A Founder Looks at 50: Spotlighting Some of the NORML Freedom Fighters Who Have Challenged Prohibition for Decades

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 twenty-second in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

When a majority of the country is finally in agreement with your position, as is the case for those of us who support legalizing marijuana, it is obviously easier for supporters to self-identify and to volunteer their time and resources to advance the issue politically. Because there is always a lag time between changes in public opinion and changes in public policy, there always remains some work to do even after our position is the majority position.

But the far more difficult job is to try to advance one’s political agenda during those times when your position has not yet been embraced by most citizens. When NORML was started in 1970, only 12% of the public supported full legalization; 88% opposed what we were proposing.

Following the release of the Marijuana Commission report in 1972, public support gradually edged-up to 28% by 1977 before dropping back to 23%, where it stayed throughout the 1980s.  Beginning in 1990, the support level for legalization began to slowly edge upward again and has continued largely uninterrupted since that time, leading to the current support level at 66% today — two out of three Americans now support full legalization.

This long slow trudge to overcome the misinformation and exaggerated fears about marijuana smoking, and to convert citizens from prohibitionists to legalizers, did not happen on its own. It was the result of the effective public advocacy and lobbying efforts of hundreds of dedicated individuals who made this issue a priority in their lives and refused to accept the status quo, even in a difficult political environment.

This week I want to focus some attention on a few of the NORML activists who have, for decades, demonstrated the courage and commitment required to effectively challenge marijuana prohibition, and who have made it possible for us to experience the success we currently enjoy.

I sometimes like to say our successful strategy for legalizing marijuana in America has been to outlive our opponents! These are a few of the individuals who have contributed significantly to that success. I hope to profile other longtime supporters in future blog posts.

Dale Gieringer and Ellen Komp with California NORML

Dale Gieringer has been the state director of California NORML since 1987, where he has been immersed in the enormous changes that have occurred in that state over the last 30 years, and has served on the NORML board of directors since 1993. Gieringer is also director of the California Drug Policy Forum (DPFCA) and treasurer of the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance (OCLA). 

Keith Stroup & Dale Gieringer
Keith Stroup presents Dale Gieringer with the 2018 NORML Lifetime Achievement Award

Gieringer received his PhD from Stanford University in 1984 and was one of the original co-authors of California’s medical marijuana initiative, Prop. 215; a proponent of Oakland’s Measure Z adult use cannabis initiative in 2004; a sponsor of California’s groundbreaking legalization bill in 2009; and a consultant on numerous other cannabis reform campaigns.

Gieringer says he “got started with NORML in 1987 at the height of the drug war, thinking that marijuana reform had hit the bottom and things could only get better from here. In fact, things actually got worse until 1991, when we passed the San Francisco Medical Marijuana Initiative. They’ve only gotten better since, but the federal laws are still no better than when NORML was started 50 years ago.”

Dale Gieringer & Ellen Komp
Dale Gieringer and Ellen Komp lobbying on Capitol Hill

Gieringer also led the successful effort to turn back Gov. Pete Wilson’s “Smoke A Joint; Lose Your License” law in the early 90s.

He is the co-author of Medical Marijuana Handbook, and has published research on the economic benefits of legalization, medical marijuana usage, the history of marijuana and drug prohibition, potency testing, marijuana and driving safety, and drug urinalysis.  He has also sponsored research on the use of water pipes and vaporizers to reduce harmful tars in marijuana smoke.  He is on the national advisory board of the California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at U.C. San Diego,  and was on the California Highway Patrol’s task force on drug impaired driving (2018-2020).    

Tokin' Women

In 2005 Gieringer received NORML’s Lester Grinspoon Award, the organization’s highest honor.  He was High Times Freedom Fighter of the Year in 2010, and received DPA’s Robert Randall Award for Citizen Action in 2011.

Gieringer’s Deputy Director at California NORML is Ellen Komp, who was first elected to their board of directors in 1992. In 1997 Ellen began publishing a newsletter, the Prop 215 Reporter, chronicling the developments associated with the implementation of California’s first-in-the-nation medical marijuana law.

Gieringer says of her work, “Ellen is a dedicated proponent of cannabis as a human rights issue. She created the ‘Very Important Potheads’ website, a who’s who of famous cannabis connoisseurs in art, science, music, sports, business and more. She’s also a leading expert on cannabis ‘herstory,’ as set forth in her book Tokin’ Women. Her work has been invaluable to California NORML activities.”

Paul Kuhn with Illinois NORML and Tennessee NORML

Paul Kuhn
Paul Kuhn

Paul Kuhn is a retired investment counselor from Nashville, TN, who earlier in his life, during the 1970s, ran Illinois NORML from his home in Chicago’s Old Town. A Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vanderbilt University and a former Navy officer, he received his MBA degree from Indiana University.

Kuhn reminisces about the early days of fighting to legalize marijuana. “I contacted the organization in late 1971 or early 1972 after seeing an ad for NORML between articles and comics in Playboy magazine. Keith visited Chicago often back then to see folks at the Playboy Foundation, an early and important financial supporter. Keith and I met and he soon asked me to head NORML’s Chicago chapter and eventually the state affiliate and the Midwest region.”

“At the time, I was a new employee at a well-established, conservative investment counsel firm in the Windy City. I thought it would be wise to ask for permission before proceeding with a public role in marijuana law reform. The senior partner I worked for said the firm encouraged employees to become involved in civic affairs and gave me the go-ahead, leading to an almost 50-year association with this wonderful group where I‘ve made many like-minded friends around the country.”

“Interestingly, it was less controversial to speak out for repealing pot prohibition in conservative circles back in the ‘70s than it became in following decades. The massive arrests of pot smokers with the attendant financial and intellectual corruption of law enforcement had not taken hold. The Nixon-appointed National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse issued its report calling for reform in 1973. President Jimmy Carter endorsed decriminalization and the former number two official at the DEA came on board.”

Paul Kuhn
Paul Kuhn holding container US government used to provide marijuana to approved patients . Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt University

“Keith predicted marijuana would be legal by 1978. I didn’t think it would take that long. We were both wrong! Really wrong. The pendulum swung back. Arrests soared. The entire federal bureaucracy followed the dictates of the DEA. Reefer madness claims were everywhere in the media and the government essentially prohibited research that we—and they—knew would expose their lies. They still do.”

“Happily the pendulum is swinging back the other way, thanks in large part to NORML. Now marijuana is finally legal in Chicago and the state of Illinois. Each time I walk into a store and make a legal purchase, I tip my hemp hat to Keith and the crusade he began a half-century ago.”

Kuhn’s late wife, Jeanne, died in 1996 following a long fight with cancer, during which she found medical marijuana the only relief that allowed her to continue several regimens of chemotherapy.

Paul Kuhn served on the NORML board of directors for a number of years during the 1980s and rejoined the board in 1996 and served until 2018. He continues to serve as the Treasurer of the NORML Foundation, and he remains active in the reform efforts ongoing in Tennessee.

 Kuhn was the recipient of the 2004 NORML Lifetime Achievement Award and he surprised the audience by giving the shortest acceptance speech in NORML’s history: “Thank you. I have worked on this effort for such a long time that my youthful indiscretion has become my lifetime achievement!”

Stephen W. Dillon with Indiana NORML

US Senator Cory Booker & Steve Dillon
US Senator Cory Booker and Steve Dillon

Stephen W. Dillon, Esq., a 70 year old Indiana attorney from Indianapolis specializing in criminal defense and constitutional law, has served as the chairman of the NORML board of directors for fourteen years.

Dillon graduated with honors from Purdue University in 1972 and the Indiana University School of Law in 1975. He served as a public defender for three years before entering private practice. He has headed his own firm, Dillon Law Office, since 1988. 

In his first federal case following his graduation from law school, NORML v. Sendak, Dillon successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Indiana anti-paraphernalia laws. “Just what is a roach clip,” Dillon says?

Dillon helped start the Libertarian Party of Indiana and ran for office nine times in fifteen years, including for Secretary of State in 1994 and 1998; mayor of Indianapolis in 1995; US Senator in 1988,1990, and 1992; governor in 1996; and Monroe Superior Court Judge in 2000. He received the Dr. Barbara Bourland Light of Liberty Award from the Libertarian Party in 1999 and the Steve Dasbach Chairman Award for Extraordinary Service in 2016 from the Libertarian Party.

When asked about the value of running as a third-party candidate, Dillon said “My races for office were never expected to result in me actually getting elected and working for the government. But what a great way to talk about marijuana reform and personal liberty! My law practice was all over Indiana’s 92 counties. I would go to the paper and radio/TV stations after court for interviews. I raised money and put out radio, newspaper ads and even some billboards. I was on two of the statewide TV debates for Governor reaching a million people at one time. I used my platforms to promote justice and personal freedom. For the same reasons, I have encouraged many people to run for office, even if they have no chance of being elected.”

Steve Dillon
Steve Dillon lectures at the 2019 Key West Legal Seminar

Dillon is one of the original members of the NORML Legal Committee and regularly attends NORML Legal Seminars in Aspen and Key West. DIllon served on the NORML board from 1991-1994, before rejoining the board in 1998. 

Dillon has been an active member of NORML since joining in 1973. He attended his first NORML Conference in 1973 with attorneys David Allison and Steve Allen, after which they returned to Indianapolis and filed the incorporation papers for Indiana NORML in 1974. Dillon served as state coordinator of Indiana NORML for several decades and remains actively involved with Indiana NORML.

In 2009, Dillon received the NORML Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, he received the Attorney of the Year Award from the Indiana Cannabis Action Network and Relegalize Indiana. In 2014, Steve received an award for leadership and dedication as chair of the Criminal Justice Section of the Indiana State Bar Association. The same year, Dillon received NORML’s Al Horn Memorial Award for a lifetime of ceaseless work to advance the cause of justice from the NORML Legal Committee. In 2015, Steve received the Indiana NORML Freedom Award for furthering the cause of personal freedom in Indiana and the nation.

Dan Viets with Missouri NORML

Dan Viets is an attorney in private practice in Columbia, Missouri, primarily working on the defense of marijuana cases. He graduated from University of Missouri in Columbia, and became a local retailer for a few years, operating what was then called a “head shop,” before starting law school at Missouri in 1983, after which he entered private practice in 1986.

Dan Viets
Dan Viets presents at the NORML 2018 Conference

Viets has served since 1975 as the Missouri State Coordinator for NORML. He is a former president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, former chair of the board of the Mid-Missouri ACLU, former president of the University of Missouri student body and former chair of the City of Columbia Human Rights Commission.

Viets was the recipient of the 1993 Martin Luther King Association’s Keeping the Dream Alive award and the 1995 Mid-Missouri Civil Libertarian of the Year. He was named High Times Freedom Fighter of the Month in March, 2005 for his work helping to pass both a marijuana decriminalization initiative and a medical marijuana initiative in the November, 2004 election in Columbia. He received the 2005 Atticus Finch Outstanding Criminal Defense Lawyer award from the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In January, 2006 he received the Trailblazer award from the Mid-Missouri NAACP.  He hosts a weekly radio program on a community station affiliated with National Public Radio. The program is called “Sex, Drugs and Civil Liberties.”

Viets says his “passion for civil liberties generally and marijuana law reform in particular comes from a basic anti-authoritarian streak. I have always questioned authority and had a high regard for our right, indeed, our responsibility, to do so in a free society.”

Dan Viets & Erik Altieri
Dan Viets receives the 2019 NORML Leadership Certificate of Achievement from Erik Altieri

Viets also chaired the Board of Directors of the successful 2018 Missouri Medical Marijuana initiative campaign and he currently chairs the Advisory Board of the 2022 Missouri Adult Use Initiative Campaign.

Viets continues to serve on the NORML board of directors today, having served as board chair for several years; and he currently serves as the chair of The NORML Foundation board. He was the 2006 recipient of the NORML Lifetime Achievement Award.