On Wednesday, September the 27th, the world lost the man responsible for building the Playboy empire, Hugh Hefner. Besides creating Playboy, Hefner was also known for his support of a number of progressive causes including civil rights, gay rights and free speech. But another cause he supported has gone somewhat unnoticed: marijuana legalization.
In 1970, Hefner wrote a $5,000 check to help start the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He also contributed money to the organization and similar causes throughout his life. NORML still exists today and continues to fight for marijuana legalization. It’s possible without a little help from Hefner, they wouldn’t be around at all.
In so many ways, Hugh Hefner touched the lives of millions. And because of that, he will never be forgotten. Not just because he was a ladies man, but also because he showed tremendous support on a variety of issues.
For example, he was a huge believer in freedom of speech, especially when it came to sexuality. It was Hugh that brought pornography out of the closet and into the mainstream.
Known for his progressivism when it came to civil and LGBT rights, Hefner and his magazine played a major part in spurring the end of 1950s puritanism and vitalizing the sexual revolution. While Playboy featured articles that decried racism and the persecution of queer people, he was disparaged by feminists, the latter of which claimed his empire contributed to the ongoing objectification of women.
Despite this dark mark on his complicated and fraught legacy, Hefner is also remembered for championing for sexual autonomy during an era of conformity. A supporter of contraceptives and pro-choice in an age before Roe v. Wade, a protector of the counterculture during the last throes of McCarthyism, Hef was and will always be known for bucking the system—and looking cool while doing it.
Hef Cannabis Advocate and NORML
Smoking helped put me in touch with the realm of the senses. I discovered a whole other dimension to sex.
Cannabis prohibition remains an issue to this day. But Hef was among the millions of Americans who backed legalization.
Starting in the 1970’s, the Playboy Foundation, under Hefner’s direction, awarded a $5,000 grant to Keith Stroup and his burgeoning cannabis advocacy group, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
I don’t think there’s any question that marijuana should be legalized because to not legalize it, we’re paying the same price we paid for prohibition. In other words, it is a medical concern and it should be handled that way.
As NORML founder Keith Stroup recalled in 2011, it was a lawyer employed by Green Party politician Ralph Nader who suggested he reach out to Hefner to secure funding for the activist group in the early 1970s.
“One of young lawyers named John Esposito said to me, ‘Keith, have you checked with the Playboy Foundation?’” Stroup said in an interview at the time.
“We were in the process at that point of sending funding proposals out to any foundation we could identify where we thought it might be possible that they would give us some funding,” Stroup continued. “And frankly, on the first eight or 10 we sent out, I didn’t get anything back but standard rejection letters. I hadn’t even been allowed to come and interview personally. So clearly, it was still considered by most foundations too hot to handle.”
Stroup followed the lawyer’s advice, soliciting the Playboy Foundation for a grant. Subsequently, his request lead to a meeting with Hefner in Chicago, who then offered Stroup $5,000 in grant money—and thus securing NORML’s significant part in the legalization movement.
Hefner lived to see the country slowly begin to change, watching more and more states legalize cannabis and begin to reverse the stigma against it. When asked if he endorsed California’s legalization measure, Proposition 64, he immediately voiced his support, declaring,
I don’t think there’s any question that marijuana should be legalized because to not legalize it, we’re paying the same price we paid for prohibition.”
His influence, and one little grant of $5,000 to a then-unknown organization fighting an unthinkable fight, ultimately shaped the country and the history of cannabis leading up to today. May Hugh Hefner, the longtime cannabis advocate, and the believer of sexual freedom rest in peace.