Marijuana VIP: Keith Stroup

Marijuana VIP: Keith Stroup
Steven Voser

Keith Stroup founded NORML in 1970 with $5,000 he'd been given from Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Foundation. Little did he know he was establishing what would become one of the most iconic activist groups in the US.

Few cannabis activist groups have such a rich history as NORML. But few people know the history of this powerful organization and its founder Keith Stroup, a calm, collected, and sweet lawyer from Illinois.


Keith Stroup is a US attorney and the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1968 and immediately began working for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In 1970, Stroup founded NORML with a $5,000 fund from Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Foundation. He remained the organization’s executive director until 1979. He eventually lost his job at NORML following a disagreement with Peter Bourne, Special Assistant to the President Jimmy Carter for Health Issues and Director of the Office of Drug Abuse Policy.

Stroup argued to end the spraying of Mexican cannabis fields with paraquat, a harsh chemical herbicide. Bourne disagreed and, in retaliation, Stroup leaked information that Bourne had used cocaine and cannabis at an annual NORML party. Bourne lost his job following the incident, as did Stroup.

In 1989, Stroup was hired as the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Before then, he had been working as a lobbyist for family farmers in Washington, D.C. and artists in Boston, MA.

Stroup was finally invited to join the NORML Board of Directors in 1994. Then, in 1995, regained his position as executive director after Richard Cowan stepped aside. Stroup remained in this position for 10 years until 2005, when he announced he’d be stepping aside to make way for younger activists with fresher, better ideas.

Today, Stroup is still an active member at NORML and serves as legal counsel and a spokesperson. He often gives lectures for the organization and also published a book on NORML’s history in 2013.


NORML differs from many other marijuana activist groups. Stroup has summarized NORML’s message as this: “Stop arresting smokers and give us a legal market or let us grow our own.”

NORML has often been rightly described as an organization protecting marijuana consumers. In the 1970s, it helped decriminalize minor marijuana offenses in 11 states. Today, it lobbies state and federal governments to bring in new legislation to stop the persecution of marijuana users and to provide them with a regulated market in which to buy their product.


Stroup is very open about his relationship with cannabis. In an interview at the 21st Annual Boston Freedom Rally, he said he began smoking marijuana as a freshman at Georgetown Law School and has been a regular smoker ever since.

During some speeches, Stroup has repeated the phrase “I smoke pot and I like it a lot.” He is a firm believer in responsible adult use and has said on numerous occasions that governments have no business knowing whether someone smokes or why.

Speaking at a NORML Conference in Fort Worth, TX, Stroup summarized his view of cannabis as follows:

“Smoking marijuana enhances your appreciation of good food, good music, and good sex, and those are not bad things. But it does more than that for most of us. When I smoke marijuana it allows me to stand back half a step and get a little better perspective on life, my job, and how relative important somethings are and somethings are not.”

During his time as a cannabis user, Keith has been seen smoking pot with famous celebrities like Willie Nelson, as well as at public protests against prohibition.


In 2013, Stroup published a book documenting the history of NORML and the fight for legalization in the US since the 1970s. It looks at the politics, strategies, and key players involved in the legalization debate over the last 40 years.

The book also details Stroup's past and upbringing in a small midwest farming community, as well as his time in university and law school, where he was first introduced to cannabis.

While a great historical read, it’s important to remember that the book is now slightly dated, and a lot has happened since it was published.


While Stroup has stepped down as executive director of NORML, he remains an active player in the legalization debate.

Whether it's speaking at conferences and other events or appearing on television, Stroup is still regularly spreading his message and that of NORML to continue the evolution of America’s stance on cannabis.

Steven Voser
Steven Voser

Steven is a long-time veteran of cannabis journalism, having delved into every aspect of the subject. His particular interests lie in cannabis culture, the emerging science of cannabis, and how it is shaping the legal landscape across the globe.