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WASHINGTON — Unlike in recent elections, the debate over whether to legalize cannabis is largely settled among the current field of Democratic presidential candidates. But the question over how to end the federal prohibition on marijuana is now dividing at least two top Democratic contenders.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is once again a lead sponsor of the bipartisan STATES Act, which would end the outright federal prohibition on marijuana by allowing each state to decide its own pot policy. But that proposal no longer goes far enough for her presidential primary opponent Sen. Cory Booker.
On Monday, the New Jersey Democrat introduced a standalone bill to study reparations for the descendants of slaves, and he’s withholding support for the STATES Act because he believes it doesn’t do enough to address the harm that the war on drugs has done to minority communities across America, including his hometown of Newark.
“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” Booker exclusively told VICE News outside the Capitol Tuesday. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”
The STATES Act was seen as a game changer in the last Congress, because it split the difference between the two party’s acceptable approaches to legalization by allowing each state to decide if and how to legalize marijuana. Booker signed on to it even before it was publicly dropped last year, as did a bipartisan group of 10 other senators.
Momentum grew for legalization last year and crested during the 2018 midterms after a Pew Research Center poll came out showing 62 percent of Americans were on board with legal weed. Despite that support, Booker says he’s no longer fine with just passing something — he wants any bill to address a broader social justice agenda.
Instead, Booker’s aim is now to expand support for his Marijuana Justice Act, which was first introduced in 2017 and, unlike Warren’s bill, doesn’t include a single Republican sponsor. It removes cannabis from the list of controlled substances while also expunging the records of anyone locked up for use or possession charges. That measure also sets up a “community reinvestment fund” that would put money into job training programs and community centers in the areas left most blighted by the war on drugs.
It maintains the support of every Democratic senator running for president, except Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose office didn’t immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment .
Booker says his line in the sand — that social justice has to be a part of any legalization effort — has been building for some time.
“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities — black and brown communities,” Booker said. “This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs — it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
But Warren says her bill and Booker’s aren’t mutually exclusive. She told VICE News that she considers the STATES Act a first step in the process, which is why she also supports his Marijuana Justice Act.
“I support full legalization and restorative justice,” Warren told VICE News. “I also support having the federal government back off when the states have already legalized marijuana — and bringing those businesses into the banking system and into the tax system.”
In the last Congress, Warren’s STATES Act received broad bipartisan support, and it’s lead Republican sponsor, Sen. Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, even says he’s gotten President Donald Trump to endorse it. Now, Gardner's scratching his head over Booker's change of heart.
“Well, it sounds like I need to talk to Cory Booker about fixing a federal-state conflict,” Gardner told VICE News at the Capitol. “This is about fixing a conflict in federal and state law that needs to be done, and it’s pretty simple. So I think he would be hard pressed to vote against it.”
The demand for a restorative justice, or community oriented, approach isn’t confined to Booker alone. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, told VICE News that if the local communities with the highest minority incarceration and poverty rates that have directly stemmed from the decades long war on drugs are not included, then she’s not on board either.
“I think it’s critical, because if we do not address the restorative justice piece in tandem with the industry legalization piece then what we’re doing is A) Compounding upon the racial wealth gap and B) Creating an even larger price tag on the war on drugs,” Ocasio-Cortez told VICE News just off the House floor.
Ocasio-Cortez says the inequality of the drug enforcement movement can’t be allowed to continue as inequality in the nation’s burgeoning cannabis industry.
“What it could allow is just the folks who got rich off of private prisons to just roll over and then get even richer on the legalization of marijuana by getting a first mover advantage with their existing capital,” she said.
Cover: Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., hold a news conference in the Capitol to introduce the "Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act" on Tuesday, July 11, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images).