A Founder Looks at 50: Keith Stroup on Starting NORML

NORML Founder Keith Stroup
NORML Founder Keith Stroup

On NORML’s 50th anniversary, NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the first in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

Starting NORML

At the time I was preparing to graduate from Georgetown Law School in 1968, my major focus was finding a way to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in the Vietnam war. Back then, any male who turned 18 years old was subject to the draft unless he was a full time student, a fact that caused many in my generation to stay in school as long as possible. Many of us did not understand why we were fighting an unpopular war in southeast Asia, nor did we feel it was a noble undertaking that would justify the loss of so many young American lives. (More than 58,000 Americans died in that war.)

But I was only 24 when I graduated law school and remained eligible for the draft until I turned 27, so I was desperate to find a way to avoid it. I had contacted some volunteer lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a fine organization that had stepped up to provide legal advice to the large numbers of young men who were actively seeking to stay out of Vietnam.

One option they offered was to put me in touch with people who could help me relocate to Canada to avoid the draft. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men who had fled to Canada by then, and a supportive community in Canada who could help these people get reestablished in their new country. The principal downside to this option was that there was no assurance the US government would ever permit these draft dodgers, as the government loved calling us, to come home. One might never again be permitted to enter the United States. This seemed too extreme for my tastes. There had to be a better option out there.

And with the help of these NLG lawyers I found it. I applied for what was called a “critical skills deferment”. During the existence of the military draft, the government had always recognized that there are a few people whose jobs at home are so important to the war effort, or to keeping the country running smoothly so the war could be pursued, that they should not be drafted but instead should be permitted to continue their important civilian work.

I had been offered a job on the legal staff of a newly created Congressional commission called the National Commission on Product Safety, an outgrowth of the trailblazing work of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Importantly for my purpose was the opening paragraph of the legislation establishing the commission, declaring it was “important to the health, safety and welfare of the nation.” That language would prove useful in my application for a critical skills deferment. Just a few days before I was supposed to report for active military duty, my draft board granted me the deferment and I was allowed to work in downtown DC for the next two years, instead of going to Vietnam.

The two years working at the commission were wonderful years. I was working as a lawyer at a prestigious Congressional commission on K Street in downtown Washington, DC instead of fighting in Vietnam. And I was learning the basic skills needed to be an effective consumer advocate from the master, Ralph Nader, whose skillful use of the media and his willingness, even eagerness, to take on major corporations, had turned him into a folk hero.

It was the experience of working around Nader at the product safety commission that convinced me to consider using my legal training to work for the interests of American consumers. I had first started smoking marijuana when I was a first-year law student and by the time the commission came to an end, ending marijuana prohibition had become an important cause for me. I knew there was no justification for treating smokers as criminals and since I was then too old to be drafted, I decided to use my new freedom to found NORML as a consumer lobby to represent the interests of responsible marijuana smokers. I wanted to use the consumer advocate model Nader had used so successfully for product safety to challenge marijuana prohibition.

And, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” Fifty years and counting as we continue to fight for a world in which marijuana smokers are treated fairly in all aspects of their lives.

Keith Stroup, Founder of NORML
A young Keith Stroup in the NORML office