By Marguerite Arnold

NORML, the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is the oldest non-profit advocacy organisation focussed on the legalization of cannabis. It was founded in 1970 in the United States. Ever since, the organisation has been a critical opponent against prohibition. This is evident in its tireless fight to challenge prohibitory laws using numerous, creative methods.

It is also reflected in the organisation’s defence of individuals persecuted by these outdated laws. This has resulted in NORML support for test challenge cases.

Today, NORML performs several different roles. It advocates and lobbies state and federal legislators. It also serves as an informal, yet well-researched information hub. The organisation hosts forums and organises conferences. It also supports a vast international network of activists. NORML also plays a part in influencing major legislative reform in courtrooms. Beyond that, the organisation undertakes relevant and targeted research.

NORML maintains an office in Washington DC. It also has a network of chapters across the U.S. These include numerous ones on many college campuses. Foreign chapters have also been founded in the U.K., Ireland and Australia.

Norml National Organisation Reform Marijuana Laws


NORML was founded in the midst of student activism during the late sixties and early seventies. In fact, founder Keith Stroup was inspired by Ralph Nader’s famous consumer campaigns. NORML was conceived as a legitimate voice for and about cannabis users.

Even more fundamentally different? NORML treated cannabis users just like any other consumer group.

The idea was novel at the time. Even in the 1960’s, possession of a small amount of marijuana was a crime in every U.S. state. A first conviction for a minor offence could land the accused in jail for a year.


Stroup got a founding grant from the Playboy Foundation to fund the non-profit. In fact, Hugh Heffner’s support of the organisation gave it a financial base to become the premiere cannabis lobbying organisation in the country during the 70’s.

The grant also contributed to the longevity of the organisation.

The immediate impetus for the group’s founding was the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. The CSA classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug. By 1972, however, even a presidential commission was assigned to study whether cannabis should be decriminalised.

Norml legalisation cannabis


One of the first significant impacts of NORML was publicising the results of their findings. As a result, for the next eight years, such research was instrumental in creating state decriminalisation laws. During the late eighties and early nineties, NORML was also one of the most powerful voices behind the California state vote to legalize medical use in 1996. Since then, it has turned up in every state battle for reform.

The group also is responsible for bringing the first lawsuit against the government arguing that cannabis should be rescheduled for medical use. The patient was a Washington DC resident named Robert Randall who had glaucoma. He became, as a result of the lawsuit, the first medical cannabis patient in the United States. In 1976.

Since then, the organisation has continued to be on the forefront of legalization challenges in court.

And despite the many other groups who have now moved into this fight, NORML still finds ways to stay relevant.


NORML advocates “responsible cannabis use.” This is defined by the group as:

  • Adult only use: Cannabis should be reserved for adults and shouldn’t be provided to children.
  • No driving: Cannabis users should not be driving or operating other types of heavy machinery while under the influence of cannabis.
  • Set and setting: NORML believes responsible cannabis users place special emphasis on the time, place, and mood in which they use cannabis.
  • Resist abuse: Responsible users should avoid abusing cannabis. Abuse means harm, and any type of cannabis use that negatively affects health or personal development/achievement is not responsible.
  • Respect the rights of others: Responsible cannabis users respect the rights of others by upholding similar protocol governing tobacco smoking.

Lobbyists that begin working for the organisation as students, even today, have gone on to lead significant state and even federal initiatives. And even though today there are at least several other national groups in the United States alone that now have similar recognition, there is none with the same track record as NORML.

Norml activism campaigns politics cannabis


Some of NORML’s most lasting work has come by way of its savvy use of politics, the legislative process and the media. This has continued to evolve as legalization has continued to evolve in the new millennium.

The group spearheaded a petition in 2009 to incoming President Barack Obama. They asked that the issue of cannabis use be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one. It supported a campaign in defence of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in 2009. The organisation also released the first nationally televised public service message promoting legalization.

The group has also led the war against advertising the substance. In 2010, a 15-second flash animation was banned from display on Times Square billboards. The resulting blogosphere controversy moved the issue into a public debate which has not ended.


Beyond the specific campaigns and legislation that NORML has championed, the group has also done something more. True to its founding mission, NORML has managed to help reframe an important debate. That starts with a very basic concept. Cannabis users are consumers too. They should have the right to a legal, safe supply of cannabis for responsible use. This includes both medical and recreational consumption.

Today, of course, that idea has become formative not only for diehard activists, but the mainstream as well. And while there are many places where cannabis is still not legal, it has, at the very least, made its way on the agenda of reform across the world. Obviously, reform is not the work of a single individual or even group.

However, NORML deserves a great deal of credit for identifying an important issue and subsequently doing their best to make profound changes representing consumers. There is simply no organisation that has championed cannabis like NORML.

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