The New Jersey senator and potential 2020 candidate talks about his far-reaching legalization bill and whether he's ever inhaled.
We're at a pot precipice in America. Twenty-nine states (and Washington, DC) have given residents access to some form of medical marijuana, eight have legalized recreational use, and a contingent of politicians, policy experts, and advocacy groups continue to fight for further decriminalization. This push has helped many people like me—I have Crohn's disease and frequently use medical weed as a deterrent for flare-ups. But even though some Republicans have embraced the cause of legalizing weed, the current White House seems devoted to keeping the war on drugs alive.
Yet despite the current climate, and even though the conversation over marijuana legalization has been less prominent in the age of Trump, politicians like Senator Cory Booker believe full legalization is all but inevitable. "We are on the right side of history," the New Jersey Democratic senator told me over the phone from Washington, DC, two months after introducing his Marijuana Justice Act, a bill that calls for a full federal legalization as well as the establishment of a fund to repair communities hit hardest by the drug war.
It's an ambitious plan that, given the Republican domination of Congress and the White House, almost certainly won't become law. But it marked Booker as perhaps the Senate's leading anti-drug war advocate, which is important given that many observers are already assuming he is one of the top contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. (When he was asked this summer about 2020, Booker said, "I don't know what the future's going to bring.")
Booker recently talked about the future of weed in America, how his bill fits in, and why he's pushing for legalization while Trump is president.
VICE: When did you first begin to consider a full federal legalization of pot, and how did it manifest into the Marijuana Justice Act?
Cory Booker: I was talking about what the art of the possible was, and why one of the first things I led with was [the CARERS Act], a bipartisan bill on medical marijuana. I thought that that would be a great move and something that could get a lot more momentum. And it did—it is a bill that the Judiciary Committee is willing to hold a hearing on… It's been this experience of seeing the hypocrisy within marijuana prohibition, and how it's destroyed so many lives and communities who get caught up in the war on drugs, while other communities are more easily able to have their breaking of the law exonerated or overlooked. There is a massive injustice being done in a nation that believes in equal justice under the law; marijuana enforcement makes a mockery of that ideal.
I came to the conclusion that I am not going to wait until pragmatic politics shows me a pathway. I want to start to change the conversation and make the pathway, no matter how many obstacles there may be.
Do you think that that conversation can even be had in the current political climate? Every day brings a dozen news items from the administration, and a lot of important topics end up buried.
I was very moved at how in the day after introducing this bill a few Republican senators, who I wouldn't have expected, came up to share with me how they felt. One senator talked to me about college students that he knew who were having their lives ruined because they were caught with a little bit of marijuana. And it led to good conversations, and my desire for my colleagues to understand that it doesn't matter if they are a college student or a teenager in an inner city who is unemployed and still searching for an opportunity.
Nationally, I am questioned about it all the time. I am trying to use my platform not to follow consensus but to shape consensus, and to reveal to people what our current laws are doing in terms of how they're destroying our nation.
Though you've had GOP members like Orrin Hatch come out in support of medical marijuana, Republicans are typically seen as being against legalization. Why put forth something the Trump administration will toss aside? Is this more about broadening discussion than passing your bill as is?
Well, I don't know when that time is going to be. But I know this: We've got to start that journey. I have been making the analogy to marriage equality. It was not that long ago that I was so frustrated that everybody from President Obama to Secretary of State Clinton were not in favor of marriage equality. But before you knew it, people were talking about it and pushing for the change. I don't want to wait to start calling for what's right when the political climate might seem advantageous. There is no time like the present to fight for what's right, to advocate for justice. There is no doubt in my mind that the federal government should not be in the marijuana prohibition business. It's making us less safe, it's costing taxpayers too much money, it's violating our values. From every perspective—a libertarian perspective, fiscal conservative's perspective, Christian evangelical perspective, progressive perspective—marijuana prohibition is just wrong. So I am not going to read the political tea leaves anymore, and I am not going to be silent on this issue, especially when I can see—as the only senator that lives in a low-income inner-city community—the damage that has been done over decades of a failed war on drugs.
It's important to note, this is not just ending prohibition on the federal level. My legislation is really about beginning to repair the egregious harm that has been done to the communities that have been targeted… Nobody is setting up FBI sting operations or stopping and frisking people as they come home from a fraternity party. This war on drugs is a war on people, and not all people: It's a war on poor people, on mentally ill people, on addicted people, and on people of color. My bill is focused on understanding that it's not just about ending prohibition. It has to be about retroactively expunging records. It has to be about community repair and addressing the generational damage that's been done by stripping communities of their economic strength.
In your initial announcement of the bill, you spoke about hearing members in Congress openly admit to drug use. Do you remember the first time you heard that? How did you react?
I was graduating from college by the time Bill Clinton admitting to smoking marijuana—without inhaling. And that seemed like a radical revelation at the time—and risky. That's 1992, so about 15 years later—or I'm sorry, 21 years later (God, I am getting old) when I became a United States senator—it was commonplace to having elected leaders admitting to having smoked marijuana, not to mention staffers. There is a privilege of people that get to positions of Senate and congressional staff—you're coming through privileged portals where you see no consequences for having done these things. Which is dramatically different than the community that I call home, where you don't have that privilege to be able to experiment with drugs without consequences. Remember, two of the last three presidents admitted to doing drugs far more serious than alcohol and marijuana. They copped to felony drug use, and they became president of the United States. Yet there are kids in my community and in communities around this country who have had their lives destroyed, and lifetime sentences for using drugs. The consequences for that "youthful indiscretion," as some might call it, will follow them for the rest of their lives.
Have you ever smoked weed?
I have never smoked marijuana, I have never smoked a cigarette, I have never eaten marijuana, I have never tried another drug, I have never drank alcohol [laughs]. I think the most alcohol I have had may be a sip of beer to get my friends off my back, or maybe the church wine. This to me is not an issue I come at through my own experimentations. I come at this as an issue of justice, as an issue of safety for our communities, as an issue of utter fairness. But I will tell you what, I might have my first drink of alcohol if my bill can become a law.
So what are the next steps? Do you see a clear path for this bill passing?
I hate to be dramatic about it, but I don't see the pathway to passage right now. And—this is what I mean by being dramatic—I know that the first abolitionists that got together and started fighting for abolition didn't see the likelihood of passage in Congress at that point, I know that the first activists who started pressing for voting rights legislation and civil rights legislation didn't see a pathway… This is the beginning of a journey, and I think it's going to be a far shorter journey than many people think. Millennials in this country, Republican and Democrat, overwhelmingly believe in legalization. So we are getting there, and as experiments in a dozen plus states continue to forge forward on medical marijuana, and as decriminalization and legalization begin to show more instructive ways for dealing with marijuana, I think the momentum for our movement is going to continue. I am just proud to be a part of a group of people down here in Washington that believes we shouldn't follow. It's about time that we lead.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alex Suskind lives in Los Angeles and has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, and Playboy.