Booker’s Big Fight: Federal Pot Legalization & Social Justice Reform on Horizon

Photo by Vortex Farmacy

It was bright and hot in Linden, when Senator Cory Booker returned to New Jersey on Friday. Earlier last week in the nation’s capital, the senator proposed an ambitious plan to legalize marijuana nationally that was a direct challenge to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has confirmed his intention to crack down on weed.

Booker interrupted his annual “Jersey Summer Road Trip” for a kick-ass, kick-off press conference on the steps of Linden City Hall.

He was joined by New Jersey State Senator Nick Scutari, who earlier this spring introduced his own marijuana legalization bill in the Garden State (currently holding its breath until Chris Christie leaves office). Kindred spirits, Senator Booker said Nick Scutari’s leadership was an inspiration.

“I’m just grateful that he’s willing to stand beside me in the heat, literally and figuratively,” Booker quipped.

The Senators were flanked on either side by representatives from the DPA, LEAP, NAACP, NORML, ACLU and more; and behind him on the granite steps, stood dozens of New Jersey’s most prominent pot law reformers baking in the midday sun.

No, not that kind of baking.

“The War on Drugs is a war on people,” Booker began. “Particularly, it’s been a war on low-income people and, disproportionately, a war on minorities.”

The senator noted that in the U.S. there was no difference in drug use among whites, blacks or Latinos, “but if you’re Latino in the United States of America, you’re about twice as likely to be arrested for drug use than if you’re white. If you’re black you are about four times as likely to be arrested than if you are white.”

Booker’s sweeping Marijuana Justice Act of 2017 would automatically reschedule cannabis on the federal level and make it legal in the U.S., subject to state law.

“But it also does more than that,” the senator pressed. “It deals with the failed policies that disproportionately have impacted low-income communities and communities of color.”

If Booker’s bill prevails into law it would “incentivize” (that’s his word; others might say “penalize”) states with racially disproportionate arrest records or incarceration rates. Cleverly, such states would not be eligible to receive any federal funds for the construction or staffing of a prison or jail until the disparities are fixed. (As a practical matter, that would include every state in the U.S. where cannabis is currently illegal. Thus, such recalcitrant states would be encouraged to find a way to get rid of a widespread social problem, or simply legalize weed.)

Booker’s plan is comprehensive. The money withheld from such states would be added to a new Community Reinvestment Fund that the feds would kick-start with a half-billion dollars per year. That fund would be used by the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to establish a grant program that would reinvest in communities that have been perniciously affected by the drug war. The grants could be for job training, libraries, community centers, health education programs and more.

The bill’s passage would expunge federal marijuana convictions and provide a legal path to re-sentence prisoners who are currently in jail. It would take marijuana out of the hands of the DEA and allow states to set up policies as they see fit.

Additionally—and I’ll believe it when I see it—people “aggrieved by a disproportionate arrest rate or a disproportionate incarceration rate” will be allowed to file civil lawsuits against the state.

Photo by Kevin Schumacher

The Marijuana Justice Act “is the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that’s ever been filed in either chamber of Congress,” opined long-time activist Tom Angell of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority in a statement. “More than just getting the federal government out of the way so that states can legalize without DEA harassment, this new proposal goes even further by actually punishing states that have bad marijuana laws.”

To the smiling sweating activists gathered behind him on the steps, Senator Booker’s words were a welcome cool breeze passing through the blistering hot plaza. His far-reaching plan addressed many of the social-justice concerns that pot law reformers have expressed for years to anyone who would listen, messaging that often seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Now, a sitting U.S. Senator was standing point-by-point and toe-to-toe with them in solidarity. It was clear Booker had done his homework too. From memory, the former mayor of Newark effortlessly rattled off an impressive litany of facts, figures and stats that starkly revealed the need for reform.

“We know that in New Jersey every 22 minutes someone is arrested for marijuana possession,” he said. “We know that New Jersey makes more than 21,000 marijuana possession arrests every year; and we know from the ACLU study that there have been eight million marijuana arrests (nationwide) between 2001 and 2010, and 88 percent of those arrests are just for marijuana possession.”

The senator was both informed and eloquent as he took questions from the press. Only four questions were asked because, as Booker observed, “It. Is. Hot!”

The first three inquiries came from local media:

What do think the chances are the bill will pass while Donald Trump is president?

“Given the fact that the Trump administration is in charge makes this legislation even more urgent. There must be a response…” Booker asserted, before adding, “I don’t care who is in office. Now is always the right time to do what is right.  So I am calling on my fellow congress people and senators to join this legislation.”

What does this mean for the average person? Can they just smoke a blunt out on the street without worrying about being arrested?

A inane question, Booker gave the only possible political answer: “We need to be acting responsible as adults,” he insisted, “and I don’t endorse in any way the irresponsible use of marijuana. That’s outrageous. But I do believe we have come to a point in our society where we need to end prohibition… We need to bring justice back to our criminal justice system.”

Is marijuana a gateway drug?

It’s “an off-ramp drug,” Booker amended. “Helping people to have an off ramp from drug addiction, from PTSD, from diseases like [Dravet] Syndrome. This is a substance that has been proven to be able help people with crisis… I do not believe that marijuana is a gateway drug.”

One reporter observed that the Republications have a majority in the House and in the Senate.

“Are you sure about that?” Booker chided. “Have you checked that?”

The reporter persisted. “Is there any opportunity here for bipartisan support? Have you heard from any Republicans that said they would support your bill?”

Booker admitted he hasn’t had a chance to sell his idea on Capitol Hill just yet.

“So when I come back from this recess, I will start working (on building support),” Booker said. “I know that the basic fairness issue is known on both sides of the aisle. It gives me lots of confidence. In fact, I can declare unequivocally that this legislation—it’s not a matter of if it will pass; it is a matter of when it will pass.

And finally, as the senator’s press secretary tried to call it a wrap, Booker smoothly overruled him and took one last question from

It’s been notoriously hard for the marijuana reform community to engage with the activists from communities of color. Do you have a plan for bridging the gap between the two?

The senator nodded knowingly.

“This is an issue for all of us who are activists and progressives: to make sure our movements are inclusive,” he said. “I find it in the environmental movement all the time. The people in New Jersey who are most impacted by environmental injustices are usually low-income communities, are usually communities of color as well. We’ve got to find a way to create activism that really is—to take the mantra of a man who came before me—a Rainbow Coalition.”

“We are a nation that has a common pain but we seem to be losing our common sense of purpose,” he added. “So whether it’s young people in Appalachia or young people in Camden, New Jersey who are being persecuted because they’re poor, we need to start understanding that this needs to be a multi-cultural movement, and we are all united in it. What folks are doing unfortunately, who are defenders of the status quo, is that they are exploiting our divisiveness. They’re trying to drive wedge issues between to make us believe we don’t have a common sense of purpose. And so I want you to understand that racial justice is not about justice for people who are black or brown; racial justice is about American justice. Justice for LGBT Americans is not about gay and lesbian justice; it’s about American justice. Equality for women isn’t about women; it’s about United States equality. And we’re not going to win the Big Fight in this country until we understand that we are all in this together. You cannot suppress an inner city African American girl without yourself being suppressed. You cannot enjoy justice anywhere in this country until we make sure there is justice everywhere in this country.”

The weed wonks behind him burst into cheers, but their exhilaration was tempered with the knowledge that the Marijuana Justice Act still faces significant hurdles and still has a long way to go.

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