By Lyle V. Harris
If you think Paul Cornwell is a stereotypical pothead, think again. Dressed in a bright green shirt emblazoned with the words “Ganja Talk” and a gold marijuana leaf, the 66-year-old Atlanta resident is the owner of “The Pot Shop” in Little 5 Points, the unofficial capital of the city’s small, but bustling countercultural scene.
Despite outward appearances, dig deeper and Cornwell is hardly what you might expect. A self-described conservative and die-hard supporter of President Trump, Cornwell is stridently critical of progressives, despises the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, calling both organizations “scams.”
Contrarian, cynical and a bit cranky at times, he is also deeply committed to the cannabis reform movement which, as Cornwell’s presence proves, is more diverse than some might imagine. More than just another local business, or hipster head shop — it’s a political statement.
So who is this guy and what, exactly, makes him tick?
A native of the District of Columbia who was raised in south Georgia and attended the University of Georgia, Cornwell said he has been using cannabis since his teens — although he now wishes he had waited until he was an adult before taking his first puff. Cornwell admits he’s served time in state and federal prisons for possession and possession with intent to distribute marijuana, experiences which have since informed his activism and stirred his sharp intellect.
After spending most of his life advocating for the legal use of cannabis nationally and here in Georgia, Cornwell has a pessimistic view of where the movement is heading these days — and doesn’t pull any punches about where he stands.
Over the years, Cornwell has made a living promoting music festivals, organizing mass “smoke-ins” to raise awareness about cannabis and investing in real estate. He opened the store in 2015 and sells an assortment of rolling papers, clothing, books and posters. There are also vape pipes that burn cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a non-psychoactive form of cannabis that customers use to treat a wide range of ailments. CBD oil, derived from the hemp plant, is legal to sell and is the shop’s hottest item. Since smokable cannabis that gets users high remains illegal in Georgia, it’s a strict no-no at the store.
The tiny shop also serves as the headquarters for the Coalition for the Abolition of Marijuana Prohibition (CAMP), a pro-cannabis advocacy group formed in 1978. As Cornwell explains, it’s no coincidence that his shop is right next door to an Atlanta Police Department substation on Euclid Avenue.
Cornwell alternatively calls himself a “Yippee” who has followed the teachings of 1960s far-left icon Abbie Hoffman and a Jeffersonian constitutionalist who equates the “freedom of religion” with the “freedom to perceive,” which includes the right of citizens to alter their reality by consuming cannabis — if they see fit. After fighting for years to reform restrictive and punitive laws which he believes violate our civil rights, Cornwell is unapologetic in condemning the institutions that have kept those same laws in place.
In his cramped office tucked behind the sales floor, Cornwell spoke at length about the current state of cannabis reform and where he believes it’s heading.
Q: What’s your philosophy about cannabis?
A: “My motto is “God, Guns and Ganja, in that order.”
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: “The government doesn’t have the right to take away my guns any more than they have the right to stop me from using marijuana. It’s my constitutional right, like freedom of religion.”
Q: Do you use cannabis in public?
A: “I have a right to use marijuana, whether you like it or not, but I don’t smoke openly. I don’t want to offend anybody when we’re in a public space. Private space is different. But I don’t have a problem when it’s called for to be openly disobedient of the law in the proper setting to discuss the issues or to bring people together.”
Q: Who are your customers?
A: “About 20 percent of people come in and ask me if I have legal pot. Most people come because they have ailments they’re trying to treat, which is about 40 percent of our customers. A lot of people who come in are just curious.”
Q: Polls show that conservatives are one of the few demographic groups that are less likely to support marijuana legalization. Why is that?
A: “Conservatives who don’t support (cannabis legalization) are not looking at it from a conservative point of view. They’re looking at it from an emotional, irrational and religious point of view. That’s the problem.”
Q: Do you have any concerns about how cannabis reform is being handled in states, such as Colorado, where it’s fully legal for adult use?
A: Yes, because I think we’re heading toward the corporatization of the industry and I don’t want Monsanto growing my pot. I don’t want them to own the genetic identity of the plants. I don’t want to smoke poison and be controlled by a corporation. We didn’t fight 50 years for marijuana reform to hand it over to companies like Monsanto. That represents the corporate control of our individual rights”
Q: What about the Trump administration’s stance regarding cannabis?
A: “I don’t know why the liberals want to play this Trump’s against pot bullshit. The [U.S.] Attorney General (Jeff Sessions) has no power over what laws he enforces. He’s supposed to enforce all the laws. Trump has always supported states’ rights.”
Q: Why did you open The Pot Shop next door to a police substation?
A: “I’m a Yippie who understands how to control and manipulate the media and how to generate publicity. I knew being in this location would help me do that. And I’ve never had a war with the police. They just enforce the laws that are on the books. I’m at war with the legislators and elected officials because they won’t change the law or recognize the rights of the individual.”
Q: Do you think Georgia politicians will ever change state law to make cannabis legal for medicinal and recreational use?
A: “If they can’t get paid or have some political assurance that they’ll stay in power from those who do get paid, we won’t have legalization. “Even If it’s not federally legal we should at least grow it in our own state.”
Q: What’s your prediction for the future of local cannabis in Georgia?
A: “All politics is local. First we’ll get it in Fulton County government, then DeKalb County government and then small cities will pass decriminalization bills. But what we need is a statewide bill with no criminal penalties, forgot about this imposing fines bullshit. If it’s under an ounce and it’s simply for personal use or some sick guy making medicine out of it, why is the state involved? But it will be a while in this state before that happens. Politicians will tell you it’s not safe to come out in favor it yet. That’s because churches, especially Black Churches, and the Georgia Sheriff’s Association still oppose it.
Q: Are you surprised by the pace of cannabis reform in Georgia?
A: “No. I always thought it would take this long. The population hasn’t changed, the Millennials aren’t going to get out there. They’re snowflakes who whine and tweet. They don’t fight. People always ask me when (legalization) will happen in Georgia, and I just laugh. I’m a realist, never an optimist. One can always hope.”