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Sen. Cory Booker wants to legalize marijuana the right way

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Sen. Cory Booker’s plan isn’t likely to pass. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Sen. Cory Booker’s plan isn’t likely to pass.
Conflict between state and federal law has come to define all things cannabis in this country. With a new attorney general intent on tougher enforcement, an act of Congress is really the only way to resolve the situation, but such legislative attempts have so far failed — both procedurally and substantively. Now, Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has introduced federal legislation that’s the most comprehensive and progressive we’ve seen to date. It’s unlikely to pass either Republican-controlled chamber of Congress. Nonetheless, it’s encouraging to see a politician whose name has been floated for the presidency in 2020 demonstrate such a sensible approach to marijuana policy.

Booker wants to legalize the “correct” way — rather than reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), as federal reformers have tried in the past. “The Marijuana Justice Act of 2017,” introduced last week, would deschedule the substance entirely. That means marijuana could be regulated more like alcohol or cigarettes and researched like a medicine. It’s an approach Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has advocated for too.
But the bill goes beyond just legalization into the realm of reparations.

In a Facebook Live video announcing the legislation, Booker talks plainly about the War on Drugs as a tool for racist oppression, citing an American Civil Liberties Union study that found that African-Americans use marijuana no more than any other racial group, but are almost four times more likely to get arrested for it. The impact of selective enforcement, Booker says, is “devastating” for communities of color, since a criminal conviction often cuts off access to employment, housing, business licenses, government grants, public benefits and other opportunities critical to leading a healthy, happy life. Not to mention, incarceration also separates families and exacerbates poverty.
It’s “rank hypocrisy,” Booker says, that “you don’t see kids coming home from frat parties stopped and frisked … and here in Congress you have conversations with [lawmakers] who readily admit to using drugs.”

To right those wrongs, Booker’s bill would retroactively expunge federal marijuana use and possession convictions, let people currently doing time in federal prison for marijuana crimes petition for re-sentencing, and create a “community reinvestment fund” to finance re-entry services, like job training and legal support, and public resources, like libraries and youth programs.

His recognition that the War on Drugs failed — and failed black people the hardest — is a pretty mainstream idea these days. It’s one of many reasons that the majority of U.S. states have decriminalized and legalized marijuana in some form. Booker wants to take it a step further by incentivizing the holdout states to change their marijuana laws too. One way this legislation proposes to do that is by withholding federal funds for prison construction or staffing in states that disproportionately arrest people of color on marijuana offenses.

“It’s not enough just to say, ‘Hey, marijuana is legal!’ then just move forward,” Booker says in the video announcement. “We need to help communities heal and recover from this unjust application of the law.”

The jovial, Twitter-savvy senator, who himself is black, makes for an interesting champion on the issue. By his own admission, he watched the War on Drugs play out from a more privileged position, as an Ivy Leaguer from a wealthy family, then as Mayor of Newark, a poor, majority-minority New Jersey city known for high crime rates.

Since Booker’s name is on every list of prospective presidential candidates, his support for this kind of reform may bode well for the Democratic Party’s position on the issue. The progressive wing, however, is less than inspired by Booker’s close ties to the financial and pharmaceutical industries, support for privatizing education and overall tone that lands better with the center-right than populist left.

At press time, the bill has no other sponsors and has been assigned to the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary committee where it’s not scheduled for a hearing (and may never be).

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