A Founder Looks at 50: The Concept of Responsible Marijuana Use

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 sixteenth in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

During our earliest years, NORML was well aware that few Americans supported our position. In fact, when the organization was founded, only 12 percent of the public supported marijuana legalization. That’s because most Americans had an exaggerated view of the potential dangers presented by marijuana smoking. In order to build some credibility with this skeptical audience — an audience we knew we had to eventually convert to our side — we assumed a relatively conservative public posture. 

1951 “After smoking the reefers…”

Therefore, while we were calling for an end to marijuana prohibition, we also initially said publicly that we did not oppose efforts toward discouraging marijuana use so long as the criminal justice system was not involved. In other words, NORML’s earliest position was: Stop treating those of us who smoke as criminals, but feel free to continue to discourage marijuana usage. In our view, stopping the arrests had to be the priority.

Of course we learned over time that those discouragement efforts were inevitably comprised of greatly exaggerated claims of the supposed harms presented by marijuana, and that we could not expect to convert any significant number of the public to our side of the issue unless we also began to challenge the accuracy of these health claims and the continuing depiction of marijuana smokers as dangerous and depraved drug abusers.

It was then that we began to assume a more assertive position regarding marijuana consumers and their right to decide for themselves whether or not to use marijuana, and to challenge the opposition’s claims regarding the dangers it presents. Consequently, we largely dropped any language from our rhetoric suggesting we would support a discouragement policy. Similarly, we began to publicly acknowledge our own personal use in an effort to begin to overcome the negative stereotypes that were pervasive at that time. We talked about marijuana smokers in the “first person;” we talked about “those of us who smoke marijuana” instead of “those who smoke marijuana.” And we began to advance the concept of “the responsible use of marijuana.”

Distinguishing Between Use and Abuse

Just as the government makes a distinction between the responsible use of alcohol and alcohol abuse, we began to insist that they make that same distinction about marijuana use and abuse. Acknowledging the potential for irresponsible marijuana use allowed us to publicly call for marijuana smokers to avoid usage that would put others at risk, including driving or operating heavy equipment while under the influence. And it allowed us to make it clear that smoking a joint in the privacy of the home, or a friend’s home, involves no such risk and therefore should be none of the government’s business.

Of course, with the rise of the medical marijuana issue in the 1990s, and the growing recognition that marijuana was an effective treatment for a large number of serious medical conditions, it became politically possible, for the first time, to begin to argue that in the right situation, the use of marijuana could be a positive experience. It can and does help people relax and enjoy their lives, nurture their family relationships, enhance their creativity, and otherwise improve the quality of their lives. While that claim sounds rather ordinary today, it was a radical concept during the early decades of our work.

This change in focus signaled to the tens of millions of marijuana smokers that they had a voice in Washington, DC and all across this country, and NORML was that voice. From that point forward, we were neither apologetic nor timid about reminding all who would listen that marijuana consumers are good citizens who work hard, pay their taxes, raise families, and contribute to their communities in a positive manner.

The introduction of the concept of “responsible” marijuana use was also an important strategic pivot that helped convince many Americans who may have no personal interest in smoking that one can smoke marijuana responsibly and not cause any problems. But we knew it would be important to define more clearly what we meant by “responsible use,” or our opponents would define it in a manner that was unnecessarily narrow and limiting for consumers. 

In 1995 the NORML board of directors, led by former board member Richard Evans, an activist attorney from Northampton, MA, spent several months carefully working out the language to explicitly define responsible use. This language, entitled the Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use, is prominently displayed on the NORML website and these principles continue to guide much of NORML’s public advocacy. ).

Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use

When cannabis (marijuana) is enjoyed responsibly, subjecting users to harsh criminal and civil penalties provides no public benefit and causes terrible injustices. For reasons of public safety, public health, economics and justice, the prohibition laws should be repealed to the extent that they criminalize responsible cannabis use.

By adoption of this statement, the NORML Board of Directors has attempted to define “responsible cannabis use.”

I. Adults Only
Cannabis consumption is for adults only. It is irresponsible to provide cannabis to children.

Many things and activities are suitable for young people, but others absolutely are not. Children do not drive cars, enter into contracts, or marry, and they must not use drugs. As it is unrealistic to demand lifetime abstinence from cars, contracts and marriage, however, it is unrealistic to expect lifetime abstinence from all intoxicants, including alcohol. Rather, our expectation and hope for young people is that they grow up to be responsible adults. Our obligation to them is to demonstrate what that means. (This provision does not apply to the physician supervised and recommended use of medical cannabis by patients of any age.)

II. No Driving
The responsible cannabis consumer does not operate a motor vehicle or other dangerous machinery while impaired by cannabis, nor (like other responsible citizens) while impaired by any other substance or condition, including some medicines and fatigue.

Although cannabis is said by most experts to be safer than alcohol and many prescription drugs with motorists, responsible cannabis consumers never operate motor vehicles in an impaired condition. Public safety demands not only that impaired drivers be taken off the road, but that objective measures of impairment be developed and used, rather than chemical testing.

III. Set and Setting
The responsible cannabis user will carefully consider his/her set and setting, regulating use accordingly.

“Set” refers to the consumer’s values, attitudes, experience and personality, and “setting” means the consumer’s physical and social circumstances. The responsible cannabis consumer will be vigilant as to conditions — time, place, mood, etc. — and does not hesitate to say “no” when those conditions are not conducive to a safe, pleasant and/or productive experience.

IV. Resist Abuse
Use of cannabis, to the extent that it impairs health, personal development or achievement, is abuse, to be resisted by responsible cannabis users.

Abuse means harm. Some cannabis use is harmful; most is not. That which is harmful should be discouraged; that which is not need not be.

Wars have been waged in the name of eradicating “drug abuse”, but instead of focusing on abuse, enforcement measures have been diluted by targeting all drug use, whether abusive or not. If cannabis abuse is to be targeted, it is essential that clear standards be developed to identify it.

V. Respect Rights of Others
The responsible cannabis user does not violate the rights of others, observes accepted standards of courtesy and public propriety, and respects the preferences of those who wish to avoid cannabis entirely.

No one may violate the rights of others, and no substance use excuses any such violation. Regardless of the legal status of cannabis, responsible users will adhere to emerging tobacco smoking protocols in public and private places.

Adopted by the NORML Board of Directors
February 3, 1996
Washington, DC