New legislation has been introduced to end federal prohibition of marijuana by focusing on the racial disparity of marijuana arrests and incarcerations, which has been part of the argument for legalization efforts in many states across the country, and was one of the driving reasons for legalizing recreational marijuana in Washington, D.C. in 2014.
D.C.’s Initiative 71, a voter-approved ballot initiative, gained considerable traction when advocates and organizers made the issue of racially disparate arrests in the city a larger part of their call for full recreational and medical legalization. An overwhelming 71 percent of voters approved the initiative.
The new legislation, “The Marijuana Justice Act”, introduced by D.C.-native and former mayor of Newark, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) on August 1, has been promoted as a measure to not just deschedule marijuana but a call to end the war on drugs. “The question is no longer should we legalize marijuana but how we legalize marijuana,” Queen Adesuyi, policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in commenting about the bill. “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. It’s time to rectify that.”
The bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act; cut federal funding for state law enforcement and prison construction; allow entities to sue states that disproportionately arrest or incarcerate low-income individuals; prevent deportations for marijuana offenses; provide for a process of expungement for marijuana offenses at the federal level; provide for resentencing; and create a community reinvestment fund of $500 million to invest in communities that were impacted by the war on drugs.
In a live Facebook event, Booker talked about the reasons for his bill, which has no co-sponsors yet. “You see the injustice of it all,” he said, talking about the disparities in arrests. “We must do better.”
Retroactively expunging arrest records for possession was a critical issue of the bill that he discussed. “Remember these are charges that follow people for the rest of their lives, that make it difficult for them to do anything like even apply for a taxi cab license.” Some who are applying for a job have to literally check a box confessing to using marijuana, he says, while their legislator might have used and even joked about using marijuana. “And for those legislators, there are no consequences in admitting that,” he says. “That hypocrisy has to stop.”
Booker’s legislative record includes previous work on sentencing reforms. In 2015, Booker joined with a bipartisan group of senators to introduce Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA). This bill is designed to correct sentencing disparities and reduce mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders by reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Booker has also introduced the Fair Chance Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that aims to give people convicted of non-violent crimes a fair chance at employment once they have paid their debt to society. The bill would prohibit federal agencies and federal contractors from making a criminal history inquiry at the outset of the employment application process and reserve the inquiry until an applicant receives a conditional offer of employment.
“If you are a politician and you are about justice and liberty and you take your oath seriously – if you are pledging yourself to that concept – this concept of justice is what you should be talking about,” Booker said about his bill.
Booker based his decision to sponsor the bill in part on a 2013 report from ACLU, showing that despite similar rates of use and sale with white counterparts, African Americans and Latinos make up nearly 80 percent of the country’s annual marijuana possession arrests.
“Ending federal marijuana prohibition would bring the law in line with the opinion of the growing majority of Americans who want states to be able to enact their own marijuana laws without harassment by the DEA,” Shaleen Title, a founding board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, said. “By divesting in prisons and reinvesting in job training and re-entry programs, this bill would move our country forward and prioritize building up our communities.”
Booker said that it’s not enough just to say marijuana is now legal and “let’s move forward.” “This has done serious damage to our communities and serious damage to American families. We need to end the racial disparities but also do what I call restorative justice. That means helping communities heal and recover from what has been the unjust application of the law.”