Joined by four fellow candidates for the presidency, Sen. Cory Booker is reintroducing legislation that would legalize marijuana and expunge convictions for possessing the drug.
“It’s not enough to simply decriminalize marijuana,” Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement announcing the new version of his Marijuana Justice Act. “We must expunge the records of those who have served their time. The end we seek is not just legalization, it’s justice.”
Booker’s bill, which was first introduced in 2017 but never brought up for a vote, will be co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Ca.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
All of them had co-sponsored the 2017 bill, too, as had Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who is considering his own run for the presidency. Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), who traveled to Iowa last week, is also co-sponsoring the new bill.
Any of them would be the first nominee of a major political party to endorse the legalization of marijuana; Sanders, as a candidate in 2016, had called for the drug to be decriminalized.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for possession of marijuana every single year,” Sanders said in a statement. “We must end the absurd situation of marijuana being listed as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin. It is time to decriminalize marijuana, expunge past marijuana convictions and end the failed war on drugs.”
Since the 1970 passage of the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government has classified marijuana as a substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Petitions to change that designation have been ignored by the Drug Enforcement Administration, and states have decriminalized marijuana for medical and recreational purposes despite the statute, creating a legal gray area.
In 2016, for the first time, Democrats amended their party platform to call for the government to decriminalize marijuana and “appropriately regulate it, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization.” Under those distinctions, decriminalizing marijuana meant users could not be arrested for its possession; legalization would make the drug available for legal purchase.
While the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, rarely discussed the issue, the dozen Democrats who have declared presidential bids this year are all in favor of legalization, as are many of the candidates expected to announce their plans next month.
Booker’s legislation goes further than legalization, though, and would create a “community reinvestment fund” to offer grants, job training, and transition from prison to community life for the people and places “most affected by the war on drugs.”
That’s in line with how Booker and other Democrats have described the next steps toward decriminalizing marijuana. As states have allowed marijuana to be sold legally, Democrats have warned that people who were jailed for selling a now-legal product remain in prison. Booker’s bill points out the racial disparities in marijuana arrests and convictions, something several endorsers have emphasized.
“It is shameful that my son would likely be treated very differently from one of his black or Latino peers if he was stopped and found with marijuana,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “Legalizing marijuana is an issue of morality and social justice.”
Harris said in a statement: “Marijuana laws in this country have not been applied equally, and as a result we have criminalized marijuana use in a way that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of young men of color. Legalizing marijuana is the smart thing to do and the right thing to do to advance justice and equality for every American.”
Booker’s bill is unlikely to get a vote in a Republican-controlled Senate; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called marijuana “illicit.” But it could get hearings and votes in the new Democratic House, where it is being introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna, both Democrats from California, where recreational marijuana was legalized in a 2016 ballot measure.
“I’m proud to sponsor legislation that would legalize marijuana at the federal level, address the disproportionate impact of prohibition on people of color by expunging criminal convictions, and promote equitable participation in the legal marijuana industry,” Lee said.
Khanna added that it was significant that every Democrat running for president had endorsed at least some path toward decriminalizing marijuana.
“This shows that public opinion is shifting in this country to recognize that legalizing marijuana is a racial justice issue, an issue for helping make progress on the opioid crisis, and an economic issue of creating jobs,” Khanna said.