The Origins of NORML: How Marijuana Reform Was Born

I’m sometimes asked how a midwestern farm-boy ended up starting a marijuana smokers’ lobby. I had been raised in the 1950s in southern Illinois by southern Baptist parents, and there was nothing in that environment that would cause one to challenge authority or attempt to change the prevailing cultural values.

But then came the Vietnam War. Like many young men of my generation who came of age during that war, I had been radicalized by the war, or more specifically, by the threat of being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam, a war few of us understood and even fewer wanted to die for (58,000 Americans eventually died in Vietnam). My primary focus at the time was avoiding the war in any way possible – a “draft dodger” was the derogatory term used for those of us who did not wish to serve.

Back then, before the draft lottery had even been established, all young men, by the time they were 18 years of age, were required to register for the draft, and unless they were a full-time student, were promptly inducted. So many of us stayed in school for as long as possible, but we remained subject to the draft until we turned 27 years of age. So when I graduated law school in 1968 at 25, I immediately received my draft notice, passed my physical, and was only two weeks away from my report date, when, with the help of some dedicated lawyers working with the National Lawyers’ Guild, I managed to get what was called a critical-skills deferment, that allowed me to spend my two years working at a presidential commission in Washington, DC, instead of getting shot in Vietnam.


11 thoughts

  1. I have been following NORML since the early 60s. It’s been a long hard road to legalize. Two days ago I got to go into my first cannabis store here in California and I was thinking about NORML when I did. God it’s been a long time. Fortunately I was never arrested for weed (well arrested but never prosecuted) in my life. Grew up in Humboldt County California might have something to do with it.THANK YOU NORML for your continued war against marijuana prohibition!!!!!!!

  2. I was raised in the Nazarene church, and now I am a bible thumping Southern Baptist. Most of my beliefs and values are the kind despised by many progressives and liberals. In fact, my personal conservatism is not always welcomed by some modern churches and, in my opinion, new age fake Christians who think shacking up before marriage is normal and sex before marriage is to be accepted. In almost every way, I’m the kind of evangelical that can only be found in the most conservative of churches.

    I’m against marijuana prohibition, however.

    Growing up, I was taught that marijuana was a dangerous substance – equated with cocaine or crack – that was totally evil. The lies that marijuana was addictive, could kill brain cells, and was far more damaging to the lungs than cigarettes was drilled into my head. Pastors, Sunday School teachers, DARE officers, and family members used fear mongering to transform me into a hardcore prohibitionist.

    Then I heard Harry Browne the Libertarian speak on CSPAN, and I was introduced to the concept of liberty for the first time. I couldn’t believe that the war on drugs that I cheered on for so long was doing so much harm. I started doing research and learned that the drug war created black markets, kept dealers rich, allowed for asset forfeiture, and broke apart families. Worse, I realized the truth about myself: I had been brainwashed into thinking people didn’t have the right to control what they put in their own bodies.

    I then continued my research and started discovering how marijuana was safer than alcohol. My mind was blown by the fact that it was almost impossible to die of an overdose, that it had almost no harmful effects on the body, and had countless medical uses. This created a paradox in my mind: how can something so harmless to the body be illegal?

    Fast forwarding to the present, I have the answers and a growing resentment against the politicians, goverment officials, lying doctors, and religious people who have allowed the marijuana prohibition to continue. Although I fully believe that using pot excessively is wrong (to the point of not being able to function in an emergency situation, to the point that you don’t deal with the problems in your life, to the point you could not drive safely) I think it should be sold in grocery stores behind the counter. If you can buy enough alcohol or asprin at a grocery store to kill yourself, why should they not sell pot which is impossible to die from?

    Every week I still hear pastors railing against marijuana. What is so disgusting is many of these pastors are morbidly obese and killing themselves with food. At a recent pot luck dinner, I saw morbidly obese Christians eat plate after plate of food. Most likely, they consumed 3000 calories in one sitting. The number one indicator of mortality, greater than tobacco use or alcohol consumption, is waist circumference. This is due to themassive damage via inflammation viceral fat can do to internal organs. Eating like a glutton when you are at high risk (or already have) heart disease, diabetes, and cancer is every bit as much of a sin as smoking a joint. It is the equivalent of my neighbor with COPD continuing to smoke cigarettes. Sadly, not a single pastor I know speaks up about gluttony in the church. In fact, they promote situations in which it is promoted. One pastor actually told me over eating is only a sin if you force yourself to throw up in order to eat more.

    So to many in the Christian faith:

    Eating yourself into a heart attack is compatible with the Bible.

    Forcing toxic chemo or radiation into your body (that kills good healthy cells along with the bad) is compatible with the Bible even if it makes your hair fall out, fingernails turn black, and destroys your immune system.

    Taking any number or combination of man made anti depressants is compatible with the Bible, regardless of the side effects – as long as you have a perscription.

    Taking modern pain killers continuously until you are physically addicted, regardless of the side effects, is compatible with the Bible – as long as you have a perscription.

    Conversely, if you dare admit to using marijuana, a natural herb, for any reason you are a sinful, lost pothead.

    This is extreme hypocrisy beyond anything else I have ever witnessed. Although I still attend church every week, sometimes three times a week, I try to take every opportunity I can to share the truth about marijuana with my fellow Christians. Since I don’t actually use marijuana – although I would in a heart beat if it was legalized and I had a medical reason – they do not throw me out. For example, almost none of them know about the cancer fighting, seizure curing properties of CBD. They think that all marijuana will get you high. I have to tell them that there are many medicinal cannabinoids and terpenes other than THC.

    In conclusion, I think that marijuana activists and responsible users need to try and educate the Christian community about cannabis. If we can refute the myths and propaganda they have been manipulated by, we could make an ally. I’m waiting to see a video of a pastor medicating for cancer with marijuana before his congregation while apologizing for all the heart attacks he contributed to.

    Remember, Jesus didn’t simply drink and make wine, he produced the highest quality with the most alcohol. The truth is he avoided sinning by not using in excess. The Bible even says to drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake, but not to be drunken.

    If Jesus were here today, I think he would rail against marijuana prohibition, while preaching the appropriate use of cannabis. I think he might even have his own grow op for cancer patients.

  3. I still remember the first time I’ve heard about NORML. I was listening to a late Sunday night radio talk show that has you and a Texas congressman. That was a classic. I think it was the King Biscuit Flower Hour. (1970?)

  4. @Keith @Cup

    What do you say about reforming the definition of marijuana to this:

    The term “marijuana” means all parts of the smoke produced by the combustion of the plant Cannabis sativa L.

    from this:

    The term “marihuana” means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin. Such term does not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil, or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.

    Is it not a simple way to establish a legal framework to control that substance in a way that actually show respect for our Constitution? Is it not worth a public debate
    this year, while Congress is considering marijuana policy?

    This way NORML can keep fighting for rational cannabis regulations and the rescheduling of marijuana.

  5. Ask your Pastor if God created ALL life on Earth. If the answer is yes, then ask if cannabis was part of that creation. “AB..YEE UHH??…Well..” Then if cannabis is a sin and has no medical use, then ask,”Why did God create it? did God sin as well?”

  6. Year of Action,

    I don’t think it is logical to call only the smoke marijuana. You cannot buy or grow smoke. I would say that all parts of the plant that contain cannabinoids at a significant concentration is marijuana.

    On another note, I have a couple thoughts about how NORML could approach several issues:

    First, marijuana should not be rescheduled – it must be taken off the list completely. NORML should demand that if pot is kept on it that alcohol should be added and restricted equally. A main focus needs to be how alcohol is more dangerous than pot in many ways but is legal and not nearly as regulated.

    Secondly, NORML should demand that police officers who arrest marijuana users be restricted from drinking alcohol. If they think marijuana usage is worthy of arrest, then they should give an example of avoiding risky behavior by being required to totally abstain from alcohol on or off duty.

    Third, NORML should support a movement to equate taxes on pot and alcohol. Why should a less dangerous substance be taxed more than alcohol?

    [Editor’s note: NORML is not anti alcohol. NORML is not about telling people what to do in their private lives, including cops. Taxes are set by local voters and their elected policy makers. NORML works to end prohibition and help victims of the current laws, it is not for or against any particular level of taxation other than to acknowledge the obvious—no consumer wants to pay higher taxes on goods and services.]

    Lastly, people and organizations that ‘demand’ rarely receive or achieve.]

  7. @Cup

    Thanks for the thought provoking reply. Is that a replacement definition, or an interpretation of the current definition?
    The difference could be significant.

  8. Thank you NORML for all you have done! I have the greatest respect for the NORML team and admiration for your perseverance.

    Without NORML, marijuana might well be prohibited for the rest of the existence of the United States; The Land of the Free…

    With NORML, we are close to finally seeing some sanity on this issue!

    Clearly, the fight is not over. There are still a great many in power that cling stubbornly to the 1930s reefer madness. I am stoked that they are ultimately going to lose the war against cannabis consumers. The writing is on the wall if only they were smart enough to read it.

  9. Thank you Keith Stroup for not getting shot in Vietnam, you have given the world a wonderful gift. I grew up Mormon; in 1968 I was twelve living in northern Utah herding sheep on horseback. I was twenty five in 1981 living, and working in Phoenix Arizona, and had left Mormonism behind but not my anger toward religion. I had never heard of medical marijuana, but I loved weed, and knew it helped with nausea.

    Consider the passenger pigeon eradicated from the world by the greed and ignorance of man.

    “Wherever it grows we will find it and destroy it”

    With the news in recent years of the astounding medical values of marijuana, even that weed might hold the answer for cancer my anger toward prohibition, and the establishment is still strong. Our nations leadership needs to square it up for those of us who have dreamed for so long of marijuana freedom without any knowledge of its medical value.

  10. It is amazing how much the world view on marijuana has changed in just one generation.
    In the 50’s when kieth grew up pepole were just starting to hear about marijuana and didnt even know enough about it to hate it. Within 10 years It was seen as one of the biggest threats to youth in american and STAYED THAT WAY! There was no scientific information that proved this yet we believed it. How is it that something percieved to be so dangerous , was left so unstudied. Even anthrax and small pox were studied around the country with less regulations! Now that we are decades behind on amrijuana research it just makes you wonder, where would we be if we didnt let our elected pied pipers tell us what to think, and what else is being wrongfully hidden from us?

  11. “they do not throw me out. For example, almost none of them know about the cancer fighting, seizure curing properties of CBD. They think that all marijuana will get you high. I have to tell them that there are many medicinal cannabinoids and terpenes other than THC.”

    Well Cup, here is a clue for you and them: THC is what hurts cancer, not CBD! CBD is more useful for nervous system issues.

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