Rep. Steve Cohen Discusses Marijuana Legal Reform

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) has been one of the leading advocates of marijuana reform in Congress. He has urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to remove marijuana from "Schedule 1" of the Controlled Substances Act. His tough questioning of Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart has been viewed on YouTube more than a quarter of a million times. Proposed legislation includes the "Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act" which would repeal a little known provision of federal law that requires the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), informally known as the U.S. Drug Czar, to "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use" of marijuana or any Schedule I drug for medical or non-medical use. He spoke with TheStreet by telephone last week.

TheStreet: Rather than pushing for marijuana to be legal at the federal level, you believe each state should determine what it wants to do individually with regard to marijuana laws. Why is that?

Rep. Cohen: Well, because that's what we do with alcohol, and I don't know that the federal government has ever taken a position that it should-- except by Constitutional amendment, prohibit or allow any type of substance like that. I guess we do with drugs, we make certain drugs, FDA would have to approve them for use. But generally, the states make determinations on criminal laws, and...recreational drugs.

TheStreet: And what is your position, I mean, should a 20-year-old or 18-year-old or 16-year-old, for that matter, be able to walk into a store and buy marijuana?

Rep. Cohen: No, no, minors should not, just like they can't buy, and should not buy and should not use tobacco or alcohol. Minors should not be using or buying or smoking marijuana. No, absolutely not.

TheStreet: And what about adults?

Rep. Cohen: Adults should be able to make their choice based on what they have read about the effects of the drug and their opinion about the drug, and that should be a free choice, just like they have a choice to smoke tobacco or not, and they have a choice to drink alcohol or not.

TheStreet: How important is this issue to you, of all the issues that you focus on?

Rep. Cohen: It doesn't take away from my other issues, but it's a very important issue, because I think it's essential to liberty and freedom, and I think too many people have had interactions with the law, in terms of hiring a lawyer, paying a court cost, court fines, jail time, because of marijuana. And I think that's anachronistic, that the laws are outdated. Mandatory minimums are, I think, in general are wrong, but for marijuana indeed, they are. I think drugs need to be looked at more as a health issue and not a criminal issue in general, but marijuana particularly should be looked at as an adult choice and a liberty issue.

And so, it's real important to me. Liberty and freedom are essential to my core. [It's about] justice. I practiced law for many, many years, and to see people get arrested and it used to be, back in the late 60s, early 70s, people got arrested for marijuana, there was great shame on their families. Newspapers ran big stories about people who got arrested for possession. There would be stories in the local papers or Memphis papers, and it would be shame on folks.

Now, there's not quite the same shame, but it's still a legal problem, and it can affect your getting student loans. It can affect your getting federal housing. It can affect your getting a job, and in my district, which is predominantly African-American, there are a lot of people who've been crippled by this because of the fact that four times as many African-Americans are arrested for marijuana as Caucasians. Yet there's no indices that there's more smoking marijuana by African-Americans than Caucasians.

TheStreet: I would guess the religious right is perhaps the most opposed to, large opposed group to liberalizing our marijuana laws. Do you think I have that right, and if so, how strong an opponent are they?

Rep. Cohen: Well, I don't know if it's the religious right. I guess it's people who generally are more of the religious right and evangelicals, probably true. But Pat Robertson has come out in favor of, I think it was Pat Robertson, I'm pretty sure, came out in favor of decriminalization or legalization of marijuana.

TheStreet: Interesting. So...

Rep. Cohen: He was just like Justice Stevens, he just said, "This is ridiculous. We need to change, and not put these people in jail, and understand what's going on." But Pat Robertson, he's aberrant on this. I don't think you see a whole lot of other evangelicals doing that, but he's about as evangelical and right-wing religious as there is.

TheStreet: So, how are we doing? You've got a few different initiatives to liberalize the laws on marijuana and other drugs. What's the next thing that you hope to accomplish?

Rep. Cohen: I think the next effort's going to be an effort to amend the criminal justice appropriations bill, and to restrict the DEA from enforcing laws concerning marijuana in states where it's been legalized and/or legalized for recreational or "medical" marijuana. We've had that issue come up many times in the past. Maurice Hinchey's been a leader on it in the past. When I first came into Congress, he was the leader. But I think that there's going to be a vote on that coming up sometime this summer, and I think that'll be the next major vote. New York Times, March seventh, 2012, Pat Robertson says marijuana should be legal.

TheStreet: What about this, I don't know if you saw the story that I published yesterday noting that both you and Congressman Blumenauer, videos on YouTube.

Rep. Cohen: Noticed it? I Tweeted it. You favorited the Tweet. Do you control your own Tweet site?

TheStreet: I do, but I didn't realize that, no, that's very odd. I did not notice that you Tweeted it.

Rep. Cohen: I re-Tweeted it. 

TheStreet: Right, okay. So, yes, a colleague of mine Tweeted that, and I favorited that, but I didn't realize that you had re-Tweeted that. Excellent.

Rep. Cohen: There used to be a dessert at a restaurant in Nashville called Sexier Than Robert Redford, and it was that dark chocolate was more dark chocolate and whipped chocolate and blah blah blah. So, when I saw that, my first thought was sexier than rock and roll or sex, or better than sex and rock and roll. My first thought was that chocolate cake is sexier than Robert Redford.

TheStreet: Well, I would take chocolate cake over Robert Redford.

Rep. Cohen: In a New York second, yeah.

TheStreet: Have you noticed this on your own, that you get more attention perhaps, national or even an international audience advocating for liberalization of our marijuana laws, more so than discussing other, or advocating for other issues?

Rep. Cohen: Unquestionably. There's a lot of people out there that are in favor of, who smoke marijuana, and people who, I think most of the people that really get involved in looking at the videos and Tweeting and commenting and activists smoke marijuana. And there are a lot of people out there that do, and it's the maybe their number one issue. There's certainly a lot more people who have been exposed to it and seen that it's not harmful. They see people who smoke marijuana who are heads of businesses that are type "A"s that it doesn't affect. And you go to a concert, and there are lots of people smoking marijuana, and a lot of the people are in seats in the front row that cost $300 to $500, so they're not exactly slackers.

TheStreet: Right, right. Do you see signs of other-your spokesman was saying this is nonetheless an issue that you have been focused on for, I think he said 20 years.

Rep. Cohen: More than that. When I was a police attorney in Memphis in the 70s, I drew up the first misdemeanor citation in lieu of arrest law, which I then proceeded to give to an ally in the state legislature who passed it. And then I drew the policies, the instructions to implement it. It had the Memphis police department back in 1977 or 78 giving citations in lieu of arrest for marijuana possession. That's pretty long before stop and frisk in New York, 35 years ago, and as a legislator, I was the only senator not to vote--we had a medical marijuana law in Tennessee before I was elected to the Senate, and then it was repealed--and I was the only member of the general assembly not to vote to repeal it. That was in about 1990, and I've been trying to pass bills that allow the legislature to change the schedule of the marijuana, and you name it. So, I'm not Johnny-Come-Lately.

TheStreet: Have you nonetheless seen other politicians gravitating toward this issue because it seems to be such a popular one?

Rep. Cohen: Not necessarily. I think Dana Rohrabacher, the other leaders on the issue have always been there. They've really been strong advocates. Dana is a strong advocate, and he's been one I think forever. He's kind of out of the California surfer world of the late 60s. I think Dana's always been there, and he's seen so many people in California, where it's kind of commonplace. I think Billy Crystal, I think I was wrong the other day. Fleming, he made some statement on the floor, I don't know if you saw the debate on the VA and the doctors and the directive on physicians.

But we had a debate, and Fleming said, "There are more medical marijuana distribution sites in California than Starbucks." Well, not exactly. His exaggeration, which made me flash back to Billy Crystal, "700 Sundays," where they were discussing, have you seen that play or movie?

TheStreet: No.

Rep. Cohen: It's a play, and I guess it's on HBO, but they've got a scene in there, and he's talking about some woman, a girl that's getting married, and he explains to the Jewish parents that, whatever they were, grandparents, parents, that they're getting married. She's marrying a woman, lesbian, and they're shocked, a lesbian. And she goes, and he says it's going to be, how did he call it, a lesbitarian service, something like that. They say, "A lesbian? What's a lesbian?" He says, "Oh, in California, they've got them on every corner. It's like Starbucks."

But anyway, back to your question. Dana's been there forever. I think Earl Blumenauer, I think has a history back in Oregon, maybe when he was a legislator, but I was told. He wasn't on the issue as strongly as, that I recall. When I first got in Congress, Maurice Hinchey was the leader in the effort to not allow the DEA to go in and had amendments to the appropriations bills. And I always stood up and spoke on those bills, and it was Maurice and me and Dana, and maybe Barney Frank, and there might have been a few other people, I forget.

But Maurice is who I remember, and Dana and Barney. Earl could have stood up and spoke on the issues. I don't remember at the time, but I was told when he got involved more recently, that he had been involved back in Oregon some years ago, maybe as a state legislator. Jared Polis, I think, he's rather new to the Congress, he's been a leader. Colorado legalized it, so the Colorado folks have kind of come along, whether they were there or not, since it's been legalized. And I know that there was, Ed Perlmutter has been kind of getting involved in some of the issues a little bit.

But I think that's because his state, he's seen the lead from the state. So, I don't think it's been because necessarily it's that popularity, because it's still sticking your neck out some, because there are a lot of people that haven't come across on it. Some people still see it as outside the mainstream, and even though I kind of think it has been and is, and it's just under-recognized by politicians.

TheStreet: How long do you think it'll take before...

Rep. Cohen: And Sam Farr has been there forever, I think, too. But how long, go ahead.

TheStreet: How long do you think it'll take before we declassify it as a Schedule I?

Rep. Cohen: I would hope that Attorney General Holder, and he can do it, would do it before he leaves office. He hasn't made that indication that he has, but then, he's been kind of slow to come to the dance publicly, even though he might have been doing it organizationally on commutations and changing of drug policies in the US Justice Department. I would hope it would happen before this administration ended. If not, it might happen in the beginning of the next administration, assuming it's a Democratic administration.

TheStreet: Anything else on this issue that you feel is under, I feel like it's kind of over-exposed myself by the press. We write about it a lot, because people will click on the stories that we write about, the same phenomenon-

Rep. Cohen: It is in that way kind of a sexy issue, and people will write about that when they won't write about or click on when you do something to try to help people who've got bad credit checks get a job, or help somebody, more blue-collar-type issues. But it's a terribly important issue because it's just a place where the government is wrong. To put people in jail for smoking marijuana is just, I think one day it'll be looked upon kind of like burning books. It's just backwards policy.

As we were talking, I'm using my smartphone here. Pat Robertson: "I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol. I've never used marijuana, don't intend to, but it's just one of those things that I think this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded." Pat Robertson is right, and a lot of people understand that. He says, apparently "fully embraced the idea of arguing this way to bring down soaring rates of incarceration and reduce the social and financial costs." People are understanding we can't incarcerate thousands and thousands, which we do, hundreds of thousands of people.

And so many of them, it's not changing the drug use in America. Drug dealers are like sharks' teeth. You take one out, another one grows up, grows in its place. You take a drug dealer out, it just gives another guy the chance to make money. You take a bond dealer off of Wall Street, you just got another bond dealer. So, there's a demand for marijuana. There's a demand for bonds, and if you take one guy and put him in jail, it doesn't mean you're going to have less marijuana. It's just going to be somebody else starts trading it, because there's a demand in the society.

It's out there. It's the number one cash crop in Tennessee. It's not in my part of the state, it's the eastern Tennessee, but it's been recognized as the number one cash crop in the state. This whole idea of drug agents going out there with helicopters, expensive machinery and finding the marijuana and burning it up and making arrests and busts and putting people in jail. It's ludicrous. It's the definition of insanity, doing the same thing, expecting to have a different result. You have no different result.

And after 40 or 50 years, we ought to catch on to it. It's definitely a liberty issue, liberty and freedom. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Well, life, liberty is not going to jail, not having your liberty taken away from you, and why do people smoke marijuana? Well, it's a little bit of the pursuit of happiness. They think it makes them feel better. If you look up the definition of recreational drug or recreational marijuana, it says you're looking for euphoria, for escape. I think we all want to escape and have a little euphoria. You might do it through Budweiser, you might do it through Dom Perignon, you might do it through some Bordeaux, but some people might do it through a joint. As long as you're not hurting somebody else.

You do heroin, that's escape, that's euphoria, but you're liable to kill yourself, and if get addicted, which you can very easily do, because it truly is a Schedule I drug with no medical benefits and a high likelihood of addiction, you'll go out and knock somebody off to get money to be able to buy your drug, because you've got to have it, because you've got this craving. But marijuana, you don't have that. There is medical use. It's not highly addictive, and Leonhardt is just so out in la-la land, when she talks about how many people are dependent on marijuana, and the ton this is causing our society, she ought to be back in Baltimore working the street.

TheStreet: So, what about the mid-terms? Is this an issue that you think will decide any mid-term elections?

Rep. Cohen: It could. I don't know that it will, but it could, because I think it will get people out to vote. It will increase turnout of young people who otherwise voted for Obama and otherwise will not vote, because they're just not tuned into the process. But this is something that'll get a lot of people tuned in and interested in politics. That's what you hear from a lot of young people. Their normal campuses and chapters around on different college campuses, big communities, and they would rally their people or get registered to vote.

TheStreet: Have you made any TV or radio ads around this issue?

Rep. Cohen: No.

TheStreet: Why not?

Rep. Cohen: Well, I think people know my position. My opposition will probably, there's one guy polled on it to see if he should run against me, and I guess his poll came back negative, because he decided not to. All my little polling has always shown that it was about 65, 70 percent positive, and this is forever, and whether they were legitimate polls by Celinda Lake types or whether they've been just newsletter responses from state Senate mailed out and not done any kind of scientific manner. It's always been about two-thirds in favor of decriminalization or whatever.

But no, I don't think it's necessary to poll on the issue, and I guess people tend to end up voting on, it's a way to drive a part of the constituency, the younger people to vote, but I don't know. I just don't know. I hadn't thought about it. I guess you could, but I don't think it's at that point here.

Arkansas's right across the river from Memphis, and Arkansas had a referendum on medical marijuana. They came within one or two percentage points of passing in the last election. Nobody of substance, well-known, behind it, they didn't have much money at all. The authorities in Arkansas have been obfuscating and getting their message on the ballot again, and they come up with all kinds of excuses that it's not written right, and the writing is ambiguous, whatever.

I don't know what the problems are, but the authorities have found every way in the world to thwart them putting it on the ballot again, because I think they know it'll bring out the vote. If it brings out the vote, it's liable that there'll be a Democrat Mike Ross elected governor, that it will help Mark Pryor. Mark Pryor is probably not for marijuana legalization, but if young people come out and vote, and they vote on a medical marijuana issue and they've got to vote for Pryor or [Tom] Cotton, more of them are going to vote for Pryor, I think, because they're going to realize he's going to be better on the issue that--and you know it's determining who's the Chairman of Judiciary and [Arkansas Republicans] pick up on that and understand it, so they're trying to keep it off the ballot, and I would think that's why. I think it's going to be on the ballot in Alaska, and that'll help [Sen. Mark] Begich. It's going to be a big issue for getting out the vote.

TheStreet: All right. I thank you for your time.

Rep. Cohen: I think one of the Ben & Jerry's guys, it's funny, I went to a meeting one time at George Soros's apartment, which was pretty fricking cool. He's got a nice place.

TheStreet: In Manhattan?

Rep. Cohen: Yeah, on the Upper East Side, right near Frank Lloyd Wright's museum, the Guggenheim. One of the Ben & Jerry's guys was there. It was the [Drug Policy Alliance], and I had a friend who was going to it, and he said, "Come to this apartment, lunch tomorrow," and I didn't know what it was. I come up there, it's phenomenal, Soros's place. One of the Ben & Jerry's, because they're big on legalization, and I don't think it's because they have a vested interest. But they do, but I don't think that's the reason.

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