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Sen. Cory Booker puts marijuana legalization at the center of his new racial justice bill

Sen. Cory Booker on Wednesday introduced legislation that would legalize marijuana, expunge federal marijuana convictions and penalize states with racially-disparate arrest or incarceration rates for marijuana-related crimes. The changes are aimed at undoing some of the harm the nation's decades-long war on drugs has inflicted on poor and minority communities.

Like legislation introduced two years ago by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the bill from Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act. This would remove marijuana from the purview of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and allow states to set their own policies.

But Booker's bill would go considerably further. It would withhold some criminal justice funding from states that haven't legalized marijuana if they exhibit racially disproportionate arrest or incarceration rates. In effect, this would apply to each state in which marijuana is not currently legal: A 2013 ACLU report found that nationwide, blacks were nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges as whites, despite similar rates of use of the drug.

Booker's legislation would effectively encourage states to legalize marijuana to avoid these penalties. Funds withheld from states would be put toward a federal “Community Reinvestment Fund” that would receive a separate $500 million in appropriations annually. The fund would be used to “establish a grant program to reinvest in communities most affected by the war on drugs.” It would cover job-training programs, criminal re-entry assistance, public libraries and community centers, youth programs, and health education.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) says he is introducing a bill that would legalize marijuana nationally. (Video: Sen. Cory Booker/Facebook, Photo: Matt McClain/Sen. Cory Booker/Facebook)

The bill would also create a process for expunging federal marijuana convictions and resentencing people currently serving time for federal marijuana offenses.

“For decades, the failed War on Drugs has locked up millions of nonviolent drug offenders — especially for marijuana-related offenses — at an incredible cost of lost human potential, torn-apart families and communities, and taxpayer dollars,” Booker said in a Facebook post introducing the legislation.

He added that the legislation would “legalize marijuana at the federal level and go even further in an effort to remedy many of the failures of the War on Drugs. This is the right thing to do for public safety and will help reduce our overflowing prison population.”

Drug policy reformers cheered the bill's ambitions of correcting past racial injustices. “From disparate marijuana-related arrests and incarceration rates to deportations and justifications for police brutality — the war on drugs has had disparate harm on low-income communities and communities of color,” said Queen Adesuyi of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. “It's time to rectify that.”

According to the Drug Policy Alliance's estimates, black Americans represent 14 percent of regular drug users but 37 percent of people arrested for drug offenses. Nationwide police arrest more people for marijuana offenses than for violent crime. Those arrests fall disproportionately on minorities, according to the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.

Booker's bill “is the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that’s ever been filed in either chamber of Congress,” said 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.”

Legalization skeptics, on the other hand, were unimpressed. “Given the opioid epidemic, [Booker's] legislative energy would be much better spent implementing solutions to that crisis,” said Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization. “But the Big Marijuana lobbyists are probably very happy.”

The bill stands little chance of passing in a Republican-controlled Congress. But Booker is frequently mentioned as a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. His full-throated embrace of legalization is a signal that the party continues to evolve on an issue that's overwhelmingly popular with Democratic voters.

In the last election cycle, party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton never endorsed legalization, despite convincing evidence that doing so could have shored up support among younger voters. And public support for legalization has solidified since then. Voters in four states opted to legalize marijuana in 2016, and national support for legalization in Gallup polling reached 60 percent for the first time.

While a longtime opponent of the drug war and an advocate for criminal justice reform, Booker has evolved rapidly on marijuana issues in recent years. As recently as 2015 he declined to support legalization in an interview with Vox, preferring instead to focus on medical marijuana issues and loosening some federal restrictions to make research and medical use easier.

But today Booker struck a much different tone. “Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step in correcting this unjust system,” he said in a statement. “States have so far led the way in reforming our criminal justice system, and it’s about time the federal government catches up and begins to assert leadership.”