Paraquat and Pot: How the Herbicide Impacted Cannabis Legalization in the '70s

Pesticide application (images via various sties)

Upset with the predicament he's in, The Dude in The Big Lebowksi, played by Jeff Bridges, accuses the man who shares his namesake, played by Davis Huddleston: "You human paraquat!"

In 1998, that was quite the nonsequitor. But fans of the movie know Jeff Lebowski (a.k.a. The Dude) was a '60s student radical who would've been awae of the paraquat controversy in the '70s.

These days, paraquat – a chemical pesticide – is best known as a cause of Parkinson's disease. Ads run regularly on TV about exposure to the herbicide seeking individuals who were exposed and have Parkinson's or symtoms related to the condition. Several European countries have banned the compound.

Paraquat is also associated with marijuana. In the late '70s when Jimmy Carter was president, the White House was friendly with legalization advocates like NORML. Provided by the U.S. to Mexico to defoliate their poppy crops, they sprayed it on pot (mota) as well, raising concerns that the government was trying to poison marjuana that eventually would end up on this side of border.

Keith Stroup: "Paraquat was a serious issue in the '70s and it still is today."

It became NORML's No. 1 issue with founder Keith Stroup pushing the White House and Congress to end the spraying. But Carter refused, stating:

"Marijuana happens to be an illicit drug that is included under the overall drug control program and I favor this program very strongly."

This set Stroup off, so much so that he confirmed to a media source that White House "drug czar" Peter Bourne had snorted cocaine at the NORML Christmas party in 1977, which contributed to Bourne's resignation.

RELATED: Stroup Featured in Secrets of Playboy Miniseries 

In 1978, the Washington Post viewed the whole paraquat affair somewhat humorously, writing:

"The government that failed over many decades to convince the public that marijuana is dangerous finally has helped to make it dangerous...

"The idea was that paraquat would kill off the plants, the way it helped defoliate Vietnam. But each season, the enterprising Mexican farmers harvest the stuff before it dies, and ship it north.

"Since about 50% to 60% of the pot smoked in this country comes from Mexico, it is assumed that for the past two or three years, a large number of the 15 million regular marijuana smokers have inhaled a substance that has a slow, cumulative effect on their lungs. Is there any wonder why the Bumper Sticker of the Moment in California reads: 'Buy Colombian'?

"Marijuana has become a gray area of the law and an issue of debate on and off the college campus. But who is in favor of poisoning marijuana smokers? This paraquat punishment just doesn't fit the 'crime.'"

Stroup, who has since acknowledged his "failure to protect Bourne was the equivalent of dropping a dime on him," also left NORML over the incident.

Asked by CelebStoner what he thinks when he hears paraquat in the news these days, Stroup says:

"It is indeed a reminder of our earlier fights. Paraquat was a serious issue in the '70s and it still is today."


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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

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