While there may be no such thing as a typical CFO, it’s a safe bet that Richard Cowan is less typical than most. Among the more interesting data points on his résumé is his three-year stint (1992–1995) as national director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Today, Cowan holds the distinction of serving as the finance chief at the country’s only publicly traded medical-marijuana company, Cannabis Science Inc. (CBIS, traded on the OBB).
A 1962 graduate of Yale, Cowan was anything but a campus radical: he studied economics and served as president of the Yale Young Republicans. He went on to pursue a number of business ventures even as he wrote widely about U.S. drug policy, including a cover story for National Review titled “How the Narcs Created Crack,” which has been praised as a pioneering look at the economics of contraband.
Medical marijuana is very much in the news, in part because the Veterans Administration recently eased its opposition to it, at least a little. Business issues aside for the moment, why does this issue appeal to you?
In the early 1990s we [at NORML] held a national medical-marijuana day, using a grant we’d gotten to bring in patients from around the country. They had all kinds of astonishing stories to tell. One guy marched with a long string of pill bottles that had held all the conventional medications he’d been given for headaches and so on after he had been hit by a drunk driver. He’d been able to stop using all of them by using cannabis. Stories like that have an emotional impact on me.
How does a publicly traded company operate in such a legally and politically sensitive environment?
We’re following several different paths. First, for the foreseeable future we have to assume that no medical-marijuana product is going to be sold outside of the dispensary system, so we will work with dispensaries to provide standardized products compliant with state laws. We are also working on products for Food and Drug Administration approval, which is what would be needed to sell over-the-counter or by prescription. We have entered into a joint agreement with a company that makes smokeless electronic cigarettes, which have great potential to deliver a precise dose to patients, and we are looking at [nonsmokable] products such as extracts, tinctures, and lozenges. We want to bring the highest scientific standards to what is, right now, sort of an herbal medicine that operates, by necessity, in a gray area.
How did you go from activist to CFO of the country’s only publicly traded pharmaceutical cannabis company?
I had known someone for a long time who was a libertarian and a medical-marijuana activist, and he had been told by people that he could get funding for a medical-marijuana company. He wanted to know if I could help him because he had no background in corporate finance, and I said sure. So he started a company and brought in [as CEO] Dr. Robert Melamede, who had retired as the head of the biology department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The point of going public was to get financing, since at that particular point in time  if you mentioned financing to people they ran screaming from the room. So we decided to go public — unfortunately, just as Lehman Brothers went under. So that threw things off course a little bit.