Reefer Madness NORML's Pothead Harmony Goes Up in Smoke

These should be groovy days for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Welfare mothers have replaced weed as conservatives' public enemy No. 1. The “just say no” campaign is widely viewed as a flop. Terminally ill AIDS patients—not glassy-eyed, stringy-haired flower children—are leading the charge to legalize pot. And let's not forget that a dope-savvy baby boomer has replaced Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.

But just as a new era brings new allies, it also brings new stresses. NORML now finds itself in the midst of a bruising court fight that reflects the cultural clash between old-time grass-roots activists and a new conservative regime that seeks to move the organization into the mainstream.

For 25 years, NORML's organizational dynamic was about what you'd expect from a friendly coven of dope smokers. Power, like the doobies they fought to legalize, was mellowly passed from member to member.

But in August 1992, Richard Cowan, a former oil-industry executive, took over as executive director. He was, to say the least, an unusual choice to head the traditionally left-wing organization. Cowan describes himself as a “bald-headed, 55-year-old Quaker from Texas,” and is, by his own admission, a conservative libertarian and a longtime friend of William F. Buckley. Cowan was president of the Republican Club of Yale in the early '60s, and member of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative/libertarian student movement founded by Buckley. Cowan says he has never attended a Grateful Dead concert or let his hair grow beyond his collar.

Not surprisingly, he made enemies. In a suit filed Feb. 18 in D.C. Superior Court, five former NORML board members allege that Cowan misappropriated the group's funds to support his jet-set lifestyle. The plaintiffs also claim that when they tried to scrutinize his management and spending habits, Cowan orchestrated their defenestration. In their suit, the former board members seek no monetary damages, only access to NORML's financial records and reinstatement to the board.

For his part, Cowan says he's guilty of nothing more than reviving a foundering organization that the plaintiffs had run into the ground. “This is like a little child's game,” he says. “Here you have five people—all but one of whom were around when NORML was totally dysfunctional. It's a triumph of narcissism over decency.”

As Cowan tells the story, he didn't loot NORML, he saved it. He says that when he took over as executive director in August 1992, NORML had one employee, a scant 2,000 members, mounting debts, IRS trouble, and was being evicted from a “rat-infested walkup” office at 16th and R Streets NW.

Since then, Cowan says, NORML's membership has tripled, its budget has grown from less than $200,000 to $400,000, and its books are being audited by an accountant for the first time in its history. Symbolically, NORML's office has moved into the District's business corridor on Connecticut Avenue NW.

Cowan has also recruited new board members, a star-studded collection of names worth dropping. The board is chaired by Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine. Other new members include Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis, a potential defense witness in the O.J. Simpson case; Louis Lasagna, dean of the Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University; Ann Druyan, secretary of the Federation of American Scientists (and wife of Carl Sagan); writer and feminist Barbara Ehrenreich; and Cato Institute President David Boaz.

But the plaintiffs see those signs of organizational health as a smoke screen. The five former board members boast long-time records in the movement to legalize marijuana. New Jersey resident Jeanne Lang says she joined NORML in the early '70s after being arrested for possession of marijuana seeds. David Busch is a government-employed cancer researcher. Allen Byrne is a retired naval officer; his wife, Mary Lynn Mathre, also a board member, is a registered nurse and an addictions consultant to the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center. Neil Jacobs is a budget specialist for a Japanese electronics company.

The five charge that Cowan has used NORML to line his own pockets. Byrne, a former board secretary, says that he received a call from the IRS a year-and-a-half into Cowan's tenure. According to Byrne, the agency threatened to shut NORML down for failing to pay more than $125,000 in employee withholding taxes on Cowan's expenses and on a regular contractor's compensation.

The plaintiffs allege that Cowan wrote checks to himself from the NORML account for expenses, but failed to withhold payroll taxes or itemize his expenses with receipts. (Cowan took the job without pay, agreeing to work only for expenses.) When the five board members asked to see NORML's financial records, Byrne says Cowan removed those members from the board. The plaintiffs have also accused Cowan of spending $2,500 of NORML funds to travel to Amsterdam last year to party with friends. Cowan says he went to Amsterdam to secure better information on a drug policy that separates marijuana from hard drugs in criminal law. He adds that the trip only cost $1,500, and that prior to leaving, he donated $2,500 to the organization.

Last July, when Byrne et al. tried to take control of NORML's finances, Cowan threatened to resign rather than submit to “micromanagement.” His supporters, led by Dr. Grinspoon, stepped in to reorganize the board and to retain Cowan as executive director.

“Here was a man who was not getting a salary, and they were nickel-and-diming him over his expenses,” Grinspoon told Legal Times. “It seems to me the epitome ofchutzpah to suggest that they should be reappointed. Some of the people on the board, to tell you the truth, were a little flaky.”

NORML founder R. Keith Stroup, who rejoined the board in November 1994, says he believes the suit is not driven by any financial irregularities, but by some of the former board members' opposition to Cowan's political affiliations and establishment style. “Somehow they thought NORML was going to lose touch with the average marijuana smoker,” he says.

Such talk drives the former board members to distraction. “This is not something the five of us just dreamed up,” says Byrne. “Cowan has taken the stand that this is the suits vs. the tie-dyes, but I'm a retired naval officer. What does that make me?”

In additions to the legal squabble, the feuding parties have used the mail to win the hearts—and pocketbooks—of NORML's membership.

Busch circulated letters from members who believed that Cowan was an agent of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration because he had conducted a membership survey asking NORML members about their drug usage. Apparently, some members feared that their fingerprints would be lifted from the survey's return envelope and their hemp habit would be betrayed. Busch's latest mailing is a solicitation for the plaintiffs' legal defense fund, which he and proponents have christened “Group Advocating NORML Justice and Activism,” or GANJA.

Cowan shot back a letter of his own, accusing the plaintiffs of having “delusions of grandeur.” He writes, “Five former directors trying to get back their seats...hardly constitutes a broad based movement that has "fractured' the organization—unless dandruff is a skull fracture.”

Lang refuses to be dismissed as a flake. “This is the right thing to do,” she says. “You can't have the umbrella group for the movement in the country not doing its job. Just like the NAACP and the United Way, I hope we can rise from the ashes.”

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