During a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) grilled Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his stance on marijuana policy in the United States.
The brief exchange had Sessions facing questions from Cohen about past remarks he’s made about marijuana users, claiming “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Cohen listed off a number of politicians who have openly admitted to smoking cannabis and inquired whether Sessions believed them to be bad people. Sessions explained that the comment was taken out of context and provided more background during questioning.
Marijuana.com spoke with Rep. Cohen Tuesday afternoon to get his thoughts on the matter and provide an opportunity to expand on concepts he presented during the hearing.
“[Marijuana] needs to be re-scheduled, the VA docs need to be able to prescribe it, the federal government shouldn’t interfere with the states. [U.S. Supreme Court] Justice [Louis] Brandeis has a statement about the states being laboratories for democracy,” Cohen said. “You’re supposed to learn from the states doing different things. So you should study how is it affecting the states differently that have it and don’t have it. And that’s not being done [on the federal level]. So it’s like we’re not trying to learn from the experiment that we’re in.”
What motivated you to put the heat on the Attorney General today regarding his approach to drug policy?
It’s an issue I’ve worked on throughout my political career to make our marijuana and our drug laws sane and reasonable and I think we’ve made some progress in Congress the years working with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and others in not having the federal government get involved in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana and trying to get research dollars and trying, although not successfully yet, I hope we have a shot at de-scheduling. But anyways, all kinds of reform measures, and it seems like we’re going backwards with him.
I thought it was an important issue to bring up because his position is counter to what, I think 65 percent, the polls show, of people who want to legalize marijuana and more like 85 percent or something for medical marijuana. (A 2017 Yahoo/Marist Poll showed 83 percent of Americans believe doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana to patients.) He’s so far away from the American public. His policies and that of the Trump Administration are reversing gains that have been made in Congress and, of course, with the 29 states that have legalized medical marijuana and the 8 states and DC that legalized recreational.
There’s been progress made and there’s been citizens voting and a lot of what I read about what he intended to do was to thwart initiatives and public will.
You represent a diverse cross section of constituents in Memphis. What have been the negative effects of ineffective marijuana policy in your district?
Well, African-Americans are four or five times more likely to be arrested, and [the odds probably look] better than that of being convicted of possession, and it’s just a disparate impact on minorities. Once you get a conviction for marijuana you can be not allowed to get college scholarship aid, you can be refused public housing and there’s certain jobs you won’t get. So, it’s kind of a scarlet letter and it’s just not pertinent or appropriate that people be given that kind of extra punishment.
The reality is the marijuana laws have been shown historically to have been put into effect from the 30s with Henry Anslinger to the 70s with Richard Nixon and his crowd, for political purposes, knowing that what they were doing wasn’t anything based in fact, but simply political ways to attack Hispanics and African-American musicians and hippies and whatever else for political benefit. To take somebody’s liberty and affect their lives for those reasons is despicable. That’s why I wanted to raise the issue with this man [Sessions].
And what do you think needs to be done to change course?
Well, I think that we probably need a new President and new Attorney General, because neither one of them has shown any interest in helping on these laws, they’ve gone in the other direction.
His answers were better than I expected. He did say marijuana was not as bad as heroin, which is not something I’ve been able to elicit in questioning from a couple of federal officials in the past. The Drug Czar and head of the DEA would not say, at least he said that. I guess he believes that. I’m sure he believes it, because not to believe it is, well, up is down and white is black.
He didn’t answer the idea of opportunity costs and using manpower to go after crack, cocaine, heroin [and]meth rather than marijuana. I threw that out there as something he should do. Hopefully something [I said] made an impression.
Prior to your time in politics, you had a successful legal career. Would you say that experience shaped your perspective when it comes to how certain laws disproportionately affect minorities?
Well, in my practice, I represented people both black and white and I saw men and women and a pretty diverse crowd of clients. And I did see it there, but mostly I learned about it just from being a legislator and seeing studies. And studies compelled me. Almost everywhere, the disparate impact is on blacks instead of whites and the amount of people that smoke marijuana is about the same. Just the arrests are different, so it looks like law enforcement is using it to keep their thumb on some people.
Do you believe marijuana reform is a civil rights issue?
Civil Rights is a little strong. I come from a district with a largely African-American populace where Dr. [Martin Luther] King was killed. When I think about Civil Rights, I think of people like Rep. John Lewis and Julian Bond and Dr. King and people like that. It’s hard for me to put it in the same class as Julian Bond and Dr. King and John Lewis where people were literally being killed and fighting for the right to vote and stuff like that. It’s a justice issue, I’m not sure it’s a Civil Rights issue.
Rep. Cohen wrapped up the interview with some hopeful observations of positive voting trends in the legislature.
“I think one thing you should know is in the last several years, ever since I’ve been in Congress, we’ve seen the number of votes on budget appropriations bills to say that the federal government can’t spend money enforcing laws where state laws are in effect legalizing it, we’ve seen the numbers creep up,” he said.
When he and other legislators first came together to introduce legislation to protect states from federal interference, allow the Veterans Administration to recommend medical marijuana in states where it’s legal and re-schedule cannabis, they were able to gather between 100 and 175 votes.
This year, Cohen joined Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rand Paul (R-KY), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Al Franken (D-MN), and Mike Lee (R-UT) to reintroduce the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, HB 2920. That bill failed to come to a vote.
“If we’d had a vote it would pass easily 245, 250 out of the 430 members and that passes easy and it might have been more, but they wouldn’t even allow a vote,” Cohen said. “It’s really bad that you get to Congress and you can’t even be allowed to vote. Particularly when Paul Ryan claims it’s a new Congress, an open Congress, a transparent Congress. But it’s not.”
Despite that, Cohen sees increasing bipartisan support with each passing year.
“It used to be, like, 95 percent Democrat, now it’s about 75 to 80 percent Democrat. So it’s starting to get a little more bipartisan,” he said. “Republicans are starting to understand that their constituents just don’t want to go to jail either and see marijuana helping them with pain and different issues.”
The legislative trends are on par with numerous polls and studies that show increasing support for smart drug policy — even among those who have traditionally taken an opposing stance. A 2017 Gallup poll showed majority Republican support for legalizing marijuana. For the first time ever, 51 percent of Republicans expressed support, a nine percentage point increase over 2016.
Photo courtesy of Allie Beckett