A Founder Looks at 50: Reflecting Upon My Times with Woody Harrelson

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

One of the nicest celebrities whom I have had the pleasure of meeting over these past several decades is actor Woody Harrelson, a gentle person with a sly grin who seems to enjoy being a little out-of-step socially with the mainstream. And he loves marijuana. 

Most Americans first discovered Harrelson in his Emmy Award-winning role as Woody Boyd, the affable but clueless bartender in NBC’s long-running hit TV comedy Cheers. Harrelson made his big screen debut as a high school football player in Wildcats and went on to star in such hits as White Men Can’t Jump, Money Train, Indecent Proposal, Palmetto, Kingpin, EDTV, The Thin Red Line, and Welcome to Sarajevo. Harrelson received Academy Awards, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations for his critically acclaimed performance as controversial magazine publisher Larry Flynt in the Milos Forman’s drama, The People vs. Larry Flynt.

Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson speaks at the 2003 NORML Conference in San Francisco

I first met Woody Harrelson in 2000. By that time Woody had become quite public about his own use of marijuana. He was also outspoken regarding the need to legalize marijuana and to stop arresting smokers. Despite pot’s longstanding popularity among the entertainment community, at that time Woody was still among a rather small number of major Hollywood celebrities, including Hugh Hefner and Bill Maher and Tommy Chong, to have the courage and commitment to take a strong public stand in support of marijuana legalization.

My initial access to Woody was aided by a mutual friend, attorney David Michael of San Francisco, a prominent member of the NORML Legal Committee. Michael had been hired by Woody to review the actor’s father’s case. Charles Harrelson had been convicted in 1982 of killing a federal judge in San Antonio in 1979, and he had been sentenced to two life sentences. He remained incarcerated in a supermax federal prison until his death in 2007.

Michael offered to introduce me to Woody and I naturally accepted his kind offer. We picked a date that worked for everyone’s schedule, I flew out to Los Angeles from Washington, DC,  and the three of us met at a small restaurant for brunch.

When I arrived with David Michael, Woody was already there waiting for us, reading a newspaper at an outside table. We grabbed some coffee and a croissant and sat down to get to know each other a bit, and to talk about NORML and how Woody might be able to help our efforts. After an hour or so there, Woody suggested that David and I join him at a friend’s home not too far away where he was planning to hang out with other friends and play some pool. He then invited me to ride with him on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, with Michael following in my rental car.

We ended up spending several hours just hanging out and playing pool and smoking some good weed before I had to take off for another meeting before flying back to DC. But the day proved productive. Before I departed, Woody agreed to join the NORML Advisory Board and make some appearances for NORML.

Initially we had some problems working around Woody’s busy schedule. I would suggest he appear at a NORML conference only to learn that Woody was scheduled to shoot a movie or appear in a play during those same dates. Eventually we convinced Woody to make the trek to Washington state for the annual Seattle Hempfest, a unique public event that annually attracted some 80,000 people to protest marijuana prohibition. Woody first attended in 2001 and again two years later. On both occasions Woody was the featured speaker at the main stage at precisely 4:20, which got the crowd on their feet and screaming in support.

It was great fun to spend time with Woody behind the scenes on these occasions, as he understood the need to help bring positive media attention to marijuana legalization efforts, and he let us gently exploit him for that purpose. Also, he clearly enjoyed smoking good weed and hanging out with stoners, and up-close, Woody is a genuinely nice individual. But it was especially fascinating to appear at the Seattle Hempfest with Woody, where he was instantly recognized and mobbed by anyone in the immediate vicinity. People literally wanted to touch him and shake his hand. He was treated like a rock star.

“Is it always like this for you,” I asked Woody, referring to the crush of people trying to say hello and offer him a joint.

“People do not usually offer me weed,” he said, laughing, “but I think I could get used to this.”

To his credit, Woody was generous with his time and willing to shake as many hands as possible. Eventually we had to put him in a special van, with darkened windows, in order to sneak him out of the park. Then we would go back to the Edgewater Hotel, a fancy hotel where we were staying just off the Myrtle Edwards Park where the event is annually held, and party in private rooms with other legalization leaders and activists till the wee hours. We had reserved their finest suite for Woody, a suite that had famously been used by the Beatles when they had first toured the US in 1964, a fact that the hotel had commemorated with a plaque on the wall.  I was able to offer a few friends in the movement the opportunity to join us to smoke some weed and spend time with Woody, the type of favor which any political organizer would love to do.

Keith Stroup and Woody Harrelson
Keith Stroup presents an award to Woody Harrelson

Woody also agreed to be the featured speaker at the 2003 NORML conference in April in San Francisco, where he again proved a tremendous draw. Woody arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel where the conference was being held and spent a full day with us, serving as the celebrity luncheon speaker, sharing the spotlight with ACLU President Nadine Strossen, and hanging around, along with his wife and kids, for several hours in my hotel suite. Woody Harrelson is a world-class celebrity, but he’s not especially full of himself. He appears to enjoy some private time with friends and skips the star treatment.

Woody maintains a home in Maui, HI just down the road from Willie Nelson. The two of them have been friends for years, and when they are both off the road and spending personal time in Maui, Willie hosts a poker game at his home each afternoon, and Woody is a regular. Both are serious poker players, even as they burn some of the finest Hawaii weed. I had an opportunity in 2006 to fly out to Maui to spend some private time with Willie and a couple of mutual friends who also live on the island. I was only there for three or four days, but each afternoon or evening we would drop by Willie’s house for one of his frequent poker games with his buddies, and Woody was always there. It was great fun to see the two of them just hanging out and getting wasted.

In a recent interview, Woody recounts a private dinner that he attended with Donald Trump and a couple of others in 2002 in which he said he had to step outside to smoke a joint in order to get through the evening. ” It was brutal. I’d never met a more narcissistic man,” Harrelson said during an appearance on Bill Maher‘s HBO show. “He talked about himself the whole time. I had to walk out like halfway through [and] smoke a joint just to like steel myself for the rest of the dinner.”

More recently Woody went through a few months during which he claimed he had stopped smoking marijuana. But his friend Willie kept tempting him to start smoking again. And as expected, at one of those poker games at Willie’s place, after he had won a big pot and felt like celebrating, Woody said he could no longer say “no” to Willie’s offer. Once he took a hit, Willie reportedly said “Welcome home!” Woody officially ended his period of abstinence.

Today, Woody still remains a valued member of the NORML Advisory Board.