A Founder Looks at 50: Some Early, Unexpected Supporters of Marijuana Decriminalization

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

I wrote in an earlier blog post in this series about the importance of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (aka the Marijuana Commission) report, issued in 1972, which recommended eliminating  criminal penalties altogether for the personal possession and use of marijuana by adults, and for the not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of marijuana between users.

When this report was first made public, NORML debated internally whether we should blast the commission for failing to acknowledge the need to fully legalize marijuana and regulate the market. Their report analyzed all the basic reasons for calling for an end to marijuana prohibition, but in the end, the commissioners lacked the political courage to state the obvious. They were all quite aware of President Nixon’s outspoken opposition to marijuana legalization, an opposition shared by 88% of the American public at that time, and they clearly did not wish to be ridiculed for making what would be seen at that time to be a radical proposal. So they reached a compromise — recommending that consumers should not be treated as criminals, but that commercial sellers would still face criminal penalties, a policy that would come to be known as “decriminalization.”

But in the end, NORML realized that despite our disappointment with their compromise, the commission had handed us a major victory. Roughly 90% of all marijuana arrests were for simple possession or use (a fact that remains true today), so instead of whining about the failure to go further, we realized we should declare victory and embrace their recommendation.

The Marijuana Commission only lasted for two years: the first year (1971) for their examination of marijuana policy and the second year (1972) for their examination of other illicit drug policy. Then the commission went out of business; there were no provisions for the commission to work on implementing their recommendations either in Congress or in the 50 state legislatures. And that provided an enormous opportunity for NORML to step in and fill that void.

For the next decade we focused the majority of our efforts identifying and working with supportive state legislators, wherever they could be found. Specifically, in any state where a legislator was willing to schedule legislative hearings to consider a marijuana decriminalization bill, NORML would fly three or four expert witnesses to the state to provide supportive testimony, to familiarize the legislators with the details of the commission’s recommendations, and to begin the process of overcoming the massive amount of misinformation then prevalent among most Americans about the relative dangers presented by marijuana smoking. The fact that out-of-state experts were being brought in to advocate for marijuana decriminalization provided NORML and the bill’s sponsors an easy opportunity to attract state and local media attention, a crucial element in our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the public and elected officials.

We used medical experts, law enforcement experts, and others who could credibly speak to the need to stop arresting marijuana smokers. And once we were successful convincing the state of Oregon to enact the first decriminalization bill in 1973, we sometimes brought the two primary sponsors to other states to confirm that their early experience with the new marijuana law had been successful. Between 1973 and 1978, decriminalization was adopted by a total of 11 states.

Of the several experts who were part of our regular “road show” at NORML, I wanted to focus today on two of them who were both unexpected and wonderfully effective.

Dr. Dorothy Whipple

Dr. Dorothy Whipple was a Washington, DC pediatrician and grandmother, and author of the 1971 book Is The Grass Really Greener, Answers to Questions about Drugs which discouraged marijuana smoking by kids, but called for adult-use legalization and regulation. Dorothy was in her seventies when I met her, but she was intellectually curious and had concluded that her patients would benefit if we stopped treating marijuana smokers like criminals. She was, for a time, perhaps our most effective public advocate.

Dr. Dorothy Whipple and Keith Stroup

Dr. Whipple, who died in 1995 at 94 years old, was an early feminists who retained her maiden name when she married economist Ewan Clague in 1923, and who was the first married woman to be admitted to John Hopkins Medical School (from where she graduated in 1929).

Dr. Whipple was warm and caring, and she reminded everyone who met her of a loving grandmother (which in fact, she was). In her 1944 book Our American Babies, in an era when many doctors advocated strict feeding schedules and letting babies cry to exhaustion, Dr. Whipple dared to argue that feeding a baby when it was hungry might be a good idea. She insisted that love and understanding were what counted: “Nothing we can do or provide for a baby is more important.”

As I got to know her better I was so impressed with her that I began taking my daughter Lindsey to Dr. Whipple when she needed to see a pediatrician. I wanted my daughter to know this lovely person.

Early on, after Dr. Whipple had joined the NORML Advisory Board and had begun to testify for us, she invited me to her home for the purpose of letting her and her husband try some marijuana. She had written a book on the subject, and had many teenage patients who smoked it, but she had never felt safe or comfortable smoking a joint herself. I was only too happy to oblige her.

The experience was a success. Dr. Whipple saw for herself that marijuana was a gentle high, that it tended to give smokers the “munchies,” and caused us to laugh a lot, but seemed tame compared to alcohol. Although Dr. Whipple continued to have a cocktail before dinner, she now knew firsthand that marijuana was no big deal. When asked by a state legislator in Minnesota, when testifying a few months later, if she had ever tried the drug, she replied proudly, “Why, yes sir. Haven’t you?” With her age and gentle style, she could get by with a little feistiness.

“It’s sort of nice,” said Dr. Whipple about trying marijuana

John Finlator

Another star witness we used in several states was John Finlator, a man who had recently retired as the deputy director of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the re-named federal anti-drug agency formerly known as the Bureau of Narcotics, and later as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. 

Finlator, who worked for the government for 35 years before retiring in 1972, began his federal government career in 1937 as a postal clerk in his native North Carolina. He received a bachelor’s degree in history and economics from North Carolina State University and a master’s degree in management from American University. He moved to Washington, DC in 1941 and held various administrative jobs with the State Department. His later posts included those of director of the office of manpower administration of the General Services Administration and head of the Food and Drug Administration’s bureau of drug abuse control.  

When Finlator retired from the DEA in 1972, then-Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon’s crony who was subsequently sent to jail for his role in the Watergate break-in, held a big dinner honoring Finlator for his many years of work with the agency.

In truth, Finlator had risen up through the ranks as a public relations person in the agency, not a cop; and in person he was a pleasant grandfatherly type. But he had a square jaw, and silver hair, and he looked like a tough cop. As one might expect, it was big news when he joined the NORML Advisory Board. Finlator seemed to enjoy the surprise on people’s faces when he testified in favor of marijuana decriminalization.

High Times, Fall 1974

I offered Finlator marijuana on several occasions, but he always laughed and declined. Those of us who smoked would often meet in my room and share a joint before dinner, where Finlator and Whipple would join us and make jokes about our being stoned. They, of course, enjoyed a cocktail or two with dinner.

John Finlator testifies before Senate and House Judiciary Committees on December 16, 1973

Finlator, who died in 1990, was  a past president of the Arlington, VA Kiwanis Club and chairman of the Arlington Red Cross and served on the boards of the local Salvation Army and the Hospice of Northern Virginia.

As I look back on those early days, I think the credibility and likability of these two senior citizens provided great political cover for a proposal that was seen at the time as primarily of interest to young Americans, and that most older Americans continued to consider a somewhat radical proposal. We had other witnesses, including some of the senior staff from the Marijuana Commission, who could provide more specific data to elected officials, but none who had a more positive impact on their attitudes about marijuana. These two senior citizens who thought it made sense to stop arresting marijuana smokers were hard to ignore.