Yesterday, Senator Cory Booker introduced a bill that would that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. Marijuana is currently classified alongside heroin as a schedule 1 controlled substance with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse; Booker's Marijuana Justice Act would "deschedule" the drug. That would radically change the marijuana landscape, making it easier for states to join the 29 states (and the District of Columbia) that have already legalized recreational or medical marijuana. As it stands, states that legalize marijuana are in conflict with federal law and the Trump administration has hinted at a federal crackdown then walked it back.
The bill would also expunge federal convictions for marijuana use and possession from people's criminal records—and these are felony convictions that can affect people's job prospects, ability to access social services, and ability to vote—plus allow people in prison for marijuana offenses to petition for resentencing.
But Booker's bill goes even further, actively encouraging states to legalize weed in the name of social justice. (Of course, states can choose to keep marijuana illegal.) The bill would cut federal funding for state law enforcement and prison construction in states that disproportionately arrest or incarcerate people of color and low-income people for marijuana offenses; those states would also be vulnerable to lawsuits. Some of the federal money saved from prosecution would be redirected to a $500 million "Community Reinvestment Fund" for rebuilding areas ravaged by the war on drugs, with programs including job training, reentry, community centers, and more.
In a Facebook live announcement, Booker described Americans putting their hands over their hearts to swear by the ideal of liberty and justice for all. "One way in which have not fulfilled that promise, that ideal," he said, "is through our criminal justice system." Much of that failure he ascribed to "the so-called War on Drugs," which has helped balloon the US federal prison population by nearly 800 percent since the 1980s.
Enforcement and incarceration costs billions, and it disproportionately affects people of color and low-income individuals; Booker described hearing those privileged enough to walk the halls of Congress joking about their past drug use, "but if you go to communities that are poor, if you go to communities of color, clearly this is not a laughing matter." Those caught up in the drug war are then churned through the criminal justice system, which stigmatizes them for life. "We in this country have persecuted the drug war not on everyone," he said, "but have focused it on the most vulnerable people in our communities."
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Going by public opinion, Booker's bill should be popular. Marijuana legalization has been proceeding at a rapid clip; as Vox points out, at the beginning of 2012, not a single state had legalized recreational marijuana, but today eight states have done so. A Gallup poll out last year found 60 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana—that's up from 58 percent in 2015, and 25 percent in 1995.
"This is the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that's ever been filed in either chamber of Congress," Tom Angell, chairman of the group Marijuana Majority, said in a statement. "More than just getting the federal government out of the way so that states can legalize without [Drug Enforcement Administration] harassment, this new proposal goes even further by actually punishing states that have bad marijuana laws."
"Polls increasingly show growing majority voter support for legalization," he said. "So this is something that more senators should be signing onto right away."
Getting this bill passed, however, is unlikely given a Republican-dominated Congress and attorney general Jeff Sessions who once said, "Good people don't smoke marijuana." Sessions has also instructed federal prosecutors to once again pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders; reversing an Obama-era mandate. (Booker became the first senator to testify against a colleague when he opposed Sessions' nomination.) And states that have recently liberalized their marijuana laws by referendum, such as Florida and Massachusetts, have watched their legislators slow-walk implementation.
Booker's bill, though, explicitly ties marijuana laws to the way in which they're enforced; he's focused not just on the high financial cost of prosecuting the war on drugs, but how it disproportionately damages the country's already vulnerable communities. Jeff Sessions may want a return to the good old days of the War on Drugs, while experts recognize that's a war he cannot win. Booker's proposal is about acknowledging that impossibility, vacating the battlefield, and tending to the wounded.
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