roll

There was a time, back in the '70s, when Keith Stroup was about as close to a rock star 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 a farm in southern Illinois. His mother was a devout Baptist. His father was a building contractor and Republican Party activist who stashed a bottle of whiskey under the front seat of his Lincoln Continental so he could take a snort when his wife wasn't looking.

Stroup graduated from the University of Illinois in 1965 -- after a one-year expulsion for drunken frat boy high jinks -- and headed for Washington. He enrolled in Georgetown Law School and, using his dad's GOP connections, landed a $50-a-week job in the office of Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois. The work was dull, but it gave Stroup a taste for Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing.

Meanwhile he'd begun smoking pot and marching in antiwar demonstrations, sometimes simultaneously.

He finished law school in 1968, got married and took a job on the newly formed federal Commission on Product Safety. That job put Stroup in contact with Ralph Nader, then a hot young consumer advocate.

Inspired by Nader's work, 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 during long nights of deep inhaling, but Stroup actually did it -- hustling $5,000 in seed money from the Playboy Foundation and opening an office in his basement near Dupont Circle

"Keith was a rebel, and he resented the idea that his government treated him as a criminal because of a drug that he and millions of other people used," says Patrick Anderson, author of "High in America," a 1981 book on Stroup and NORML.

Stroup didn't dress like a rebel, though. He wore a suit and tie, like every other Washington lawyer-lobbyist.

"He was consciously trying to be an alternative to the freak approach, which he knew wasn't going to work," Anderson says.

Courting respectability, Stroup assembled a board of directors that included Harvard professors, former attorney general Ramsey Clark and, later, Sens. Phil Hart and Jacob Javits. Pumped with zeal, Stroup went anywhere to make his pitch, appearing on TV, lecturing at colleges, testifying before Congress and state legislatures.

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, but Stroup used it as a lobbying tool in his increasingly successful campaign to reduce penalties for pot.

n 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 that 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 Stroup hit a couple of snags. 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 when Stroup returned for trial in 1978, the judge let him off with a $100 fine.

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 spent the night in jail, was fined $300 and got kicked out of Canada. The whole absurd episode was like a bad joke:

How can you tell if you might be a little too stoned?

You get busted going through customs with dope after your trial for going though customs with dope.

That was a dumb blunder. But Stroup was about to make a blunder that was infinitely dumber.

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 July 1978: Bourne had snorted cocaine at NORML's 1977 Christmas party. And Stroup revealed the names of a couple of witnesses.

When Anderson broke the story, Bourne told reporters he'd only handled cocaine at the NORML party, he hadn't actually snorted any. It didn't matter. Bourne lost his job.

A few months later, so did Stroup. The folks at NORML didn't like snitches and eased him out the door.

"When I look back on it," Stroup says now, "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. "There are probably people who can use cocaine moderately. But I gotta tell you: Based on me and my friends, I didn't see very many of them."

The Dude No More

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'd 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 divorced in the early '70s, married a television producer and moved to Boston, where he became a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities.

In 1986 he moved back to Washington to lobby for a family farm organization. In 1989 he became executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In 1994 he became a lobbyist for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an Alexandria-based prison reform group.

Then in 1995, NORML -- split by infighting -- asked Stroup to come back and run the place.

He returned to find that everything had changed. 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. And NORML was nearly broke, politically impotent and beset by feuding factions.

Stroup saved NORML from self-destruction, St. Pierre says, but he failed to bring back the glory days: "Keith could not replicate what he did in the '70s."

Part of Stroup's problem was competition. In the '90s, two new groups arose to advocate drug-law reform, each bankrolled by an eccentric billionaire. The Drug Policy Alliance is funded by financier George Soros. The Marijuana Policy Project, founded by former NORML staffer Rob Kampia, is funded by insurance mogul Peter Lewis. Both groups have spent millions on state referendums to legalize medical marijuana -- many successful, some not.

But Stroup has failed to find an eccentric billionaire sugar daddy for NORML.

"I wish we had that kind of funding," he says. "If I had the kind of funding that Kampia has, I think I could have done a lot more with it than he has."

Now NORML 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.

Over the past year money was so tight that Stroup laid off two staffers and stopped collecting his $75,000-a-year salary for two months.

"I view NORML as a small and shrinking dinosaur," Kampia says. "NORML's time has come and gone."

Tom Riley, official spokesman for federal drug czar John Walters, agrees. "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."

Riley says Stroup's career reminds him of a line from the movie "The Big Lebowski": "The '60s are over, Lebowski. The bums lost. My condolences."

Keep on Tokin'

"I have no doubt I'll be smoking marijuana the day I die," Stroup says.

He loves the weed. He smokes it nearly every night. He comes home from work, pours a glass of chardonnay, lights up a joint and turns on the TV news.

He does not smoke pot when he has to work or drive, he says, because, as the movies of stoner comedians Cheech and Chong prove, pot can make you stupid.

"I learned a long time ago that some of those Cheech and Chong jokes are very real," he says. "If you're in a social setting and you're smoking marijuana, there are going to be a lot of those Cheech and Chong situations, where you feel real strongly about something and you start a conversation and about halfway through you forget what the point was." He laughs. "But that's only when you're stoned. Four hours later, you don't have that."

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 pot and he doesn't think anybody should care that he does smoke it. Forty years of serious inhaling, he claims, hasn't harmed his body or his mind.

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

Despite his candor on the topic, Stroup hasn't been busted since his Canadian misadventures. But he knows the government and its drug war are always out there, and that can make a guy paranoid. About a year ago, the feds nearly discovered Stroup's stash in a suitcase he'd checked on a plane.

"I had a few joints in an airtight thing inside a sock so you couldn't see it," he says. "I got back home and opened it up and there was this slip saying, 'We opened your bag, blah, blah blah.' And my weed is a few inches away! I said, 'Man, that was too close!' So I no longer carry anything when I'm flying. If I'm going to be someplace for a few days, I ship myself a 'care package.' "

The next day Stroup calls, leaves a message on the voice mail. "Man, I was totally goofy yesterday on that cold medicine," he says. "I hope I wasn't totally goofy in my responses. . . . I should have better sense than to do an interview when I'm stoned out of my mind on cold medicine."