Remarks by Congressman Cohen

Remarks by Congressman Cohen

To be Read at the Meeting of Tennessee NORML

December 15, 2012

Thank you for inviting me to speak to your group.  I appreciate everything that NORML does to advance the cause of sensible marijuana policy.  I want to particularly note the great work that Paul Kuhn does here in Nashville and thank him for working with me when I was a State Senator.  I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in person to talk with you, but I value the work you’re all doing and I wanted to let you know about some of my work in Congress on this important issue.

I have been concerned for a long time about the direction of our drug policy, particularly with respect to marijuana.  Our 40-year experiment with the so-called “War on Drugs” has led to bulging prison populations, racial disparities, and a lost generation of people with no education or job prospects.

Back when I was first starting my career in the 1970s as Legal Advisor to the Memphis Police Department, I worked to create a Citation in Lieu of Arrest for certain non-violent crimes.  I did this with an eye toward stopping senseless arrests for marijuana possession.  When I was in the Tennessee State Senate, I introduced legislation to make medical marijuana legal and worked to reduce the collateral consequences of a marijuana offense.

Now that I’m in Congress, I’ve been working on several pieces of legislation that would bring some sanity to our national laws on marijuana.  I’ve also pressed both the Bush and Obama Administrations to make marijuana a much lower priority in law enforcement.

Working toward reform of our marijuana laws has often been a very lonely pursuit, particularly in Tennessee.  But I have never been more optimistic that we’re moving in the right directionthan I am today.  We’ve had the recent ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use and a growing number of states that are legalizing medical marijuana.  These all point to an awakening on the part of the American public that we need to reevaluate our drug laws.  Even our neighbors in Arkansas came close to legalizing medical marijuana despite a poorly funded campaign.

After the Colorado and Washington votes, I wrote to Attorney General Holder and the Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency asking that they not pursue enforcement action against people who comply with their states’ laws.  Rather than wasting precious law enforcement resources, the federal government should respect the judgment of the voters in those states, particularly since, as Justice Brandeis once observed, states are the laboratories of democracy.  I was pleased that 17 other Members joined my letter.  I have also supported legislation that would turn regulation of marijuana entirely over to the states so that they can decide for themselves what their policies should be.  I was encouraged by the President’s statement yesterday that the federal government has other priorities than prosecuting marijuana users in states where it’s legal.  I hope that he’ll direct his Administration to take a hands-off approach and let the states determine their own policies.

Unfortunately, thus far the federal government has been very disappointing when it comes to respecting states that legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.  Despite assurances in 2009 that the Department of Justice would not prioritize criminal charges against those who act in compliance with state law, we have seen continued enforcement, especially in California and Colorado.  I have spoken repeatedly with Attorney General Holder about this issue and urged him to reverse this policy.  I have also questioned the FBI Director and the DEA Administrator in the House Judiciary Committee about our flawed federal policies.  I’m hopeful that the President is now signaling a new direction when it comes to medical marijuana as well.

I believe that over time, more and more states will agree that medical marijuana can be a useful tool in helping relieve the suffering of the seriously ill.  For me, this is first and foremost an issue of compassion.  I had a dear friend named Oral James Mitchell, Jr., a Navy SEAL, who fought in Vietnam.  O.J. developed pancreatic cancer and withered away from a robust 210 pounds to just 115 pounds before he died.  To relieve some of the incredible suffering he endured in his final days, he smoked marijuana.  His 88 year old mother said to me, “Thank God for the marijuana.  It’s the only thing that makes Oral smile or eat.”

That’s why I support the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, which would allow the medicinal use of marijuana in states where it is legal under state law.  In addition, I supported an amendment to prevent the federal government from interfering with states that legalized medical marijuana.  I have also cosponsored the Truth in Trials Act, which would allow defendants in federal court to reveal to juries that their marijuana activity was medically related and legal under state law.

I’m hopeful that Tennessee will finally legalize medical marijuana soon.  As you know, legislation has advanced through committees in the State Legislature, but there has not been a vote on the floor yet.  It’s important that you let your representatives and senators know that this bill is important to you and that it has strong support throughout the state.  That’s how we turn ideas in policy.

Of course, it’s not just medical marijuana policy that needs to be reformed.  We should also review our entire approach to marijuana.  That’s why I’m working on legislation to create a commission to study the current system of marijuana prohibition and determine whether and what changes should be made.  This commission would be based on a similar commission from the 1970s chaired by the former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania, Raymond Shafer.  His commission called for the decriminalization of marijuana, but unfortunately his recommendations were shelved by President Nixon.  This new commission would not pre-judge the outcome, but I’m confident that a fair study of the issue would determine that our marijuana policies are in serious need of reform.

For example, think about how many law enforcement resources are wasted pursuing non-violent drug offenders.  Some estimates place the total criminal justice costs of marijuana arrests for state and local governments at as much as $7.6 billion per year.  That averages out to over $10,000 per arrest.  Think of all the ways we could better use that money.  Think of all the serious crimes we could pursue instead.  Fortunately, with our state and local budgets under strain like never before, we’re starting to see more people question whether criminalizing marijuana is good policy.

One of the worst consequences of a drug policy focused on law enforcement is the terrible racial disparities we see among arrests for marijuana possession and other drugs.  Last year, the New York Times reported that African-American New Yorkers were seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.  Latinos were four times more likely to be arrested.  And according to the article, those whites that were arrested were much more likely to get a slap on the wrist, while racial minorities were more likely to spend a night in jail.

These statistics are so outrageous that when I met with Mayor Bloomberg in New York earlier this year I expressed my concerns over the City’s stop and frisk and policy, which is responsible for a large number of the marijuana arrests.  I’m pleased that he has since reformed this policy and I’m hopeful that we’ll begin to see a real reduction in arrests.

Our attitudes toward drug offenses, particularly marijuana possession, can be so self-defeating. Even if you commit a non-violent offense, you may face a life sentence.  That’s because the stigma of your conviction will follow you around for the rest of your life.  Employment, education, and housing opportunities – the very things necessary to start your life anew – can all be denied on the basis of a conviction in your past.  That’s why I wrote legislation called the Fresh Start Act, which would enable non-violent federal offenders who have served their time and lived a clean life ever since to have their conviction expunged from their records.

As the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which included such notable figures as Paul Volcker, Kofi Annan, and George Schultz, recently concluded in its report, we must “[e]nd the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.”  Over the course of 40 years of the so-called “War on Drugs” we have learned that spending trillions of dollars and incarcerating millions of people for victimless crimes is the wrong approach.

It hasn’t always been politically popular to speak out about creating a sensible drug policy, but I think the tide is beginning to turn.  NORML is at the forefront of these efforts and I appreciate the work that you do.  I hope I’ll be able to come visit you all in person soon and continue this conversation.

Thank you.

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