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© 2019 MERRY JANE. All Rights Reserved.

When Pot Almost Became Legal

A jaw-dropping narrative about how weed really is a part of America's history.

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The year was 1977. Marijuana was moving into the American mainstream, heading toward legal acceptance, just as it is today. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws asked me to write a proposal for a book--a voice for legalization, a medicinal guide, a celebration of the culture. What a dream assignment.

NORML’s headquarters was in Washington, on M Street between Georgetown and the White House. There I met its founder, Keith Stroup, and the other young lawyers who were working to loosen the grip of anti-marijuana laws and to provide legal help to growers and users who’d been busted.

They showed me to the third-floor attic room where I’d be sleeping for a month while I researched the book. We all sat down and passed a joint around, as if to close the deal. The roach was tossed into a gallon-sized glass jar sitting on a table at the head of my bed. The jar looked to be half full of roaches--the last remains, it appeared, of hundreds of such business meetings.

They told me that when NORML helped growers get out of legal troubles the growers expressed their gratitude by sending NORML samples of their most outstanding products. So these roaches, which I was invited to consume freely during my tenure, represented a confluence of good will and good weed perhaps unmatched in all of human experience.

The marijuana lobby was on a roll.

Keith Stroup founded NORML in 1970. That was the year Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, which would forever list cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug--as dangerous as heroin and with no possible medical benefits. Congress named a National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, and in 1972 it concluded that grass was harmless enough that possession of up to an ounce ought to be legal.

Nixon rejected the report out of hand. Keith Stroup used it to campaign for legal reforms on the state level. During this period, thirty states reduced sentences for possession. When Jimmy Carter ran for president in ‘76, he came out for decriminalization. The momentum was building.

In 1977, with Carter in the Oval Office, Keith was invited to the White House to have lunch with his drug-policy adviser, Peter Bourne. Things got chummy. NORML’s lawyers began playing softball with White House staffers.

That summer, Keith was asked to help draft the big drug speech the president was giving to Congress. Carter toned it down, but in August, a few weeks before I moved into NORML’s attic, he delivered the speech, proposing to end all federal penalties for possessing less than an ounce. The editors of the New York Times and the fusty National Review jumped on board.

Meanwhile, Keith was getting high with the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Buffet, Willie Nelson, Hugh Hefner and the president’s son Chip. He got sleepovers at the Playboy Mansion. Mr. Marijuana, they called him.

At the time, I was aware of none of this. I was the ascetic who lived in the garret, smoking the leftovers.

No matter how many of those gift roaches I consumed, the jar kept filling up. Like loaves and fishes.

I made a list of people to interview for the book. Jack Nicholson, Hunter Thompson, Tom Robbins, Dr. Andrew Weil, Peter Lawford, Sterling Hayden, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Smothers, John Belushi, Geraldo Rivera, Garry Trudeau, the philanthropist Stewart Mott, the tycoon Max Palevsky, and a UPI reporter who claimed to have smoked in a bathroom at the Executive Mansion, and aboard Air Force One, and on Nixon’s trip to Peking to meet Mao.

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In October, I went home to write the book proposal, and Keith Stroup started coming down from Cloud Nine.

Canadian customs agents busted him for having a joint in his pocket as he was entering the country. On his way out, they found another joint, plus traces of cocaine. He spent a night in jail and was kicked out of Canada.

In Washington, NORML’s big issue was the herbicide paraquat. For two years the federal government had funded a campaign in Mexico to spray it on marijuana fields to destroy the crops. Tests indicated that 13% of the pot being smuggled in was tainted with paraquat, and government scientists warned that it was unsafe.

Keith persuaded Illinois Senator Charles Percy, a liberal Republican, to introduce a bill outlawing federal support for the spraying. Keith asked his friend Peter Bourne, Carter's drug adviser, to support the bill. But the administration had been secretly lobbying against it, and Bourne turned him down. Mr. Marijuana was outraged. To him, the government was deliberately poisoning smokers.

To get back at Bourne, Keith leaked a piece of information to syndicated columnist Jack Anderson about something that happened at NORML's 1977 Christmas party.

By all accounts, it was a great party. A Virginia grower donated a pound of dynamite weed, and volunteers rolled an endless supply of fatties. Hundreds attended, including Capitol Hill staffers and journalists from the straight media. Hunter Thompson was there...Tom Forcade of High Times magazine...Hefner’s daughter Christy...Bobby Kennedy’s son David...Bill Paley, the son of the CBS founder. And the White House’s Peter Bourne was there.

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What Keith told Jack Anderson later was that Bourne snorted coke at the party, in plain view. (Thompson was said to gasp, “My God, man, we’ll all be indicted!”)

Anderson broke the story, and Carter’s drug policies took on a more sinister look. With his political fortunes sagging, he changed course on decriminalization and started prosecuting herbal offenses more aggressively.

The movement to legalize ran aground. Two years later Reagan became president, and Nancy launched her Just Say No crusade. The unsavory spread of crack cocaine provoked a backlash against all drugs. In the 1970s, eleven states decriminalized cannabis; in the '80s, none did. The number of marijuana users dropped by 10 million. Public support for legalization, after increasing from 12% to 28% during the ‘70s, now stagnated until the turn of the millennium.

Pot’s moment had passed.

So had the time for a book about the glories of ganja.

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