Richard Cowan, the embattled executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), plans to blow the joint by the end of the year. The former Texas oil man, who professionalized and expanded the pro-pot organization, submitted his letter of resignation on May 30, citing his desire to work in the “international cannabis reform movement.”
As Washington City Paper reported last month (“Reefer Madness,” The District Line, 5/26), five former NORML board members are suing Cowan, accusing him of ousting them illegally from the board, mismanaging the group’s funds, and taking NORML money to fund his jet-set lifestyle.
Cowan was traveling and unavailable for comment. But Keith Stroup, NORML’s founder and current board member, believes that the executive director quit to escape from the escalating organizational warfare. “I think [Cowan] felt that if he took himself out of the line of fire that hopefully the lawsuit would go away,” Stroup says. “He was a little weary of fighting these internal battles.”
Cowan’s rambling three-page “valedictory” to NORML family and friends makes little mention of his legal troubles. He thanks everyone but the Academy for supporting him during his tenure, and makes self-effacing testimonials to staff and board members.
But the NORML chief alludes to the lawsuit at the center of the group’s “civil war” toward the end of the letter. Ever melodramatic, Cowan writes, “I hope my departure will lessen the zeal of those in the movement who seem to have developed such an obsessive hatred of me that they have lost their moral compass. So long as they lie, I wear their enmity as a badge of honor, but I regret that they are willing to destroy NORML and the movement just to take shots at me. If they rejoice at my departure, so be it. Now I hope that they will let NORML go about its job.”
A lawyer for the disgruntled former board members who brought the suit against Cowan was less florid. “I heard he’s fleeing the jurisdiction,” says Carlos Sandoval of McLean, Va.’s Grossman & Sandoval. “I think his actions speak for themselves.”
But NORML board Chairman Lester Grinspoon, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, sees Cowan’s departure as an indictment of the politics of pot smoking.
“Dick Cowan’s resignation…is just another manifestation of the fractiousness of the marijuana reform movement,” says Grinspoon. “His loss as national director should generate some serious thinking about how the millions of people who feel some indebtedness to this remarkable plant can find an effective way of uniting around the common goal of reforming marijuana laws.”
In his letter, Cowan says he will work until the end of the year to allow time for NORML to find a replacement. Meanwhile, Sandoval says, the plaintiffs are proceeding with their suit, which has been placed on the mediation track in D.C. Superior Court.