Keith Stroup pronounced "Strop") founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, in 1970. At 28, Stroup was "a turned-on Nader, a funny, fast-talking, charming, very bright lawyer-activist," according to Patrick Anderson, author of "High in America."

Once the Playboy Foundation had given NORML its first $5,000, a Stroup began to build in NORML a national political lobby intended to goad the federal and state governments into lifting anti-marijuana laws. In less than a decade, Stroup raised NORML's income to more than half a million dollars, guided the lobby to prominence among the organizations that shared its mission and, as the "Prime Minister of Pot," played a major role in victories and defeats that Anderson chronicles as incidents of war.

At the same time, Stroup wheedled his way into various circles of power. He joined the hedonist ring around Hugh Hefner and the set of doctors, scholars and policy analysts who study drug use and abuse. He played with the extended family of country-and-western singers and dealt with assorted folks around Jimmy Carter during his presidency. But according to Anderson, Stroup confused zeal for a cause with his need to move in the fast lane: When Stroup was pressured to resign leadership of NORML in 1978, he left behind a trail of failed friendships. As Anderson concludes, "History teaches that the people who step forward to lead unpopular causes are not often perfect gentlemen."

"High in America" shoots at several targets as Anderson charts the fluctuating fortunes of Stroup, a small-town, Midwestern Baptist whose salesmanship and sixth sense of where the action was helped him to a spot of national sway. Anderson also writes of the strong temperament and occasional bad timing that he believes finally undercut Stroup's standing. Finally, the book assesses American cultural history from an unconventional vantage, tracing relations among a range of figures who served as representatives of ideas that have clashed, filtered through and changed social habits in the past dozen years.

The book's history of marijuana law and policy is its most valuable contribution. The author describes how Harry Anlinger, who in 1930 became the first head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics, laid the groundwork for the prevailing fears about physical and psychological damage resulting from marijuana use. Anderson recounts how the Nixon administration later stacked a commission to study these effects and refused to act on a surprise recommendation that penalties for possession of marijuana be abolished. He also tells how some members of the conservative old guard in Congress failed to disprove findings about the relative harmlessness of marijuana and resorted to trumped-up charges of a national marijuana epidemic in the face of surveys showing low use of the substance even in America's lotusland, California.

On Washington, Anderson has unsurprisingly cynical views, perhaps derived from his stint in 1976 as candidate Carter's speechwriter. He highlights the power of the president to pursue policies -- like the paraquat program, which sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with herbicide to discourage the crop's use in the U.S. -- which Anderson feels were based on prejudice and misinformation. He describes thin but purposeful bonds among ambitious young bureaucrats, lobbyists and journalists, who trade favors, hold grudges and switch sides, and then move on quickly to avoid any substantive consequences of their official acts.

Anderson's writing on Stroup and his movement's eventual eclipse carries other baggage that travels less well. The author suggests that the four horsemen of the state of mind known as the '60s -- Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate and the counter-culture -- found expression in Stroup's effort to move marijuana into the American mainstream. As a result, Stroup's tale takes on the burden of a parable when it seems far better cast as the sketch of a minor cultural figure who rallied a motley crew of Yippies, street people, consumer activists and national worthies around a brambly issue, and who then lapsed just when he might have archieved most.