Willie Nelson is a proud marijuana smoker who stopped using alcohol and tobacco decades ago. Willie, 81, credits his longevity to that decision.
Willie was purposely out of the “marijuana closet” before that became fashionable, or even politically correct. His openness came across as charmingly naive, as if he did not know cannabis was illegal, and could not figure out why others were sometimes upset.
Willie was — and still is — making a political statement that there is nothing wrong with smoking marijuana.
Two issues have always been the focus of Willie’s political attention: helping family farmers remain on the land and legalizing marijuana.
Willie and I have frequently talked over the years about the natural crossover between those two issues. If marijuana were legal for American farmers to cultivate and sell, tens of thousands of family farmers could grow marijuana and financially thrive and remain on the land, continuing the great rural tradition dating back to the founding of our country.
How Willie and I shared a bond
I first met Willie in the mid-1970s. I had managed through a mutual friend who worked at the Washington Post to get myself invited to spend a few minutes with Willie on his bus when he was playing a concert near D.C.
Willie and I shared a joint, I told him about NORML, and we discussed our shared frustration with then current marijuana policy. It was a pleasant visit and one during which we established our mutual political interests.
But we did not get to know each other well until later, after Jimmy Carter had been elected president in 1976.
I had by then become friends with Phil Walden, the young, hip head of Capricorn Records out of Georgia, and the manager of the Allman Brothers band, a band that had supported Jimmy Carter for president. Walden was a close friend of Governor Carter and the Carter sons, and he had at one point brought the president’s son Chip over to the NORML office in Washington, DC to meet with me. We talked about the progress we were making on the marijuana front, and after about a half hour, Chip Carter and Phil Walden left to return to the White House.
Before long I was invited to join the White House staff on a chartered bus heading out to the upcoming Willie Nelson concert, where I hung out backstage with a number of the Carter White House stars, including Jodie Powell and Hamilton Jordon, along with my new friend Chip Carter. I introduced myself to those I had not met and settled in to chat with Chip, who asked what we were doing after the concert. I knew we were expecting to go back to the hotel with Willie and smoke a joint, so I invited Chip and his wife to join us. And they did.
We all retired to Willie’s room for a few hours of pleasant conversation and marijuana smoking, which began a relationship with Willie that has lasted to this very day. He is a friend whom I greatly admire and respect. He stands up publicly for the political issues he supports. Willie serves as co-chair of the NORML Advisory Board, lending his celebrity and credibility to NORML and the movement to legalize marijuana, and over the years he has sponsored a NORML benefit golf tournament at his private golf course outside of Austin, held a NORML benefit concert in Austin, and recorded scores of NORML public service announcements — all the while serving as the most visible marijuana smoker in America.
There is no celebrity in America who has done as much to support NORML and to advance the legalization of marijuana as Willie Nelson.
“America’s most beloved marijuana smoker.” That’s what I tell Willie he is, but then I remind him that he is also America’s only beloved marijuana smoker, and we laugh and pass the joint.
Willie Nelson is an American hero who is loved by millions of Americans for his country music, his charming country style, and his commitment to help family farmers, despite the fact that for more than 30 years, he has been open and honest about his appreciation for marijuana.
Willie’s run-in with the law
Many years ago when Willie was returning from a late poker game with friends in Austin, Texas, and feeling sleepy, he wisely pulled off the road at a rest stop, locked his car doors and took a nap. Unfortunately, he had left a fat roach clearly sitting in the ashtray of his little Mercedes coup, and a local cop came along, saw the car and decided he should check to see if everything was all right. When he shined his flashlight into the car and saw the hand-rolled cigarette in the ashtray, he awakened Willie, placed him under arrest, and took him to the local police station.
The other police were so irritated at the cop for making the bust on their favorite country singer, and local boy made good, that one of the police stepped up and made bond for Willie, so he would not have to spend the night in jail. Later, when the case came to court, Willie’s lawyers argued successfully that the evidence should be suppressed, since thousands of Texans still hand-roll tobacco cigarettes, and therefore there was no probable cause for the police to have arrested Willie in the first place. The motion to suppress the evidence was granted and the charges were dismissed.
I doubt that would have been the outcome for most people caught in Texas under similar circumstances, But Willie, born in Abbott, Texas, has remained close to and proud of his country roots and that fact is appreciated by rural America, including many in law enforcement, who might otherwise not be as forgiving of his marijuana smoking.
Willie and his tour bus have been stopped a few other times over the years, when he is on the road going from town to town (which is most of the year) but with good lawyering and the enormous goodwill of the American public, he has survived these occasional incidents in fine shape.
A true legend
I have been privileged to spend many hours on the bus with Willie over these many years, sharing good weed and catching up on marijuana politics. Willie is an especially sweet and gentle man with eyes that sparkle, and he is passionate about life, something obvious to all who spend time with him. The discussions are always stimulating, as Willie is always current with the outside world, even as he lives within the bubble of the bus tour.
I usually bring some dynamite weed from Humboldt County, and Willie will have some equally high quality California pot, and we always kid each other about who has the finest quality marijuana (Willie usually does), and act as if the other’s stash is somehow inferior.
“What is this ditchweed, Keith,” Willie will often say as he tries some of my grass.
“Be careful with that,” I warn him. “It’s liable to knock you on your ass.”
Of course, both of us have great weed, so there is no loser in this game of braggadocio.
Playing poker with Willie & Woody
On one occasion in 2006, I flew out to Maui, Hawaii where Willie now keeps his principal home, to spend some private time with Willie and a couple of mutual friends who also live on the island. I was only there for a few days, but each afternoon we would drop by Willie’s house for one of his frequent poker games with his buddies, including his neighbor and good friend Woody Harrelson. It was nice to see Willie when he was totally relaxed and off the road.
But one thing remained the same: the joints just kept coming, and no one was complaining about that.
Willie’s place in history
Willie Nelson has become synonymous with marijuana smoking in America, a cultural ambassador for marijuana, and in the process, he has elevated the image of marijuana smokers and reached across cultural divides to win millions of new political supporters among people who otherwise might not have given this issue a second look. He has demonstrated that marijuana smokers are also good, patriotic Americans who love their country and give back to their communities. And he is still at it, preaching the gospel of marijuana legalization.
I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to spend some time with Willie on his famous bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, once again talking marijuana politics and celebrating the enormous progress we’ve made over the last couple of years, and sharing some great weed, when he was performing at the 9:30 Club here in Washington, D.C.
We laughed at ourselves for thinking we could legalize marijuana back in the 1970s, cursed the many obstacles that held the movement back for decades, and shared our mutual delight at having lived long enough to finally see legalization begin to take hold.
It is always special to hang out with Willie on the bus. He is truly an American icon, one-of-a-kind, and we are fortunate that he is also a stoner. I am honored to call him a friend.