Memphian to Meet: Steve Cohen

Posted on April 1, 2014

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cohen1By Kendra Lyons

Congressman Steve Cohen served on the Tennessee State Senate for twenty-four years. He is the “Father of the Tennessee Lottery,” and is arguably one of the most provocative leaders in the state, for his strong stance on the legalization of marijuana, and using institutions such as the lottery and casinos to shift funds where they ought to be, most notably, the MED which was created after Cohen’s essential vote was cast for its construction, and the public education system. Cohen agreed to meet with theGRIND to discuss his take on the major issues that have consumed his career including race, economics, health, and the intricacies of southern politics:

Steve Cohen moves quickly. He talks as he walks, providing his assistant with instructions on what needs to be handled for the afternoon, greeting the receptionist at the front desk, and ushering us into his 4th floor office seemingly all in one swift motion. Cohen seats himself on a couch situated in front of a window that provides sweeping views of the Mississippi River behind him, and is all business as we set up for his interview.

Why the Legalization of Marijuana ‘Just Makes Sense’:

Cohen is eager to comment on the issue of medicinal marijuana. “Medical marijuana makes sense, but Tennessee will be one of the last states to allow it. Recreational marijuana makes sense too,” he explains.

Kendra Lyons: How would the legalization of marijuana, in any form, benefit the city of Memphis?

Steve Cohen: Well, for medical, you just can’t deny that it has medical benefits. People who have cancer- and I’ve had several friends who have had cancer- it’s good for the nausea, and much better than the pills that they have been given. And so, when somebody has cancer, you need to do anything in the world for them. I had a navy seal buddy who died back in 1997. I want down to visit him in Bethesda, Maryland, and he was emaciated down to almost nothing and he smoked marijuana. It wasn’t legal (smiles), but he smoked marijuana. And his mother said, “it’s the only thing that makes him smile or eat.” (shrugs his shoulders) He’s dying of cancer…and he smiles and eats…so, yeah. And multiple sclerosis, it has been shown to be successful, that’s another thing that was talked about in Sanjay Gupta’s program…I think Montell Williams talks a lot about that as well. There’s glaucoma, and other things too, so anything that helps people medically, doctors should be able to prescribe and also, it just seems humane and logical. The fact that it’s a Schedule One drug, it just..it is…it’s absurd, ludicrous because it does have medical efficacy and two, it’s not addictive like heroin and meth, so, those are just realities

cohen3Memphis’ Colossal Mistake:

SC: Memphis should have had casino gaming a long time ago. We’ll never have it, and to get the lottery, I had to put in the constitutional amendment that there shall not be games normally associated with casinos and it shall only be lotteries as are known at that time in 2002 in existence, Georgia, Virginia, and Kentucky…that was to assure people we weren’t going to open ourselves to casinos. And that was mostly for people in East Tennessee and other places in the part of that buckle of the Bible Belt that don’t understand Memphis. But having the casinos in Tunica, lots of jobs, lots of business, lots of taxes, and what problems there are with casinos, and I’m not saying there aren’t problems, there are people that shouldn’t be there and waste their money and maybe don’t take care of their families, and all of those deleterious side effects, they exist to some extent, but they exist in Memphis, and all of the beneficial effects are in Mississippi, and there are people driving up back and forth and occasionally there are accidents going to Tunica. If we had like, right behind me here on Mud Island, a casino, a hotel, it would be gangbusters. It would be taxes that would save homeowners the taxes they are right now paying, it could help fund the MED, it could help fund our education system, there would be more hotels in Memphis than we have now by far, there would be lots of big hotels, and that would help our convention business. That was a colossal mistake that Memphis made.

Looking Ahead:

KL: What types of leaders do you think that Memphis needs, and specifically, what types of qualities do you think leaders in Memphis need to get the job done in your opinion, for future leaders?

SC: Well, they need to think outside the box. Memphis is a city that has certain attractions to tourists and maybe the people to come live here. There’s a certain way of life that’s kind of easy, and people find it to be attractive, and there’s a culture here with music and some of this from the Delta there’s a certain type of ambiance that is attractive, but at the same time, there are real liabilities here that are difficult. So you do have to think outside the box and I think there are some young leaders coming along to do that. You also have to get beyond the racial divide. Too many times, we’ve had the past people basing campaigns on race. Too many times, it’s based on race kind of, vote for me because I’m black or this position should be black, or vote for me because I’m white. That divides the city and we don’t need the city divided. We need people who think for the good of the city and realizing that we; really going back to Booker T. Washington and the “Five Finger Speech” in Atlanta back in the early 20th century, we don’t need to be separated like the five fingers, but the idea that you do progress together and we’re all on the same hand. I think that’s the kind of leadership you have to have, and you have to think outside the box.

SC: So you need people to think outside the box, to try things other people haven’t tried, to make Memphis kind of a special place. The problem you’ve got is, you’ve got Tennessee, and you’ve got to deal with the state, and you’ve got these people all over Tennessee, but particularly north east Tennessee up there, they’re closer to Canada than they are to Memphis, and they’re not going to let Memphis do anything.

cohen2The Cohen Way of Life:

Peter Hall: You are a well-known bachelor. Do you have any plans to settle down, or are you thoroughly enjoying your way of life?

SC: Yes to all of them. I enjoy my way of life and I was talking to my buddy, and he was saying to me, “You have a great life. You’re in Congress, and you’re single, and you can do whatever you want to do.” And that is true, I can do whatever I want. The other day, I had a really good day, some days I work out of my house…but I got a lot done, a very successful day, and then at night, I was watching TV and then Jackie Robinson, ’42 came on. So I watched ’42, which I hadn’t seen, and it was great! I was lying in bed and I thought, its two o’clock and I’m watching this movie, and I guess that’s what my friend was talking about. So that’s good. On the other hand, as far as settling down, I pretty much have settled down. I don’t go out as much in the (Overton) Square as I used to when it was happening. As far as settling down with an individual, it would be not a bad thing at this point. I probably should have done that ten or fifteen years ago. There’s a time that’s the right point to kind of, move on. Maybe I would have had a child, I kind of regret not doing that, but that might have taken away from certain things I wanted to do.

Keep posted for extensive video footage of our interview with Congressman Cohen.

Stay connected with Congressman Cohen: Facebook | Website | @RepSteveCohen

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