The veteran of countless marches and demonstrations and the organizer of the famed but flailing Great Atlanta Pot Festival, he's trying to organize a fall pre-election rally featuring notorious presidential spoiler Ralph Nader. A longtime concert promoter, he still has a hand in producing local shows. But mostly, Cornwell is working overtime these days to kick City Hall's ass.
Specifically, he's out to single-handedly demolish the city's 18-month-old outdoor festival ordinance to ensure that public parks can be easily used as a gathering place for folks espousing unpopular -- or not so legal -- views. To that end, Cornwell has a federal lawsuit pending that has city bureaucrats hurriedly rewriting chunks of the ordinance.
"Parks are not just a place for people to walk their dogs," Cornwell says. "They're our last subsidized public resource to provide a forum for folks who can't afford to rent out an auditorium."
The idea of one determined pothead overturning Atlanta's festival laws isn't so crazy when one considers he's done it before.
Cornwell, 53, has been fighting the battle of the bud for more than 30 years, ever since attending a Washington, D.C., event hosted by the Youth International Party, better known as the Abbie Hoffman-led Yippies.
"I went to a 'smoke-in' held by the Yippies and was quickly drafted as their Southern delegation," Cornwell recalls.
He'd already been busted for "conspiracy to possess marijuana" when he organized his first smoke-in at the University of Georgia law building as a UGA undergrad in 1972. Cornwell later dropped out of school to open a nightclub in Athens and then moved to Atlanta, where in the mid-'70s he founded the provocatively named International Marijuana Wholesalers and Distributors.
One would think the name alone would have been enough to earn him a federal probe, but Cornwell says the products he sold were "marijuana futures -- certificates redeemable for pot after the repeal of marijuana prohibition." Although most of his customers bought the certificates as conversation pieces or to help support his pot legalization advocacy, Cornwell says he has the connections to help him locate enough herb to cash out the existing bonds, if a sudden reversal of U.S. drug policy should ever render that necessary.
"At $1 a joint and $50 for a pound, they've held their value nicely with inflation," Cornwell says with his trademark half-smile.
In reaction to the anti-drug paraphernalia laws that were sweeping the country at the time, Cornwell launched the Coalition for the Abolition of Marijuana Prohibition, or CAMP, in 1978. Designed to be less overtly political than the Yippies, but more aggressive than NORML (the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws), the group held its first public smoke-in in downtown's Hurt Park a quarter-century ago.
"There were 28 arrests in the first 10 minutes" at the direction of Mayor Maynard Jackson, says Cornwell, who served eight months in jail for violating probation for his earlier bust.
In the '80s, Cornwell laid low -- in his own fashion -- by running the Metroplex, a concrete-walled bunker of a club that played host to such punk, oi and hardcore bands as the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies and the Butthole Surfers. For its first two years, the club operated without any kind of license or permit.
But The Man wasn't about to let Cornwell off easy. When he organized his Alternative '88 festival -- boasting such leftist luminaries as Hoffman, Lenora Fulani, Timothy Leary and Russell Means -- to coincide with the Democratic National Convention down the street at the Omni, the city shut down Marietta Street outside his club.
"When people tried to show up, the cops told them we were closed," says Cornwell, who lost his shirt in the fiasco.
A few months later, he says, he lost interest in the club altogether when his girlfriend was lost at sea. No, really, he explains -- a local journalist, she had hitched a ride on a steamer carrying refugees back to Haiti for an assignment when the boat mysteriously disappeared. He's never married.
The following year, Cornwell held the first Great Atlanta Pot Festival, a modest gathering with a handful of local bands in a Piedmont Park pavilion. Four years later, with such bands as OutKast and Black Crowes headlining, the free festival had morphed into an all-day affair attracting more than 30,000 people.
Since then, Cornwell has fought an ongoing war with the city over the festival, which has been held, usually in Piedmont Park, for 10 of the past 15 years. Sometimes he's won. A federal court ruling three years ago tossed out one incarnation of the city's festival ordinance and sent planners back to the drawing board. Sometimes he's lost, as when the city blocked him from using Piedmont Park one year, forcing him to throw together an event on an empty lot downtown.
Other times, he's won but still lost, as he did earlier this summer, when a Gwinnett judge ruled that two Atlanta officials had improperly bumped his already permitted 2002 festival from the park, costing him an estimated $25,000. A jury, however, declined to award him any damages.
So far this year, Cornwell is 0 for 2 in getting a permit to stage the festival. The reason? He didn't file his application 90 days in advance, a regulation he claims is an unconstitutional restraint on his First Amendment rights.
"If the country got bombed tomorrow, you couldn't hold a rally for more than 250 people without getting a festival permit, which requires a 90-day wait," Cornwell points out. He's now awaiting a third denial to his appeal for a permit.
Cornwell isn't the only one complaining that the festival ordinance is overly restrictive. Even the venerable Atlanta Track Club has bumped heads with city officials after its events were turned down over technicalities. Atlanta Track Club President Michael Hughes labels some of the provisions "absurd."
"They didn't think through these rules," he says of City Council.
Cornwell, however, concedes that while his group is far from politically popular, his cause is noble and his legal argument solid.
"Pot smokers," Cornwell claims, "are the largest and most discriminated against minority in the country."