Congressman Steve Cohen hasn’t smoked pot in awhile — several decades, he estimates. However, that hasn’t stopped the Memphis representative from being an advocate for marijuana reform at the federal level.
Cohen said Friday he expects federal marijuana reform to outpace Tennessee, though he said he doubts the MORE (Marijuana Opportunity and Expungement) Act, which cleared his House Judiciary Committee this week, will be taken up by the U.S. Senate in 2019.
The bill decriminalizes and legalizes marijuana at the federal level, sets up a tax system for the drug and allows for expungement of marijuana-related crimes.
Cohen, in an interview with the media and talking with constituents, praised what he described as the health benefits of the drug, which is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government, for those with Alzheimer's and Multiple Sclerosis.
"While I don't think the Senate will pass the MORE Act this year, I think it's still more likely to pass reform eventually than the state of Tennessee ... Tennessee has always been about the last to do anything in the way of reforms. It took us forever to get the lottery passed. It took us forever to legalize para-mutual gambling, horses ... There's something about Tennessee that's slow."
When asked the last time that he used the drug, Cohen said, "I don't remember." He later estimated that it was the 1970s or '80s. He said that the war on drugs has disproportionately harmed African-American communities. His district, the Ninth Congressional District, is majority black.
In Tennessee, unlike neighboring states Arkansas and Missouri, medical marijuana is not legal. Like much of the South, it has not changed its marijuana laws as public perception of the drug has changed nationwide. A majority of Americans believe the drug should be legal and is less harmful than alcohol, according to polling from CBS News.
This past spring, a broad proposal to make medical marijuana legal was dropped by the bill's sponsor rather than see it fail in committee. During his run for governor in 2018, Gov. Bill Lee said he had not yet been convinced by medical marijuana research.