Cannabis Culture: Q & A With NORML Trailblazer Keith Stroup

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Cannabis Culture Q & A With NORML Trailblazer Keith Stroup By Shane McCormick

Mr. Keith Stroup is a Washington, DC public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970. Stroup obtained his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Illinois in 1965, and in 1968 he graduated from Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC. Following two years as staff counsel for the National Commission on Product Safety, Mr. Stroup founded NORML and ran the organization through 1979, during which 11 states decriminalized minor marijuana offenses.
Keith Stroup left NORML in 1979 to do some other public interest work and returned in 1994. Stroup stepped down in 2005 and now is legal counsel. Most of Mr. Stroup’s adult life he has either worked for or with NORML, and if it weren’t for the Vietnam Draft, Stroup wouldn’t have any interest in public interest law.
Stroup has also practiced criminal law, lobbied on Capitol Hill for family farmers and artists, and for several years served as executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

CC: Can you please tell my audience about yourself?

Keith Stroup: Well, I’m a 74-year-old public interest lawyer I got out of law school in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War and the antiwar demonstrations, and so my life and my professional direction was somewhat impacted by all of those people my age, back then they didn’t have a lottery. So if you were eighteen or older and you were not a full-time student, if you were a male, you were drafted. Most of us coming out of law school, we had sort of run out of excuses to stay out of the war. So we were looking around for ways to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

I tell you that only because it actually did play a role in why I ended up starting NORML. At first, I had first smoked marijuana in 1965 when I was a freshman at Georgetown law school, and when I got out of law school in 1968, I managed with the help of some lawyers from the national lawyers guild, an outstanding group of lawyers. They were providing free legal counsel for those of us who were trying to stay out of the war. Then they offered me options of going to Canada, but I wasn’t even sure I could get back in the country. As it turned out, President Jimmy Carter did let folks come back who had gone to Canada to avoid the draft after just a few years, but we didn’t know that. They offered to put me in touch with some psychiatrists in Baltimore who would say I was gay and back then if you were gay, it wasn’t don’t ask, don’t tell. They just didn’t want you in the military. I thought that was kind of an attractive option, but I was married, and had a child and my wife wasn’t comfortable with that.

So anyway, I ended up with the help of these lawyers getting something called the critical skills permit. It was a revision of the draft act that said that the work you’re doing on the domestic side of things is important though in rather than interrupting that important work well, let you stay in spending the two years you would have been in the military doing this important work back in the states. Well, I had been offered the job when I first graduated from law school. The Presidential commission called the national condition on product safety. It was an outgrowth of the work Ralph Nader had done. And so as a result for two years, I had the rare privilege of working downtown Washington working around Ralph Nader.

Our goal was to identify unsafe products, used in and around the home and we’d go back and write memos to the commissioner suggesting which products they should hold hearings on and perhaps propose legislation now I wasn’t enormously focused personally on unsafe products. But I was fascinated by this idea of public interest law where you use your law degree or your legal skills to impact public policy rather than to help the individual clients or to try to get rich. And Ralph had been sort of the person who defined public interest law. I never heard of that until I had the opportunity to work with Ralph and I was thrilled at the idea that I could do something more valuable with my life then just go back home and practice law. But again, by the time I was finished with the commission, it was a two-year commitment. I was too old to be drafted.

At that point, I was free to do anything I wanted. So I pulled together some friends and colleagues, and we started putting together the early documents to found NORML. We wanted to found a marijuana smokers lobby to try and end prohibition and change the law so that responsible marijuana smokers would no longer be treated as criminals. So that’s a little about me.

I started NORML in 1970. I ran it through a 1979 the first time. Then I was away doing some other public interest work for a few years and came back in 1994 and once again was executive director for ten years. Then in 2005 I stepped aside as the executive director, Allen St Pierre took over, but he asked me to stay on as NORML legal counsel, and that’s a position I still hold to this day. So most of my adult life I have worked with and for NORML and again I don’t think I ever would have had the inkling that inter public interest law, but for being radicalized by the Vietnam draft.

CC: That’s a pretty interesting story. I was not aware of that.

Keith Stroup: Well, I’m an older guy. Most of the people I deal with now, obviously you’ve read about the anti-Vietnam War era, but unless you’ve lived through it, I don’t think you probably fully appreciate just how alienating it was. I mean, it turned a whole generation of us into not just antiwar activists, but people who no longer trusted our government and spent a lot of our time trying to keep the government at bay.

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