Photo by Kevin Schumacher.
Linden, New Jersey
12:00 EST Noon, August 4, 2017
SEN. CORY BOOKER: I want to thank everybody for being out here today. I know it’s hot, and, as a result of that, let’s just jump right in. I’m just really grateful that everyone would come here today, especially this incredible group of activists behind me. I want to thank everyone, the speakers you’ll here from shortly who endorse this important bill. I’m very excited that an organization that’s been giving me advice since I was a city council person, the Drug Policy Alliance, is here. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is here (L.E.A.P.; now the Law Enforcement Action Partnership), the NAACP, New Jersey State Conference is here, and many other organizations that are represented behind me, as well as elected leaders of every level of government standing here with me. And of course, State Senator—I almost said my state senator, but you don’t represent me. I don’t want to get in trouble with my two state senators in Newark—but I really do want to thank you, Nick [Scutari], for your natural leadership on this issue. You give him a round of applause right now. And then ACLU, LEAP, NORML; I could keep going on and on and on
Hosting us, of course, is Senator Scutari. His bill that he sponsored, the Marijuana Legalization Bill for the State of New Jersey, is in the New Jersey legislature and again his leadership inspires me, and I’m just grateful that he’s willing to stand beside me in the heat, literally and figuratively.
So, this is a very personal issue for me, I want you to know. I see it every day. I am the only United States senator I think in the history of our country, who lives in an inner-city community that is overwhelmingly predominantly black and Latino. It is a rich community in terms of spirit and character and goodness of the people, but it is a low-income community. The exact census track data shows that my census track has about a $14,000 per household income. And I say it’s personal because I see it first-hand in our nation how we have very different sets of laws for different communities. The War on Drugs is a war on people, but particularly it’s been a war on low-income people and disproportionately a war on minorities. We know in the United States of America there is no difference in drug use between black, white and 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 if you’re African American than if you are white. This drug war has done so much to destroy, undermine, sabotage families, communities, neighborhoods, cities. It has hurt our country, and it has actually made us less safe. In the same way that the prohibition of alcohol made us less safe, drove violence and gangs; we see now the prohibition of marijuana is having the same effect.
I saw first-hand as a college student that drug use was widespread. That folks from communities that are privileged—in fact, you didn’t see cars getting stopped and frisked on the way home from fraternity parties. You didn’t see the FBI setting up sting operations on dorms on college campuses where many of us know you can get your Adderall, your ecstasy, your marijuana and the like.
In Congress right now, there are people who serve in the Senate and the House and their staff members who readily admit their use of drugs, that they’ve flaunted drug laws, often cavalierly, often with bravado; but for that teenager in my neighborhood, who gets caught at 17 years old, who gets that arrest record: it destroys their lives. They now are carrying a criminal conviction on their record. And what’s happening to them? Well, they can’t get PELL grants, they can’t get business licenses, have a hard time getting a job. It constricts their ability of having economic success, for doing things in terms of criminality that are less severe than two out of the last three presidents admitted doing; and they were doing harsher drugs.
And so here we are in the United States of America, where we really do not have equal justice under the law. Here we are in the United States of America, where we don’t have liberty and justice for all. Where we have criminalized communities based upon their socio-economic status, not amongst any higher rates of well being, and devastating those communities economically (sic). So it is for these reasons and more that I have decided on the federal level to introduce this legislation.
Now, I want to take a moment just to describe this legislation, the Marijuana Justice Act: It seeks to not only deschedule marijuana on the federal level, making marijuana a legal substance, but it also does more than that. It deals with the failed policies that disproportionately, unfairly, have impacted low-end communities and communities of color. So it ends the federal prohibition of marijuana. It incentivizes states through federal funds to change their marijuana laws if those laws are shown to have a disproportionate impact on low-income individuals and people of color. And it automatically expunges federal marijuana use and possession crimes. It allows people who are currently serving time for marijuana use and possession to re-petition the court for re-sentencing. And finally, and very importantly, it creates a Community Reinvestment Fund to reinvest in those communities that have been impacted and even devastated, from decades of the failed War on Drugs.
I want to say that we know here in New Jersey the data which is stunning, and this is one of the reasons why I know the good senator has acted. We know that in New Jersey every 22 minutes someone is arrested for marijuana possession. 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 (nationally) between 2001 and 2010, and 88 percent of those arrests were just for marijuana possession.
And knowing this [GARBLED], I was tired to see, as mayor of Newark, how I couldn’t get resources to keep my community as safe as I would like to. In fact, in the United States of America, we have de-invested in local police departments dramatically, cutting funding for local police officers by more than 70 percent but increasing the funding for prisons, which are filled overwhelmingly with non-violent drug offenders, increasing that funding nearly 50 percent. We are taking precious police resources and making them focus on the drug war, as opposed to what is necessary for having those precious resources to use to invest in public safety.
And what do we know from states that have already legalized marijuana. For one, we see preliminary data that they’re seeing opioid-related overdose deaths go down! I talked to a doctor recently, we talked about just the fact of people struggling with opioid addiction, that that’s helping them wean off the drug. We’ve seen violent crime go down, and we’ve seen in cash-strapped states, a new source of revenue—like we see from alcohol and other so-called “sin taxes”—a new source of revenue that can be used to invest in education, that can be used to deal with the disease of addiction. At least here in New Jersey, not having the resources even for those people suffering from opioid addiction, to get them residential beds. We know this is common-sense legislation. We know this is legislation that focuses on racial justice and economic justice, and we know this is legislation that can help make us stronger and safer.
I want to end here with this commentary I got in Wildwood, New Jersey last week from veterans who begged me to do something about the over-criminalization of veterans in America. Here, we have a country that is making its veterans, people who are struggling with post-traumatic stress, people who are struggling with depression, who often they’re only hope is their access to marijuana to treat these illnesses, and here we are criminalizing them for doing what’s necessary to stabilize their lives as a result of their service. This is not who we are as a country. We are better than this. And I want to thank everyone who has joined with me to stand for this legislation with the hope that we can have a beginning now in this country of righting the wrong, of ending the drug war which is not a War on Drugs but a (war) on people; and for ending the injustices that have heaped upon low-income Americans and disproportionately against Americans of color.
I want to now bring to the podium a man I’ve already talked about. I won’t go on much longer. It is… Hot!
[Speaker endorsements followed from New Jersey State Senator Nick Scutari. the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, the NAACP and the Mayor’s Office for the City of Linden. While introducing the representative from the NAACP, Senator Booker said:]
BOOKER: Most people don’t understand how we got to this place in America. We started this country with the sin of slavery that led right into the post-reconstruction period which was the greatest period of domestic terrorism in our country’s history. Then after that, we had Jim Crow emerge and just when the Jim Crow laws were ending came the onslaught of the drug war. Well, the drug war has so perniciously effected, insidiously infected communities of color that in some ways it has come full circle, and we now have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all of the slaves in 1865. This is a profoundly unjust war. A great man named Bryan Stevenson said, “You get better treatment in this country if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent…”
[Following the endorsements, Senator Booker took a few questions from the press.]
BOOKER: Now, I’d like to answer some questions with the press understanding, with some mercy, that there’s a lot of us sitting out here in the heat so let’s make it quick.
PRESS OFFICER: On topic.
BOOKER: On topic. I’ll do off-topic on the side. OK.
REPORTER: On topic then: Given the fact that the Trump administration is in charge and they’ve made their feelings known very clearly, how practical do you think it is that there’s going to be quick action on this?
BOOKER: So given the fact that the Trump administration is in charge makes this legislation even more urgent. There must be a response to Donald Trump putting in Attorney General Jeff Sessions who has decided not only to continue federal law but to actually double-down on it. And (he) actually put in threat and in peril, with words he has put out there already, states that have already legalized medical marijuana—not to mention states that legalized marijuana. So think about this right now: Jeff Sessions is pushing this idea that we in law-abiding states, whether it’s New Jersey with medical marijuana or in Colorado where they have repealed marijuana prohibition entirely, that those law abiding citizens—small business people, veterans who are getting their important medication—that the federal government can come in and arrest them all. More than ever, we need a response to that kind of policy. That is yet another reason why this is urgent. But let me say right now: I don’t care who is in office. The time is always right. 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.
REPORTER: Senator, our viewers are concerned about the ins and outs of the bill. What does this mean for the average person? How does this actually happen? Can they just smoke a blunt out on the street without worrying about being arrested?
BOOKER: Again, the reality is … um, the same way with alcohol, marijuana, frankly fast foods—which I just saw some recent medical reports; that stuff will kill you—We need to be acting responsible as adults, 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 have taxed, regulated marijuana within American communities…Especially understanding that the way this law is going about, the way people are being persecuted under this law has less to do with the use of marijuana, and more to do with their socio-economic status. What’s their background? What’s their race?
So this is a fight. You’re seeing it now on the state level, you’re seeing it on the federal level, and we’re supposed to bring justice back to our criminal justice system.
BOOKER: Yeah, but the data—Her question was, Is marijuana a gateway drug? What we’re finding out through research is that it is, specially, an off-ramp drug. Helping people, Number 1, to have an off ramp for drug addiction, for PTSD, from diseases like [Dravet] Syndrome. This is a substance that has been proven to be able help people with crisis. And the fact that we are literally putting constraints on the research on the drug, by having it scheduled down to a Schedule I drug, it undermines those who do research on the drug to find out if it has further beneficial applications. So I do not believe that marijuana is a gateway drug, and having been a mayor trying to keep my community safe, if there was any drug that was driving violence, more than marijuana, it was alcohol which is legal. And so I just don’t think this is a gateway drug. And by the way, if you regulate it you’re actually going to overcome a lot of problems with people having to go to the streets to buy their drug. You don’t know how dangerous that is… What it might be laced with… If it’s not regulated, you don’t know what’s in it. So if we are really going to be about public safety in the United States of America then we’re going to regulate this drug, we are going to tax this drug, (GARBLED) invest in things that keep people safe and empower people.
But I don’t want to let an important part of this legislation go a field. It’s also about reinvesting in these communities that have been so harmed by prohibition, so devastated for decades now, when a family member is arrested and has children and has been saddled with a conviction for doing things that legislators and senators and presidents have gotten away scot-free for doing, it tears apart that family, it drives their economic well-being into the ground, and undermines the whole community around us. And that’s why the reinvestment part of this program is so important.
REPORTER: Republicans have a majority in the House and in the Senate, in order for…
BOOKER: Are you sure about that? Have you checked that?
REPORTER: Is there any opportunity here for bipartisan support? Have you heard from any Republicans that said they would support your bill?
BOOKER: So, a couple things: Remember, that the last piece of legislation I did on marijuana, the Terrorist Act, focusing on the outrageous threat that the federal government can go arrest people in medical marijuana safe states and arrest them—that built up bipartisan support from a number of Republican senators. I have not started to fight so far. There’s this small thing called health care that we’ve been dealing with this last week. So when I come back from this recess, I will start working. But I was surprised that Republican senators pulled me aside—a number of them. One, on the Senate floor—a very conservative Republican who I will not out—spoke with me and said, “I think it is such an injustice in our country.” He used the college student. He said such an injustice to take a college student who has such a promising career and then arrest them, putting in danger their scholarship and the like, just because they got caught with a little bit of marijuana. I, or course, reported to him, “Yes, it’s unjust for a college student. But it’s also unjust for a guy who lives in the inner city who is working in a factory or a warehouse as well.” And so I know that the basic fairness issue is understood on both sides of the aisle. It gives me lots of confidence. In fact, I can declare unequivocally that this legislation; it is not a matter of if it will pass, it is a matter of when it will pass.
HIGH TIMES: Senator, it has been notoriously hard for the marijuana reform communities to engage with the activists in communities of color. Do you have a plan for bridging the two because it’s been politically hard to get them together?
BOOKER: This is an issue about all of us who are activists and progressives and to make sure our movements are inclusive. I find it in the environmental movement all the time. The people in New Jersey most impacted by environmental injustices are usually low-income communities, are usually communities of color as well. And we’ve got to find a way to create activism that really is a larger—to take the mantra of a man that 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. 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 those 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, and 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. Thank you very much.
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