Weed Warrior: NORML-founder Keith Stroup claims victory in Reagan’s War On Drugs

If a conversation among cannabis businesspeople, legalization activists or longtime cannabis users goes on long enough, the chances are good that, eventually, someone will express how downright bizarre it feels that people can now walk into a licensed shop and buy a nugget of pot or a sack of infused gummies. It’s been nine years since Oregon and Colorado legalized weed for adult use, and nearly five since California did so. For people who spent their youths dodging cops and parents, the whole thing seems … weird.

This is true even for Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, who has spent more than five decades advocating for legal weed. I asked him last week whether he is ever struck by how seemingly quickly legalization has occurred, and how odd it seems. “Absolutely,” he said.

Of course, it didn’t actually happen quickly. It happened only after decades of toil on the part of NORML and other groups. It just seems that way because, not so long before states started to legalize, most people still thought it wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

But the work isn’t over. So far, 19 states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized weed for adult use. The big prize—federal legalization—remains to be won. While most observers think it’s unlikely that the Senate will pass a bill to legalize this session, they also think it’s inevitable sometime in the next few years. The momentum is there, and even stiffs like Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are fully on board. The resistance comes mainly from Republicans, and a few Democrats who represent conservative districts.

Still, it’s probably a good idea not to be too sanguine. There has been momentum before, and it’s been stymied. In 1970, when NORML launched, more than 90% of Americans opposed cannabis legalization. Stroup knew his effort would be a lifelong project. “It just wasn’t considered to be a serious question for most people,” he said.

But then Jimmy Carter was elected president. He expressed support for decriminalization, though resistance from both parties in Congress remained high. Oregon lawmakers decriminalized pot, and support for reform among voters ticked up, reaching a high above 25% of the country. Willie Nelson bragged about getting high on the roof of the White House. It seemed like things were going Stroup’s way.

Then came Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and their War On Drugs with its slogan, “Just Say No.” Support for legalization sank back down. Cannabis use fell substantially from its high in the late ’70s.

“It pretty much stayed that way until about 1990,” Stroup said. At that point, people started talking seriously again about legalization, though nobody thought it would happen quickly—and they were right. The medical-pot movement, which ultimately paved the way for adult-use legalization, made huge strides, with California creating its medical marijuana program in 1996.

Up until just a few years before Oregon and Colorado legalized, the consensus was that full legalization was still a far-off dream. But then states started falling like dominoes. What changed? Stroup said it was simple demographics. “The real reefer maniacs have died or retired,” he said, referring to scare propaganda like the 1936 film Reefer Madness. He noted that the first set of states to legalize, did so by voter referendum. The most recent states to legalize have done so through their legislatures. Once voters indicated their support, “the politicians were no longer afraid,” Stroup said.

Also speeding up the process: the equity components of legalization measures, which expunge the criminal records of people—most of them in minority communities—who were convicted of cannabis crimes, and that are designed to give them a leg up in the legal-weed business. Those programs have met with mixed success, especially on the business side, but Stroup noted that including such measures in legalization bills “gives politicians a lot of cover” by making legalization seem less like “sanctioning vice” and more like “expanding civil rights.”

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