Last week, in late March, the cannabis world lost one of its most important Internet resources when Dick Cowan announced that he was stopping daily publication of www.marijuananews.com.
Cowan’s site, which had been online for two years, contained international articles, commentary, links, archives and analysis, flavored by Cowan’s wit and wisdom.
Before he founded the pioneering website, Cowan was director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in the 1990’s, founding editor of the Medical Marijuana Magazine, a Yale University graduate, and a management executive.
Although Cowan is widely respected among most pot activists, he’s been plagued by allegations that he mismanaged NORML during his tenure. CANNABIS CULTURE interviewed Cowan last summer, before financial and health considerations caused him to cancel his website.
We’re running this interview a bit late perhaps, but in time to say thanks to Dick Cowan for the fantastic website we will all miss.
CC- Why do you care about marijuana?
RC- I started smoking in Fort Worth, Texas, and I’ve smoked almost everyday for the last 29 years. A friend had some, and I was never one to resist temptation. That’s part of our culture, to pursue happiness, and I pursued it. This was a time when alcohol was a very big part of the local business and country club culture, and I found marijuana to be far superior to alcohol. I’m in good health, and I think it has helped me have a better life.
I’m also involved in this because I was raised to believe in truth, justice and the American Way, and I feel my country has betrayed me. My faith in this country has been violated, not just because we’re all human and fall short of the glory of God, but because our government and the prohibitionists are deliberately vicious, and that’s inexcusable.
It sounds like you have taken this personally.
There have been some very difficult times. When I was director of NORML, from ’92 to ’95, I went through a lot of emotional hell. Some of it was because five former members of the NORML Board of Directors were trying to overturn an action by the majority of the Board, which had voted to replace the entire Board with a new group headed by Dr. Lester Grinspoon.
But I was far more frustrated when we could do little to help people who called NORML after getting busted, pleading for us to help them. Like Jimmy Montgomery, a paraplegic in a wheelchair for 20 years sentenced to life in prison because some judge in Oklahoma had never seen two ounces of pot before and to him that means Jimmy is a big-time dealer. He’d had an incompetent attorney who didn’t even raise the medical necessity defense. It took us a year of publicity to get the governor to release him.
I’m for total legalization, but these medical cases are particularly disturbing. These are people who already have quite enough problems without being attacked by their own government. And there’s a randomness to how it happens. Depending on where you are and who you are, a marijuana arrest might be a minor embarrassment or you might end up with a wrecked life.
So why is this war going on and on?
Well, this country has always had problems with racism, and in the beginning of criminalization there was a lot of racist sentiment against blacks and Mexicans using marijuana. Now, I see it carried on by the closed world of law enforcement, where racism and all kinds of ignorance and prejudice are part of the culture. It is just like anti-Semitism. The police need to be reformed, and one way to do that is to end the drug war. It’s feeding them.
But we probably won’t get these reforms until we reform the media and get fair reporting on this subject. The alcohol and pharmaceutical industries are big backers of the Partnership for a Drug Free America (PDFA), and they are big advertisers. Now the government has allocated millions of dollars to pay media to run anti-marijuana advertising. The prohibitionist media rarely report what’s happening to marijuana users, and when they do, they often uncritically accept prohibitionist spin. The war is supported by deep political and economic vested interests. Police and prosecutors have dug themselves into this ideology, now it’s hard for them to turn around and say never mind.
Prohibition is profitable, but the economic nuances of it are interesting- the pharmaceutical industry would be a big loser if medical marijuana replaced chemical drugs, but the insurance industry that has to pay for prescription drugs would be a big winner. Farmers are winning battles with the DEA to be able to grow hemp. And although the police make a lot of money from prohibition, the law enforcement costs are substantial and beginning to alarm people.
You’re also beginning to see a grassroots resistance among African-Americans against their leadership, which is overwhelmingly prohibitionist. The prisons are filled with the black underclass and yet the black leaders run around saying ‘hope not dope.’ Lots of people need to rethink prohibition.
Some people allege that you ruined NORML, stole from NORML, and are a fugitive and a liar. They make all kinds of allegations, and claim to have documents to prove what they allege about you. How do you respond to this?
I became national director of NORML in August 1992; the organization was impoverished when I stepped in. Allen St. Pierre was trying to hold it together, and four of the five former Board members who are criticizing me now were on the Board then, and some of them were also officers of NORML. We were able to turn it around, stabilize the cash flow, pay off debts, and begin to again focus on our mission to end the war against marijuana.
But some of the Boardmembers objected to how long it took me to turn things around, and then they imposed a scheme that basically had me working without pay. I resigned, but Dr.Grinspoon contacted me and asked me to stay, and said he would recruit a new Board made up of statured people who were his peers – doctors, Nobel Prize laureates, scientists and other very respected people.
Some members of the old Board refused to resign and make way for this housecleaning. They said that I was hand picking a take-over of the Board, but I didn’t even know some of the people that Dr. Grinspoon had recruited. His interests were the same as mine- to make NORML stronger and more effective. I was willing to leave to help NORML, and I did leave, in August of 1995.
Things had gotten very nasty. Some members of the old Board accused me of looting NORML funds, when the actuality is I gave up a lot of salary and expenses working for NORML. I subsidized NORML by taking pay and expense cuts. Then they heard I owed somebody in Texas $1500 in a phony civil judgment, and said I was on the lam from that. It had nothing to do with NORML.
It is all so absurd that I can’t make any sense of it. Yes, there are things I would have done differently, but I never stole from NORML. I acted professionally and tried to rejuvenate the organization. Being national director was not about my ego.
What’s really sad is that I thought we had put this all behind us, but some people are still carrying on with allegations and bitterness. The only result of their actions is to help the prohibitionists smear NORML.
You seem to have handled this with grace and forgiveness.
(laughing) Marijuana is great for lowering blood pressure.
Can you get good marijuana in Texas?
Texas is a great agricultural state. There’s a lot of Mexican commercial stuff too. Oklahoma is very prohibitionist, but it grows pot. As oppressive as it is, a friend of mine from there showed me a bud that was the size of an ear of corn, grown outdoors.
The Texas-Mexico border is a big problem because of the way our government handles it. They aren’t going to have much affect on domestic marijuana use by affecting Mexican exports, because our domestic growers can pick up the slack, and they refuse to notice that whenever they decrease the supply of marijuana the use of hard drugs goes up because hard drugs are so much easier to smuggle.
Mexicans suffer an enormous amount of social injustice due to US drug policy, and a destabilized Mexico is not what we should be creating. The strategic interests of the US are being sacrificed to the drug war; Mexico has been corrupted and turned into a battleground because of the DEA.
It looks like George W. Bush, the governor of Texas, has a good chance to be our next president. God help us. What do you think of George’s drug policies?
When he was attending debutante parties, they were just rampant with cocaine, and there’s lots of rumors about his wild youth. He refuses to talk about it. His policies are bad policies, as are his brother’s [Jeb Bush is governor of Florida and favors spraying a dangerous anti-marijuana fungicide on the entire state].
He’s playing to one of his constituencies – the religious right – but I have a suspicion that if he gets elected he may have some surprises for them. Hell, Al Gore smoked pot for years, probably until he became vice president, and what good is that doing us? I think that most of these politicians have tried marijuana or some other illegal drug, but they are probably not going to tell the truth or change policies until the media changes the way it portrays the drug war. It’s a vicious circle.
Mainstream media and [drug czar Barry]McCaffrey have attacked you. McCaffrey said something about losing the drug debate to ‘very clever’ legalizers.
McCaffrey ducks debating people like me. The prohibs usually refuse to debate. They’re still stonewalling. They like to stand on the sidelines and make allegations about our motives and tell lies about marijuana and Holland. The Canadian media is so far ahead of American media. No comparison. That’s why legalization is moving along there so much faster.
All the Canadians have to do is keep contacting Parliament and government ministers and tell them to respect the will of the people. And the Canadians are very aware of how the US bullies Canada’s marijuana policy. America interferes with the internal affairs of Canada and other countries around the world, and we have a media-government alliance that’s really scary.
What accounts for Canada being more progressive?
I think people should be grateful for your magazine and for Marc Emery. I mean, how long has CANNABIS CULTURE been around, three years, and it’s having a big influence, already a respected international publication. And
Marc is one those people who devotes all his resources to ending prohibition. There are lots of people making lots of money off prohibition, including some commercial marijuana growers, and they never give anything back. Marc gives it all back. It would not take many more Marc Emerys in the US and Canada to bring this thing to an end. If people want to know how to beat prohibition, look at what Marc has done.
He’s risked his ass to do it. Have you ever been persecuted because of your activism?
Because of my age and the way I look, I am not the type of person usually targeted by the police. I came out and told the world I was gay after being named national director of NORML, to head off anybody thinking that outing me would hurt the cause.
Gay people have played a major role in the medical marijuana movement, but Clinton has used his own gays to attack us. But no, thankfully, I have not been arrested or harmed by the government.
Do you think cannabis will be liberated anytime soon?
I predict that five years from now, medical marijuana and hemp cultivation will be legal, and de facto legalization will be happening in most areas. The momentum is on our side.