Cannabis groups come and go, but NORML—the granddaddy of cannabis organizations—has been around since 1970, and is still going strong. Indeed, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has never wavered from its goal of making weed legal in every state—and at the federal level, where the battle against the prohibition of pot has been woefully lacking, too.
And they may be on the brink of a big victory.
Keith Stroup, 76, who founded NORML 50 years ago, still gets pleasantly stoned, and still advocates for the rights of marijuana users. I met him in San Francisco in the 1980s at an event sponsored by High Times magazine, and have followed his career and his lobbying efforts ever since.
Stroup tells me on the phone from his home: “Right now, NORML is behind The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, a federal bill that’s in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, which reefer maniac Nixon signed into law in 1970.” Stroup adds, “We have big support from the recently founded Cannabis Caucus in Congress, though the MORE act won’t pass until we remove Trump from the White House.”
Santa Cruz’s representative in Washington, D.C., Jimmy Panetta, is a co-sponsor of the MORE Act and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Today’s pot problems are rooted in the past. Soon after Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, he called the abuse of drugs “public enemy number one in the U.S.” He promptly signed into law the Controlled Substances Act, which had been approved by Congress. Nixon also formed the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, appointed former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer as the chairman and told him, “I want a goddamn strong statement that just tears the ass out of” cannabis supporters.
The report from the Shafer Commission, as it came to be known, recommended that cannabis be “decriminalized.” The president ignored the report and instead established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a federal agency tasked with battling drug trafficking. Today, along with the FBI, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, the DEA still wages the War on Drugs that has been an abject failure, as Stroup and NORML have long pointed out.
A self-defined “farm boy” from Illinois, Stroup was radicalized by the War in Vietnam and the threat of the draft. He became a public interest lawyer after meeting Ralph Nader, the consummate consumer advocate.
Stroup remembers that the marijuana future looked bright when Jimmy Carter became president in 1976, in part because his sons smoked weed. Stroup also remembers that there was a shift even before the Georgia peanut farmer moved into the White House. In 1973, Oregon decriminalized cannabis. Nebraska followed in 1978.
“Then along came Reagan, and there was no progress until 1996, when California legalized medical marijuana,” Stroup says.
When I asked Stroup why the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug with no medical benefits, he tells me, “once something gets into the federal bureaucracy, it’s hard to get it out.”
Most Americans, he explains, are anti-prohibition: “They think that the marijuana laws have created far more problems than marijuana itself, which is increasingly used for a variety of medical reasons.”
In many ways, the U.S. is still in the Dark Ages when it comes to weed. Whites and Blacks smoke in equal proportions, but across the country Blacks are arrested 3.6 times as often as whites for possession. There are racial imbalances in all 50 states. In some Ohio and Pennsylvania counties, Blacks are 100 times more likely to be arrested than whites, according to an April 2020 study by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The MORE Act—which is sponsored in the Senate by newly minted vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and co-sponsored by five other Democrats, including Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren—would expunge the criminal records of citizens arrested for marijuana offenses. It would also invest funds in communities of color that have long been targeted by law enforcement and protect immigrants from deportation when violation of the marijuana laws is their only offense.
Justin Strekal, NORML’s political director, told me that the MORE Act would “end the cannabis prohibition and create incentives for the development of the commercial cannabis marketplace, which would in turn lead to a decline in overall arrests as well as a drop in racial disparities.”
Like Stroup, Strekal is a civil libertarian and an advocate for the normalization of marijuana laws.
“It’s none of the government’s business who smokes weed,” Strekal says. “There’s nothing wrong with responsible marijuana use.”
Jonah Raskin is the author of ‘Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.’