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Books Of The Times

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
The New York Times
February 26, 1981

HIGH IN AMERICA. The True Story Behind Norml and the Politics of Marijuana. By Patrick Anderson. 328 pages. Viking. $13.95.

IN his sober and even-handed conclusion to ''High in America: The True Story Behind Norml and the Politics of Marijuana,'' the veteran reporter Patrick Anderson says of ''America's marijuana policy over the past fifty years'' that ''If it weren't so tragic, it would be hilarious.'' That was precisely what I was going to say about the story that Mr. Anderson has just finished telling of Keith Stroup (rhymes with ''cop'') and the rise and fall of Norml, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Except that, depending upon your attitude toward marijuana, you might as easily say of Mr. Anderson's story that if it weren't so hilarious, it would be tragic.

In short, one approaches the moral dimension of this story with extremely mixed feelings, so ambiguous and paradoxical are some of the issues it raises. So it's probably best to suspend for a moment the question of ethics or politics or whatever you want to call the frame of the marijuana issue, and simply describe ''High in America'' as a book about the art of lobbying. As such it is fast-paced, funny, instructive and dramatic, a first-rate example of what used to be known as new journalism, in which the people are handled as if they were characters in a novel, yet the reader rarely has any doubt how the author found out so much about them.

How It Started

The story begins with the famous 1977 Norml party at which Dr. Peter Bourne, former President Jimmy Carter's friend and adviser on health issues, is supposed to have taken cocaine, the eventual consequence of which was that both Dr. Bourne and Keith Stroup had to resign from their respective jobs, and the movement to ''decriminalize'' marijuana lost its momentum. As one observer put it, ''The drug-law movement vanished up Peter Bourne's nose.''

Mr. Anderson then goes back to the beginning of Mr. Stroup's career, traces his shaky start as a rebel and dropout, describes his discovery of the vast untapped pot-smoking underground, and follows the remarkable steps he took in putting together what eventually became a powerful and highly effective lobby. And at the same time as Mr. Anderson instructs in the art of making political friends and influencing state legislatures, he introduces us to all the curious characters who rallied 'round the grass, boys, and sprinkles his narrative with such highly dramatic sidelights as the case of Bobby Arnstein, the employee and friend of Playboy's publisher, Hugh Hefner, who, in Mr. Anderson's opinion, became a victim of the Nixon Administration's attempts to destroy the ultimate rabbit.

But more than a surprisingly entertaining story, ''High in America'' is a fascinating character study of Keith Stroup, its renegade-hero. However you may feel about his cause, you'll have difficulty disputing Mr. Anderson's final judgment of Mr. Stroup's career as a lobbyist. ''To have conceived NORML in 1970, to have brought it into being, and to have made it the formidable national organization it became were quite remarkable achievements. In the process Stroup had helped a lot of people no one else had the talent or inclination to help. A lot of people were not in jail who would have been if NORML had not existed.'' ''Stroup's critics might not consider him a proper model for the young, but he had fought effectively for what he believed, and history teaches that the people who step forward to lead unpopular causes are not often perfect gentlemen.''

The interesting question remains: can Keith Stroup's ultimately rash and self-destructive behavior be seen as a reflection of the dubious merit of his cause? Some will say, Of course: Mr. Stroup began as an angry rebel; marijuana was an angry rebel's touchstone; a daily pot habit can't be good for the temperament; so it's fitting that he finally blew himself up in a blaze of anger. Others will say, Pshaw: a lobbyist for the mink farmers of America could just as easily possess too short a fuse.

Takes No Stand

But we have wandered back into the realm of value judgments here, and, as I've indicated, Mr. Anderson, the author of five previous books, including the novel ''First Family,'' does not take a stand on the good or evil of grass. Quite the contrary, he is circumspect.

After having told Keith Stroup's story, he devotes an admiring section to Sue Rusche, president of DeKalb Country (Georgia) Families in Action and the leader of the opposition to the decriminalization of marijuana. In his concluding pages, he circles the ethical dimension of his work like a painter executing a work of cubism. No one can really complain, except those so horrified by the subject that they think it oughtn't to be mentioned - especially in front of the children.


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