Ep. 399: US Congressman Steve Cohen,

Cannabis Economy Podcast
Ep. 399: US Congressman Steve Cohen,

Ep. 399: US Congressman Steve Cohen,

US Congressman Steve Cohen joins us and shares the steps the government needs to take toward Cannabis legalization: “I think we will have a much better chance at getting bills to the floor that can make it a state law and not a federal law, decriminalize it basically on the federal level, like alcohol, and leave it up to the states to decide whether or not it should be legalized in their jurisdictions for either medical or personal, quote unquote, recreational use.”

Transcript:

Congressman Steve Cohen, thank you for having me here in the Rayburn room.

Steve Cohen: Named for the speaker that was probably as effective as Nancy Pelosi.

Seth Adler: Okay. All right. So pretty good, is what you're saying?

Steve Cohen: Damn good.

Seth Adler: He was from Texas?

Steve Cohen: He was from Texas.

Seth Adler: You're from Tennessee.

Steve Cohen: And if it weren't for Tennessee, there wouldn't be a Texas.

Seth Adler: And please explain that real quick for me because I always need to be educated.

Steve Cohen: GTT. A lot of Tennesseeans picked up and left, and that meant "Gone to Texas." And a lot of people, including Davy Crockett and Sam Houston went to Texas, and they fought at the Alamo, and they fought after the Alamo, and they made Texas not a part of Mexico, but a part of the United States, first as its own sovereign nation where Sam Houston became president, and eventually part of the United States.

Seth Adler: Interesting. Are you a historian of sorts?

Steve Cohen: Well, I majored in history. I wouldn't say I'm a historian, but-

Seth Adler: Okay. This is the old work.

Steve Cohen: Yes.

Seth Adler: The new work, right? Here we go. We've got a new Congress coming in. What are the issues ... We of course have to talk about cannabis. The show's called Cannabis Economy. But what are the issues that actually, action can happen with in this next Congress?

Steve Cohen: Concerning cannabis?

Seth Adler: Well, first with cannabis, and then everything else, as well.

Steve Cohen: Well, everything else first.

Seth Adler: Okay.

Steve Cohen: And everything else is going to be trying to protect people's healthcare, the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug prices, infrastructure bill that helps really the backbone of our economy, roads and bridges, and all the ways and airports, how we get goods to market. It creates jobs. And then helping clean up the culture that we've got here, that we've seen under the Trump Administration, of corruption and trying to have stronger ethics laws concerning the president and the president's cabinet and requirements of disclosure of tax returns, requirements of disclosures of conflicts of interest, and prohibiting conflicts of interest and making them strong. And then of course we're concerned about education. So those are the basic issues.
Voting rights is important. I'm going to be on Judiciary Committee. We'll be considering about voting rights, and looking into the president's misconduct, including the emoluments clause, obstruction of justice, other actions that he's undertaken that are prohibited by our laws.

Seth Adler: Okay. Cannabis.

Steve Cohen: We can can and I think we will have a much better chance at getting bills to the floor that can make it a state law and not a federal law, decriminalize it basically on the federal level, like alcohol, and leave it up to the states to decide whether or not it should be legalized in their jurisdictions for either medical or personal, quote unquote, recreational use.

Seth Adler: There's the States Act, which is called the same thing in the Senate and in the House, obviously two different bills, because that's the way you've got to do it, but that deals with 280E so that I can deduct my business regularly, meaning any cannabis business, and of course, it solves some of the banking issues. What's the viability of that actually coming out of the house and being sent to the Senate?

Steve Cohen: I think there's a good chance for that. There's no reason this business shouldn't be any different than any other business, and particularly where it's been legalized in quite a few states now, from medical, which is a business, and whether it's medical or recreational. And I've never understood why it's called recreational. We don't call alcohol recreational alcohol.

Congressman Steve Cohen, thank you for having me here in the Rayburn room.

Steve Cohen: Named for the speaker that was probably as effective as Nancy Pelosi.

Seth Adler: Okay. All right. So pretty good, is what you're saying?

Steve Cohen: Damn good.

Seth Adler: He was from Texas?

Steve Cohen: He was from Texas.

Seth Adler: You're from Tennessee.

Steve Cohen: And if it weren't for Tennessee, there wouldn't be a Texas.

Seth Adler: And please explain that real quick for me because I always need to be educated.

Steve Cohen: GTT. A lot of Tennesseeans picked up and left, and that meant "Gone to Texas." And a lot of people, including Davy Crockett and Sam Houston went to Texas, and they fought at the Alamo, and they fought after the Alamo, and they made Texas not a part of Mexico, but a part of the United States, first as its own sovereign nation where Sam Houston became president, and eventually part of the United States.

Seth Adler: Interesting. Are you a historian of sorts?

Steve Cohen: Well, I majored in history. I wouldn't say I'm a historian, but-

Seth Adler: Okay. This is the old work.

Steve Cohen: Yes.

Seth Adler: The new work, right? Here we go. We've got a new Congress coming in. What are the issues ... We of course have to talk about cannabis. The show's called Cannabis Economy. But what are the issues that actually, action can happen with in this next Congress?

Steve Cohen: Concerning cannabis?

Seth Adler: Well, first with cannabis, and then everything else, as well.

Steve Cohen: Well, everything else first.

Seth Adler: Okay.

Steve Cohen: And everything else is going to be trying to protect people's healthcare, the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug prices, infrastructure bill that helps really the backbone of our economy, roads and bridges, and all the ways and airports, how we get goods to market. It creates jobs. And then helping clean up the culture that we've got here, that we've seen under the Trump Administration, of corruption and trying to have stronger ethics laws concerning the president and the president's cabinet and requirements of disclosure of tax returns, requirements of disclosures of conflicts of interest, and prohibiting conflicts of interest and making them strong. And then of course we're concerned about education. So those are the basic issues.
Voting rights is important. I'm going to be on Judiciary Committee. We'll be considering about voting rights, and looking into the president's misconduct, including the emoluments clause, obstruction of justice, other actions that he's undertaken that are prohibited by our laws.

Seth Adler: Okay. Cannabis.

Steve Cohen: We can can and I think we will have a much better chance at getting bills to the floor that can make it a state law and not a federal law, decriminalize it basically on the federal level, like alcohol, and leave it up to the states to decide whether or not it should be legalized in their jurisdictions for either medical or personal, quote unquote, recreational use.

Seth Adler: There's the States Act, which is called the same thing in the Senate and in the House, obviously two different bills, because that's the way you've got to do it, but that deals with 280E so that I can deduct my business regularly, meaning any cannabis business, and of course, it solves some of the banking issues. What's the viability of that actually coming out of the house and being sent to the Senate?

Steve Cohen: I think there's a good chance for that. There's no reason this business shouldn't be any different than any other business, and particularly where it's been legalized in quite a few states now, from medical, which is a business, and whether it's medical or recreational. And I've never understood why it's called recreational. We don't call alcohol recreational alcohol.

Seth Adler: Yeah.

Steve Cohen: But nevertheless, it's a business, and there's no reason it shouldn't be dealt with like any other business. And it's not like, you know, why should people who were in the cannabis business be treated, not given opportunities to have banking systems and dealt with like a normal business while Donald Trump's businesses can?

Seth Adler: So great. Speaking of people that can't do what other people can do ... and I think that would be a vote, wouldn't it?

Steve Cohen: Yeah.

Seth Adler: We'll get to that. But in the Farm Bill as it currently exists, and we're ... Podcast land knows no time, but we happen to be here on that day. There is a piece in there that says if you are a felon, you can't participate in the hemp industry for 10 years. That also kind of reflects something that you guys were talking about in the Judiciary Committee with another bill. What are your thoughts on that?

Steve Cohen: It just doesn't make any sense, really. Once you've committed a felony, you ought to get a chance to get your rights restored, and to be able to vote, to be able to carry a weapon if you want, and to engage in any business. And this should not be a permanent scarlet letter. Not the H of Hestery Prynne but the M of marijuana or the C of cannabis.

Seth Adler: Okay. And I think I saw you say that you've been supportive of legal cannabis for quite some time. Is that fair to say?

Steve Cohen: I have been supportive of legalizing cannabis since I thought it was ... For a long, long time, several decades, and before it was politically correct, but not at the time that it was politically suicide.

Seth Adler: Okay. So in-state though, what was it? 80s or 90s that ... Please take us through your history.

Steve Cohen: Well, it goes back to the 70s. My first job out of law school was working for the police department as the assistant police legal advisor. And then I became the police legal advisor in Memphis in 1976. And I worked with state representative John Spence in passing and creating a citation in lieu of arrest law for the state of Tennessee. It was for any misdemeanor, but we were really looking at marijuana possession. And we drafted that law, and John got it passed in the state legislature in the 70s, and then I saw to it that it was implemented by the police department through regulations. So it goes back to the 70s to have it treated differently.
And then once I got, like, to the state Senate in '82, I sponsored further bills like that and made arguments about having crack and cocaine and other drugs treated as priority drugs of law enforcement, not marijuana, and suggesting that they should have marijuana on the back bench, in essence. And then later, we proposed that there should not be jail time for marijuana.

Seth Adler: We've come quite some way since those days, and it feels like in these past year or two, we're now running. The pace is remarkable. What are your thoughts on that, being that you've kind of, as you said, started at the beginning, as far as politics and cannabis?

Steve Cohen: Well, beginning in terms of life, I guess. I started college in 1967, and I think it was in about '67 or '68, at least in Tennessee, when people who went to college started to kind of, more and more, some people started smoking marijuana. They were still kind of considered the hippies. And then I think by the time I graduated in '71, just about everybody smoked marijuana at some point or another. And that was at Vanderbilt, which was a pretty conservative school. Of course, it started earlier at Berkeley and Michigan and up East, Harvard, et cetera.
So you've got a generation now that's give-or-take my age that has had exposure to marijuana since they were in their college days. And after we were in college, there's younger people who'd seen it since high school. Yeah, I think it's wrong. I don't think, you certainly shouldn't be smoking marijuana when you're not an adult and your brain's developing, and there's so much to do as a kid, but anyway, regardless of that, people have seen it. They've seen friends be arrested, lose rights, go to jail, be ostracized by some and not get college loans, not get maybe federal housing, and not get jobs. And people know it's wrong, so it's really come a long way and it's affected people's lives. And family members and or friends.

Seth Adler: When were you first made aware of the medical attributes of the plant? It wasn't 1967.

Steve Cohen: Well, I guess it kind of came about, the people talked about how it relieved PTSD, which was something that didn't get really noticed until, I guess, the 90s. 80s, 90s, whatever. And that was one of the major things of it. Other people have talked about helping people with just pain in general.

Seth Adler: The AIDS crisis certainly helped push it along.

Steve Cohen: And I've had friends who've died of cancer. One in particular, O.J. Mitchell, Jr., one of my very close friends. He'd been a Navy SEAL, and O.J. came up to me, I remember it was a campaign of 1996. And he came up to me while we were putting together our packets for people to go work election day, and he came and gave me a big hug. He was a gigantic, big man and had been a Navy SEAL. And he said, "I've got something wrong with me. I think it's bad." And they kind of, that was it. And then next thing we knew, he had pancreatic cancer, and I came up to visit him. His family was from up here in Chevy Chase, Bethesda area, but he spent a lot of time living in Memphis and down in Louisiana, too, where he worked on the boats going out to service the oil rigs.
And I came up to visit him. He'd gone from 210 pounds to about 120 pounds. And it was ... Marijuana wasn't legal. Not medical or any other kind, and his mother said, his 85-year-old mother said, "Thank God for the marijuana. That's the only thing that makes Oral smile or eat."

Seth Adler: Wow. All the way back then?

Steve Cohen: Yeah.

Seth Adler: That's interesting. You bring up the fact that he's a Navy SEAL, and there is legislation for the VA to do some research on the plant. That little bill ... Is that something that we think could get passed?

Steve Cohen: It could get passed. What could definitely get passed is taking the muzzle off the VA doctors where they can't even recommend or suggest to patients who have PTSD, they're in a great amount of pain, you've got the other illnesses that they think could be helped by marijuana, that they go see a doctor and get a script. They can't do that now, and that needs to come off. Lift the muzzle. We'll get those things done in the House, I believe.

Seth Adler: Sure.

Steve Cohen: We've lost a few champions like Dana Rohrabacher.

Seth Adler: Carlos Curbelo.

Steve Cohen: I wouldn't say he was a champion. He was a foot soldier.

Seth Adler: Fair enough.

Steve Cohen: Dana was a general.

Seth Adler: Without question. I said to Dana, I spoke to him yesterday, I said, "You were on the front lines before there was a cavalry, as far as federally elected officials."

Steve Cohen: Right. Dana's been there.

Seth Adler: Yeah. No. Without question.

Steve Cohen: The Senate doesn't have that many strong supporters. I think Cory Booker has come forth. As people, as they've gotten closer to understanding the issue and seeing how popular it is and want to run for president, you've seen a lot of people running for president embracing this. But Rand Paul's been for it forever because of his libertarian philosophy.

Seth Adler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it's an interesting thing because you've been around politics for a long time and this is an issue I would imagine unlike any other, where it really doesn't matter where you fit on the political spectrum. You can go all the way over here to this side and then all the way over there to that side, and you've got champions and you've got foot soldiers in between. It doesn't matter what your politics are.

Steve Cohen: Well, to some extent, there is a bipartisan coalition that ranges the gamut. But at the same time on the righthand side, you've got some people who have districts that are more, I'd say, Southern Baptist, evangelicals down to the root, the core, and all that kind of stuff. They're less likely to be for it because those folks still think it's a sin.

Seth Adler: Okay.

Steve Cohen: And they didn't experience any changes.

Seth Adler: Okay. So they didn't experience any changes. They see it as a sin, and we're going to try to hopefully ... We're in the Rayburn room here in the Capitol, so there's other conversation going on. But is there a way to communicate with that group of folks, do you think? You know, as far as, maybe children's epilepsy? Starting there?

Steve Cohen: Well, CBD is something that a lot of those people have embraced, because it doesn't get you high. That's understandable and good, and it's a clean ... Help for children with epilepsy. And I had a child with epilepsy in my district who died because she couldn't get the CBD oil. It may be she died because of that, but she tried to get it and she couldn't get it in Tennessee. But now those changes have come, and not it's just pretty much apple pie. But CBD's different than THC.

Seth Adler: And so in the Farm Bill, it takes hemp, .3% and below THC. And takes that off the Controlled Substances Act.

Steve Cohen: That's a start, but marijuana itself ... It should not be on the controlled substances list anywhere. It should be, you know, it's a Schedule I. It ought to be a Schedule 1,649.

Seth Adler: Or de-scheduled, right? In the meantime, we've got the States Act. We've got the Marijuana Justice Act. I'm sure you're supportive of that. There's also just a Mini-CBD Bill, which if the CBD plant is not industrial hemp, it's slightly hotter than .3% or above or below, it's above that for THC. There's that bill, which that's the epilepsy stuff. Is that ... Those mini things ... When I bring up these things, as far as, or these bills, as far as votes ... Yes, okay. Get them out of the House and to the Senate. We don't know what's going to happen in the Senate. But is there enough focus on this, do you think?

Steve Cohen: You know, it's not the prime issue of most people, but I think it's become acceptable, but those bills will pass, CBD and hemp have got some ... And hemp has got strong support from Mitch McConnell because of how much they have in Kentucky.

Seth Adler: Sure. Yeah. No, hemp farming in Kentucky abounds. And it is. It's starting to get busy here, and I know that you don't have a ton of more time, and so I'll kind of start to land the plane. Where we began ... You said, the priorities ... We're talking about cannabis. And it's on the list. Maybe not necessarily top priority. You mentioned transportation. That seems to be something, infrastructure, where maybe we can get some hands across the aisle. Definitely in the White House, that's been discussed. How realistic is that?

Steve Cohen: The issue is going to be how we fund it. Trump wants to public-private partnerships. Put as least money in it as possible. That's not going to work. He has talked about a good-sized gas tax, as much as 25 cents, and that's good. And it's regressive, but it's a logical user fee.

Seth Adler: However, we do have the protests in France that started because of a gas tax. Does that give anyone cold feet?

Steve Cohen: Nah ... I don't know if that's the case or not. I don't know what the gas tax is there.

Seth Adler: Oh, it's much higher. I mean, it's through the roof. But we don't see that as like-to-like, we don't see that as apples to apples.

Steve Cohen: Well, that's the reason why Trump may drop off of it. The folks that are against any taxes may come out against it, and I don't know if they will or not, but Trump's got weak feet.

Seth Adler: Any time that I've seen you, you've just demonstrated it. You kind of speak straight. Doesn't seem to be too much BS from SC, if you will.

Steve Cohen: That's my history, and it's worked in my district. I've got a great district.

Seth Adler: Yeah. What made you think about elected office? Why was this important to do? So, if number one, speak straight to the people ... Okay, fine, check that box. But what was it-

Steve Cohen: I've always liked keeping up with current events. I've always read newspapers and watched TV news and TV political casts since I was a child. I remember very closely the 1956 conventions. I was 7 years old, watching them and asking my mother, who was a Democrat and from Chicago, about what's the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and kind of learning a little bit. And learned and watched, and Kennedy was a hero to me. I was 11, and I supported him and saw him when he came to Memphis. Took a picture of him in the car, which I've got up in my office, looking right at me.
And so I was a Kennedy person, and I was hooked.

Seth Adler: Yeah. '56 ... What was her answer to you, as far as the difference between a Republican and a Democrat? Especially Tennessee?

Steve Cohen: It might have been fairly simple, but it was pretty accurate and holds today, that the Democrats were the people who lived in the cities, and the Republicans were the people that lived in the country. The farmers.

Seth Adler: Huh. That is the same.

Steve Cohen: It gets more and more the same now than ever.

Seth Adler: Because we had a little bit of a change in the southeast since 1956, is that safe to say?

Steve Cohen: Yes.

Seth Adler: I've got three final questions, because you really do have to get on your flight-

Steve Cohen: Lightning round.

Seth Adler: That's exactly what it is. I'll tell you what they are. I'll ask you them in order. What's most surprised you in cannabis? WHat's most surprised you in life? And on the soundtrack of your life, one track, one song that's got to be on there. But first things first, what's most surprised you in cannabis?

Steve Cohen: Cannabis is just how much it's come along, and it's become sort of, in certain areas, a mom-pop and apple pie, but it's come a long way. I've known, since I've started polling it in the '80s, that it had 60 to 70 percent popularity, and the public was behind, not aware of ... Politicians weren't aware of it. Cultural lag. But it's caught up.

Seth Adler: That's it. We like to push you guys, right, from out there to in here. Second question, what's most surprised you in life?

Steve Cohen: In life, it's all a surprise. I've had a lot of friends die, and every day's a blessing, and you have no guarantee of tomorrow. And just being here, and being in Congress. I mean, I ran for Congress. When I drove up here today, I thought about a moment that I had when I was a state senator, and I was a state senator for 24 years, and I came up to Washington for a National Conference of State Legislators meeting. After I run for Congress the first time in 1996 and lost to Harold Ford, Jr., 60-36. And so I guess it was some time after that, probably about 2000, and I stood on the street in front of the Hyatt down here, and looked at the Capitol. And it was like a scene from a movie, and it plays in my mind often as I drive up that street. And I was looking in the middle of the street, looked up at the Capitol, and thought, "I never made it. I didn't make it there." And I made it.

Seth Adler: There you go.

Steve Cohen: It took a while, but I made it 10 years later.

Seth Adler: That's it.

Steve Cohen: Keep fighting type of thing.

Seth Adler: Congratulations on that.

Steve Cohen: And for a song, anything Warren Zevon did. Warren was my buddy, so-

Seth Adler: How about Lawyers, Guns & Money, right?

Steve Cohen: How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?

Seth Adler: My plan was to get you to say it, and you did.

Steve Cohen: It has hit the fan. Take care, good to be with you.

Seth Adler: And there you have U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen. Very much appreciate his time. Very much appreciate your time. Stay tuned.

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Cannabis Economy is a real-time history of legal cannabis. We chronicle how personal and industry histories have combined to provide our current reality.