Flashback: When White House Drug Czar Peter Bourne Did Coke at a NORML Party

NORML founder Keith Stroup and former White House drug czar Dr. Peter Bourne

One of the key moments in drug-law-reform history happened in December 1977 when then drug czar Dr. Peter Bourne snorted cocaine at a NORML party in Washington, DC. It would jeopardize all of the accomplishments that were made in the '70s with 11 states decriminalizing marijuana, thanks largely to NORML's efforts. But that one moment when Bourne entered a private room in the house where the party was taking place changed everything.

When asked a month later by a Washington Post reporter if Bourne had indeed used coke at the party, NORML executive director Keith Stroup chose not to deny, hence acknowledging it. Jack Anderson broke the story on Good Morning America.

Stroup, who's now 78, recently wrote about the incident and how he mishandled it. "My failure to protect Bourne was the equivalent of dropping a dime on him," he admitted. Stroup subsequently resigned from the organizaion he'd founded in 1970.

Keith Stroup: "While I had not exactly snitched on Bourne, my failure to protect him was a violation of the basic principle that most marijuana smokers accept and live by."

NORML and some White House staffers had found a common cause in marijuana derciminalization. However, Stroup became angry with the White House when NORML learned the U.S. approved the spraying of a pesticide called paraquat on marijuana fields in Mexico. At the time, most of the marijuana coming into the U.S. was from Mexico. When a report claimed 13% of confiscated Mexican marijuana was laden with paraquat, NORML filed a suit against the federal government to stop the spraying.

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Still, Bourne and other Capitol Hill types attended the stoner party where hundreds of joints were circulating. Upstairs in the private room, lines were being cut.

Apprarently, Bourne wanted a toot, so Stroup escorted him upstairs. That was Stroup's first big mistake. Inside the VIP room were Hunter S. Thompson, Christie Hefner, Bobby Kennedy's son David and media reps from High Times and the Washington Post.

Stroup recalled:

"Clearly that should have set off alarms in my head, as cocaine, while quite popular at the time among the hip young set all across America, was still considered in a light far more serious than marijuana. I should've simply said, 'I can’t help you with cocaine, but I can certainly arrange for a good joint.' But I was feeling good, we had a houseful of Washington movers and shakers at our NORML pot party, and now the President’s drug advisor wanted to snort a line of cocaine and I wanted to keep him happy. 'That should not be a problem,' I said. 'Let’s go upstairs for some privacy.'"

Parick Anderson chronicled the events of that night in his 1981 book, High in America: The True Story of NORML and he Politics Behind Marijuana:

"Bourne had a fatal desire to be one of the boys. When the bullet [used to sniff cocaine] reached him, he too took a one-and-one. All around the room people were stunned. And well they might have been, for they were witnessing one of the turning points in the war over drug policy that had been so bitterly contested in America in the 1970s."

Stroup's second mistake was not denying Bourne's coke use at the party:

"While I had not exactly snitched on Bourne, my failure to protect him was a violation of the basic principle that most marijuana smokers accept and live by, and that NORML had adopted as policy years earlier. It's never acceptable to rat on someone else, even if that would avoid a conviction or a jail term. The NORML Legal Committee had even adopted a policy during those early years that NORML lawyers should not represent anyone who wanted to get off by being a snitch – by testifying against another person. If they could not get smokers to testify against their supplier, it was often impossible for the government to work their way up the chain of commerce, and bust the big guys."

Stroup paid for his sins, leaving the organization that had meant so much to him. But years later, in 1994, he was welcomed back onto NORML's board and soon took over as executive director again. He's currently NORML's chief counsel.

Did Stroup hold back legalization? Probably not, but he did create a buzzkill that caused damage for drug-policy reformers until Democrats took over the White House again in the '90s under Bill "I did not inhale" Clinton. With marijuana legalization on the rebound after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, Stroup was back at the helm. However, this time the White House would not be friendly to NORML. That era was long over.

This article was posted on Dec. 27, 2020. It has since been updated.


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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.