C.W. “Bill” Cobb was a Fort Lauderdale suntan lotion distributor who also moved millions of pounds of marijuana for Colombia’s Medellin cartel throughout the 1970s. The feds brought him and his associates down with “Operation Sunburn,” leading to Cobb being convicted of running a $300 million marijuana smuggling enterprise and sentenced to federal prison.
Now, decades later, his son Brady Cobb, a prominent lawyer, CEO of cannabis company SOL Global, Chief Legal Officer of Liberty Health Sciences, Inc., and a lobbyist championing drug reform, lives to tell his father’s tale, as well as carve his own cannabis narrative. In specific, Brady has been meeting with Congressional members in an effort to solve legal weed’s banking problems.
Working directly with Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey to educate Congress, Cobb is on a mission to help the cannabis industry’s myriad struggles with money. MERRY JANE talked to Cobb to get the 411 on his father’s life as an OG outlaw, how he got involved with Florida’s medical marijuana initiatives, and what its been like lobbying for weed in DC. He also explained how the Secure and Fair Enforcement of Banking Act, or SAFE Act, will change the ganja game forever for the better.
A photo of C.W. "Dollar Bill" Cobb, courtesy of Brady Cobb
MERRY JANE: A history of cannabis runs in your family. Can you tell us about your dad’s marijuana legacy?
Brady Cobb: He was a trip. He ran cars to Daytona. His primary front company was called Sun Systems. It was a very prominent skincare and sun care brand out of France and he got US distribution. He had billboards all up and down I-95, girls barely clothed saying “Do it the French way.” It was bikini models and boats and he chartered Coco Chanel's charter yacht for a year and did a whole promo tour. He raced cars at Indy, Daytona, and Lemans. He had a solid run [as a smuggler] and ultimately was indicted. He got convicted and sentenced to 20 years. He was the definition of a wheeler-dealer. We called him Dollar Bill.
One of the funnier stories was [when they] brought in a [load of cannabis] to Pensacola and went under the bridge with 80,000 pounds of pot in a shrimp boat. [They] offloaded it, were high-fiving, got back in the boat, and went out. They didn't realize that without 80,000 pounds on the boat it was going to sit a little higher. When they went under the same bridge [again] they took the whole top deck of the shrimp boat off. Obviously they couldn't stop or call and ask anybody for help, considering they’d just unloaded 80,000 pounds of weed, so they just kept going. It wasn’t your traditional South Florida drug smuggling, you know, a fast boats story. It was much more Americana. They were winging it and doing it as they could.
How has your dad’s cannabis legacy translated to your life and what you are currently doing in the legal marijuana industry?
You always want to follow in your dad's footsteps, but I didn't want to smuggle drugs. I went to law school, but as [we] saw the markets emerging in California and Colorado, [my dad] always joked that he was about 40 years ahead of his time. He ultimately died in 2010 of prostate cancer that metastasized to the bone. One of the main driving forces that pushed me to want to make a leap into the cannabis space was that it was the only thing that gave him relief at the end of his life. Bone cancer is incredibly painful and cannabis [helped]. I was the one rolling joints for him. He was prescribed every heavy-duty opiate there was and nothing worked. He didn't like the way opioids made him feel. So I waited for the opportunity to [get involved] in Florida.
What’s the medical marijuana situation in Florida like, and did you work at all on reform efforts there?
We had a Constitutional Amendment that went on the ballot in 2014 that failed. You have to carry 60% of the vote in Florida and it only got 58.2% or something, so it missed by a narrow margin. At the time, I was an attorney. I practiced at a very politically-connected firm in South Florida called Tripp Scott. As we saw the cannabis movement cresting, I got in and helped the stakeholders and ultimately got a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot in 2016 that would open up a medical market that passed. It passed actually overwhelmingly. It passed with 72% in favor.
[My canna-businesses] are currently coming out of the ground with 14 dispensaries to open across the state in 2019, with a heavy focus on South Florida, given the population down here. We are opening in South Beach, we are opening in Fort Lauderdale on the East side of town, North Miami Beach, Palm Beach, Orlando, Jacksonville. We have a great dispensary plan and they are all prime locations. We are also in the process of rolling out a full hemp and CBD plan. I have been very active in Washington DC for the better part of two years, both on behalf of Liberty Health Sciences Inc. and on behalf of SOL, but mostly on behalf of the overall cannabis industry.
How are you helping legitimize the cannabis industry in Washington DC?
We have been active in DC for two years, focusing on three items. First was the Farm Bill, which we worked on with Mitch McConnell very extensively. We ultimately got that passed so now CBD products and hemp are legal. We then pivoted to the SAFE Act, which I was pushing very hard and working with members of the Financial Services Committee and leadership on. And then the STATES Act, which is something I actually helped draft with Senator Gardner's staff. It basically says that if Florida, or any state, voted to allow medical marijuana, then it’s coming off Schedule I in that state, as long as you are compliant with state law. I don't sleep a lot, as you might guess, but it's been very busy. I'm just trying to follow in my dad's footsteps, but on the legal side of things.
I want to talk more now about the banking situation for legal marijuana. Can you explain what cannabis banking is currently like, and how proposed legislation like the SAFE Act could change all that?
Right now, cannabis banking in the US is incredibly hard. There’s not a single bank in Florida that will service the marketplace, which is mind-boggling. There was one bank that would, but they pulled out because they were being acquired by a larger national bank that didn't want the business. Banking right now is cash aggregation and then you’ve got to be a public company so you can utilize banks in Canada to at least pay your bills and get capital market money that doesn't touch the plant. It's kind of funny, but I think my dad's operation had an easier time banking than legal marijuana companies do now.
That's why I’ve been working with the Treasury Department, who wants to help us use banking; it's just a matter of getting it done. We had a very historic moment. It was very much underscored in my opinion, but we haven't been able to even get a bill related to cannabis up for hearing because we had a State Representative named Pete Sessions in Texas who had a moral objection to it. Thankfully, he lost his reelection bid. We had our first hearing on the Safe Banking Act [earlier this month] and it was a great hearing. There was very strong support on the committee for it.
Under the current regime, if a bank took a cannabis client’s money that is state-legal, and that cannabis client wrote a check to an electrician to fix a light in a grow room, the bank would have to file a specific activity report for every transaction, which is incredibly ridiculous. It's incredibly onerous and outdated. Ultimately, what the SAFE Act will do is provide a safe harbor from the money laundering and regulatory issues. I truly see it as a springboard.
How have you balanced working out the issues with both cannabis industry insiders and lawmakers in Congress?
One of the issues I run into, especially with industry folks, is that they want decriminalization and they want it now. They want a full descheduling of cannabis and its decriminalization. That's what I want to, but I'm a realist and a strategist and Congress is a big, conservative, slow-moving beast. We need to take incremental gains as we can get them. The STATES Act is not the end-all be-all; the SAFE Act is not the end-all be-all, but we have such a surge of momentum right now and we have a very good Congress, especially now that the House has a Democratic majority.
Let's take these incremental wins. Let's get the SAFE Act passed. Let's get the STATES Act passed. Once everyone sees there is not a bogeyman in the closet, then let's go ahead and [push for] broader reform.. It's a lot of politics. I'm spending my time going to the House and trying to convince them not to be too radical and take a step-by-step approach... and then I'm going over to the Senate, which is more conservative, and saying, “Hey they’re going to send over something that is probably a little bit left of what you want, but let's find a way to get it done because none of you want to be on the wrong side of this in 2020.”
There is no map to the White House that works unless you carry Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Here's the newsflash, all three of those states have overwhelmingly supportive medical marijuana markets. Voters overwhelmingly ask for it in those states, so you had better not oppose it. If we can get the SAFE Act approved, it will open up. It’s our first step across the threshold into financial markets, real mainstream financial markets, not credit unions. No disrespect to credit unions, they have done a tremendous job in stepping up, but there’s just not enough volume or access there.
What have been the biggest issues or questions that our Representatives have been asking you about cannabis?
When I first started going there and making the rounds two years ago, everyone thought the cannabis industry was a bunch of stoners and hippies in California, growing weed up in the mountains and selling it still legally. They don't realize what a commercial cannabis operation looks like. The first thing I did was take a core group of folks from DC to one of the farms, one of Aphria's facilities in Canada. They had to put on lab coats, hairnets, and shoe covers to go into a facility that was an equivalent, if not nicer, than an aircraft facility where they make aircraft and missiles. A lot of it was educational. They wanted to understand what the market is like.
There’s been a natural education, as well. What they’re asking us now has gone from, “Who are you and are you guys drug dealers?” to, “OK, how does a rollout work? How can we make this happen in a way that’s not just decriminalizing it tomorrow and everyone can walk down the street with a joint?” That may happen at some point in our lives, but that's not the way something is going to get done in Congress.
Maybe some Republicans are going to vote to deschedule right away, but very few Republicans won't get behind the notion of states’ rights, which was the genesis of the STATES Act. That means I can now operate in the sunshine of Florida. I don't have to worry about the feds, as long as I am compliant with my state licensing laws. That was the creative approach by Sen. Gardner and Sen. Warren, who we were part of that process to say let's not take this to [outright] decriminalization, let's take this on a states rights, which is largely what it is. This is a fight between the state and federal government.
The progression over the last two years made me feel really good about what we’ve been doing. Both the Senate and the House are educated, energized, and they understand. I think it was Congresswoman Waters who said at the hearing the other day that we’re not putting the genie back in the bottle here. Ninety-six percent of the American population lives in a state where cannabis is legal in some form. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66 percent of respondents support legalization in one form or another. I think her comment was perfect. You’re not putting the genie back in the bottle, so you have to figure out a way to deal with it, which is now the sentiment.