A Founder Looks at 50: “You Bet I Did, and I Enjoyed It”

NORML Founder Keith Stroup
NORML Founder Keith Stroup

For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the fifteenth in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

At NORML, we have launched a number of creative ad campaigns over the years, aimed at familiarizing the American public with the NORML brand and advancing the basic principle that marijuana smokers should not be treated like criminals.

Print Ads in Playboy and High Times

Our ad campaigns began during the 1970s with full-page advertisements in Playboy Magazine and High Times Magazine, space donated to NORML by those publications. The earliest NORML ad utilized a stark “mug shot” of a middle-class young male with the headline “Pot Shots” and the simple copy of “An estimated 20,000,000 Americans, including 43% of all college students, have smoked marijuana. Under existing laws, all of them could go to jail.”

One of my favorite NORML ads was done in 1974 by the late B. Kliban, a cartoonist who worked for Playboy and who authored a famous series of cat books. In his distinctive style, Kliban illustrated what the city of St. Paul, MN would look like if everyone who was arrested for marijuana nationwide that year had been removed from the city; the streets were totally empty, but for a couple of cops standing around with nothing to do. The headline read “Enough people were arrested for marijuana last year to empty the whole city of St. Paul, MN. Don’t you think it is time we stopped?”

Another interesting Playboy ad featured a caricature of Queen Victoria sitting on a throne, smoking a joint, with the headline “Last year 300,000 Americans were arrested for smoking an herb that Queen Victoria used regularly for menstrual cramps”, an obscure fact that is well documented. 

Yet another 1970s ad focused on the importance of personal cultivation. It copied the style of art made famous during World War II (think Rosie the Reviter) and featured a man behind a plow clearly being pulled by a horse, with the headline “ Imagine planting a Victory Garden and reaping the harvest legally.” The copy read “Home-grown marijuana fresh from Mother Earth. A brand new idea? Not at all. In Alaska the state Supreme Court says privately growing your own marijuana is OK. That makes sense to us. No illegal market. No dangerous herbicides. And no hassles.”

The San Francisco Billboard Campaign

In 1999, NORML launched a major ad campaign consisting of 30 bus shelter billboards in and around San Francisco featuring two simple messages. One blared, “Honk If You Inhale; It’s Time to Stop Arresting Responsible Marijuana Smokers.” The other said, “A Pot Smoker Is Arrested Every 45 seconds. And you wonder why we are Paranoid.”

Initially we were not even sure the companies that controlled the outdoor advertising space in the city would lease space to NORML, regardless of how innocuous our message was. But in the end our money talked, and they were more than happy to run the ads. The campaign was an enormous success. NORML received extensive media coverage, including front page articles (with photos of the billboard) in both the San Francisco Examiner and the San Jose Mercury News, and wire service stories by Associated Press and Reuters that ended up in the LA Times, CNN, Fox News Channel, and the CBS Evening News. 

The New Mexico Multi-Media Ad Campaign

Also in 1999, following New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson’s admission of his own marijuana use and his support for adult-use legalization, we launched a multimedia ad campaign that included newspaper ads and an extensive series of radio ads focusing on the theme that “Governor Johnson is right – we should stop arresting responsible marijuana smokers.”

Albuquerque Journal November, 16, 1999

The Bloomberg Ad Campaign in New York City

But without question, the most significant, and expensive, ad campaign NORML has ever undertaken was the major effort we launched in April of 2002 in New York City. 

Newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not a traditional politician. Rather he was a billionaire who decided to run for mayor of New York City as a Republican, although he had no history as a Republican. He was reported to have spent more than $50 million of his own money on the successful race for mayor.

Because of his wealth, and the independence of mind and action that frequently accompanies such wealth, when running for office he was frequently more honest and more responsive to questions from the press than more seasoned candidates, most of whom become cautious and protective for fear of being embarrassed politically by something they might say in a rare moment of candor.

Specifically, when asked by New York Magazine if he had ever smoked marijuana, Bloomberg offered this refreshingly honest response: “ You bet I did, and I enjoyed it too,” – the latter part of which was an apparent reference to former President  Bill Clinton’s silly claim that he had once tried marijuana “but did not inhale.” That seemed like a quote that NORML could effectively use to focus attention on the double-standard that permitted the rich and powerful to acknowledge their own personal use of marijuana without any ramifications, while average New Yorkers were being arrested for marijuana possession violations at record levels.

Incredible Increase in Marijuana Arrests in New York City – Mostly Involving Minorities

In 1990, there were fewer than 1,800 arrests in New York City for marijuana possession. The private possession of an ounce or less of marijuana had been decriminalized in New York since 1977, when New York NORML led a successful lobby effort to eliminate jail for such minor offenses. As mandated by state law, the vast majority of marijuana offenders were given summonses, instead of being arrested, and a $100 fine was all they faced as punishment.

But that law left some problems. For middle class smokers, who would generally have some private place where they could go smoke a joint, they were pretty well protected against arrest, so long as they kept their smoking private. But many working class citizens, especially Blacks and Hispanics, lived in public housing that did not permit smoking of any kind and had no private place to smoke, and frequently they would walk to a neighborhood park to smoke a joint. 

Once former Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office in 1994, he adopted the so-called “broken windows” theory of fighting crime, in which small violations are treated as serious offenses. Under Giuliani, the NYPD formed what were called “jump out squads” of police who would sit around the edges of many city parks, in unmarked vehicles with darkened windows so no one could be seen from the outside, waiting to jump out and arrest any individual who happened to come along and light a joint.

The result was dramatic. In the year 2000 alone, police in New York City made over 52,400 marijuana possession arrests , with 52% of those arrested being black, and 33% being Hispanic. Something was happening in New York that was clearly unfair to minority marijuana smokers.

We knew from a Zogby poll we had previously commissioned that 56% of New York City voters opposed arresting marijuana smokers, while only 39% supported the policy of arresting smokers. A majority in four of the five boroughs were opposed to arresting smokers and in Manhattan and Queens, opposition to arrests stood at 62%.

Funding for a Major Media Campaign in New York City

So when we found ourselves with some substantial resources in The NORML Foundation because of a generous donation, we decided to confront this significant spike in marijuana arrests head on. 

Our good fortune was the result of a $1 million gift from Richard Mazess, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who held the patent on the basic instrument that physicians used to measure bone density, from which he had become quite wealthy. Professor Mazess, had since retired and was living in California. He approached NORML and indicated he might be interested in making a substantial contribution, and inquired as to what the organization might do with such a gift.

NORML board member Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow, and I initially met with Professor Mazess for dinner in Madison to familiarize him more with NORML’s efforts, and to suggest some possible uses for his tax-exempt gift. He proved to be a bright, articulate man who enjoyed smoking marijuana himself, and who also felt that the anti-marijuana laws were stupid and counterproductive.  And he made a $1 million donation.

Because the gift was made to The NORML Foundation, our 501(c)3 tax-exempt side, we could not use the gift to lobby or otherwise support or oppose legislation. But we could legally use it to fund an educational campaign that might well build support for a subsequent legal change.

Armed with the generous gift from Mazess, NORML hired the DC-based Fenton Communications public-interest media firm to help us design and implement an effective advertising campaign for Manhattan. David Fenton, the senior partner of the firm, was an early lefty out of Ann Arbor, MI, who had become a respected media advisor to progressive causes in the nation’s capitol, and he and I had known each other off and on for several years. It was Art Silverman, the art director at Fenton, who discovered the fantastic quote by Mayor Bloomberg, and from that point on we knew where we were headed.

Press Conference in New York to Announce the Campaign

On Tuesday, April 9, 2002, NORML held a press conference at the Liberty Room at the Sheraton Manhattan Hotel on 7th Avenue in downtown Manhattan to introduce the world to our new ad campaign. 

We had scheduled a full-page ad that morning in the New York Times, featuring a larger than life up close photos of the mayor, with his now famous quote “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it,” with the headline “At Last, an Honest Politician,” and the tag line “It’s NORML to Smoke Pot,” an obvious play off our acronym that seemed to me to be the best use we had ever made of it. 

In between the copy read: “It was refreshing during the recent mayoral campaign to hear Mayor Bloomberg’s answer to the inevitable question about smoking pot.

We applaud his candor. But no one should be surprised. From Bill Clinton to George Pataki to Clarence Thomas, many public officials have admitted something pretty normal – they’ve smoked pot.

One in three adult Americans say they’ve smoked pot; 19 million in the last year. Why are we arresting people for doing something normal?

We don’t arrest responsible drinkers. And it’s well known that alcohol is much more harmful than marijuana. Yet 50,000 people a year are being arrested in New York City simply for smoking pot. Nearly 1,000 people a week. Many spend time in jail. Some get criminal records and lose college scholarships or jobs.

A recent poll shows most New Yorkers are against such arrests. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. And with heightened concern over terrorism, it’s a foolish use of scarce law enforcement resources.

There is an alternative. Private adult use of marijuana should be just that: a private matter. Those who light up in public can be issued a citation, as is currently done for public drinking, instead of being arrested and jailed.

Is that a common-sense policy? You bet it is.”

The cost of the New York Times ad was $102,400.

NORML full page ad in The New York Times, April 9, 2002

So when we gathered at the press conference at 11:00am that morning, we had scores of reporters and lots of camera crews waiting to hear from us. I moderated the press conference, and gave the opening statement describing the campaign. I was joined at the podium by NORML Board member Dr. John Morgan (now deceased), the co-author of Marijuana Myths; Marijuana Facts, and a professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York Medical School; by Allen St. Pierre, the (former) director of the NORML Foundation, and prominent criminal defense attorney (and member of the NORML Legal Committee) Jerry Lefcourt, a recent past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. (NACDL), there to answer any questions about the New York criminal justice system.

NORML press conference at the Sheraton Manhattan Hotel, April 9, 2002

I highlighted the incredible spike in marijuana arrests since 1990, shared the polling data showing strong support for ending the practice of arresting marijuana smokers in the city; and stressed the importance of reserving these law enforcement resources to fight terrorism, following the disaster of 9/11/01 in the city.

Next, Dr. Morgan made the case that marijuana is a relatively harmless drug, especially compared to alcohol, stressing that the harm caused by an arrest or jail sentence is far more damaging to an individual than the use of marijuana itself. John was a wonderfully charming man who was one of our most effective advocates, especially if someone had any questions about medical research.

Then, Allen St. Pierre discussed the size and scope of The NORML Foundation’s recently launched ad campaign, and unveiled the bus and bus shelter ads that were to be featured later that day on scores of downtown buses and bus shelters. These were similar to the New York Times full-page ad, but with far less copy. 

“You bet I did. And I enjoyed it,” blared the ads, featuring a larger than life photo of Mayor Bloomberg, with the tag line: “At last, an Honest Politician. It’s NORML to Smoke Pot.” The cost of the bus and bus shelter ads was nearly $300,000.

And at the press conference we unveiled for the first time a button with the line, “It’s NORML to Smoke Pot,” with our web site address. It’s an item that we continue to use today, to sell to our supporters and give out at personal appearances at colleges and other forums. In fact, I still wear it whenever I am speaking, or attending a NORML event. (But I surely do not wear it when I am going through airport security.)

We also announced that we had bought time to run 105 spots on five prominent Manhattan radio stations, for 30 days, with much the same message. The cost of the radio spots was $105,000, bringing the total cost of the campaign to just under a half million dollars, by far the biggest ad campaign NORML had ever sponsored.

Mayor Bloomberg Radio Spot
NYC Grandma Radio Spot

The result was fabulous, from our point of view. We had said going in that the purpose of the campaign was to highlight the incredible spike in marijuana arrests in New York City and to stimulate a much-needed public debate over the current police practice of arresting consumers instead of issuing a citation, as was done with public drinking offenses. And stimulate a public debate we did.

Due to the age of this video, the quality is inferior, but content remains king. Jump to 4:14 to see a classic Keith Stroup take on a marijuana law reform 

The collection of print press coverage filled a six-inch thick three ring binder and a CD filled with more than 100 television news channels covering the campaign, much of it from all across the United States. It was covered, with a photo of the ad, in Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and nearly every other major news outlet in America. The coverage was the most extensive we have ever received with any NORML project in our nearly five decades of existence. Almost all of the coverage was positive, and included the quote from Mayor Bloomberg and the tag line, “It’s NORML to Smoke Pot.”

From a strictly media and educational point of view, it was a smashing success.

From a political point of view, the coverage during the 30 days of the campaign was terribly helpful in branding the organization’s name with New Yorkers, and across the country, and in making the obvious argument against the city’s policy of arresting so many smokers. 

But the mayor, while privately acknowledging that he found the campaign to be creative, refused to make any sharp departure from the policies of his predecessor. So, on that measurement, we were disappointed with the results. 

Despite spending half a million dollars and running an especially creative and highly visible ad campaign, the bottom line is the law enforcement practices in New York City continued unabated. As subsequently demonstrated by Queens College Professor Harry Levine following a 2010 analysis of City arrests, minor marijuana arrests had become the single largest category of criminal arrests in the city, comprising more than 50,000 arrests each year (15% of all arrests) and 85% of those arrested were either black or Hispanic, although usage rates for whites is the same as it is for minorities. 

Only after Professor Levine went public with his analysis did Ray Kelly, the New York Commissioner of Public Safety, finally issue a clarification to the city police in the fall of 2011, making it clear that having a small amount of marijuana in one’s pocket or purse was not public use, and did not qualify as a criminal offense. 

In 2019, Governor Cuomo signed legislation amending the state penalties for marijuana possession and establishing procedures for the automatic expungement of prior, low-level cannabis convictions. He also announced that statewide legalization would be a priority for his administration. While that has not yet occurred, in large part because of complications caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and disagreements between the legislative leadership and the governor over the details for the proposed new law, we nonetheless remain hopeful that the legislature may yet adopt legalization in 2021.

Only then will we finally see the end results of our efforts to convince New Yorkers that “It’s NORML to Smoke Pot.”

It's NORML to Smoke Pot