“Keep up the fight.”
Those were the words of a Playboy reader, in 1969, outraged over the case of a Texas man who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for selling a $5 bag of cannabis. Later that year, another reader revealed that he’d been busted for 0.87 milligrams — about “four seeds and 15 grains of leaf” — while a third explained that her husband faced 10 years in jail after being caught with the equivalent of a dime-sized bud.
The letters continued to pile up, when Hugh Hefner, then Playboy’s editor, received a proposal from a young lawyer named Keith Stroup. Keith was an anti-war activist who’d been radicalized by the Vietnam War, and had moved to Washington determined to start the country’s first pro-pot advocacy group. He needed funding.
Playboy wrote him a $5,000 check.
That check would be the foundation on which NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — the oldest and largest cannabis advocacy organization in the country — would be founded. In the 1970s, with Playboy’s support, the organization led successful efforts to decriminalize minor cannabis offenses in 11 states and significantly lower cannabis penalties in all others.
Advocating for decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis was a radical act back then. In 1970, in the midst of what would become President Richard Nixon’s now-infamous war on drugs, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified drugs based on their perceived medical value and threat of abuse. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and against the advice of Nixon’s own team of experts, cannabis was classified as Schedule I — the most restrictive of five categories, alongside heroin.