New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduced legislation this week in Washington that would legalize marijuana, in a direct about-face from the “War on Drugs” declared under then-President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Sen. Booker’s legislation would also work to get rid of federal drug convictions for marijuana, and penalize states that have racially unbalanced arrest and incarceration rates for marijuana-related crimes.
This is similar to what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced two years ago. It would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, which would in turn take away its oversight by the Drug Enforcement Administration and allow states to set their own policies. The similarities between the two end there, with Booker’s version moving to withhold some criminal justice legislation from states who haven’t legalized marijuana if they show racially disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration. In 2013, the ACLU reported that blacks were nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges as whites, despite similar use of the drug in both demographics.
The legislation would encourage the states to legalize the drug in order to avoid these penalties. Any withheld funds would be put into a federal “Community Reinvestment Fund.” This fund, which would receive $500 million annually, and would be a grant-based program that would cover job-training programs, criminal re-entry assistance, public libraries and community centers, youth programs and health education for those communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs. The bill would work to expunge federal marijuana convictions and re-sentence those currently serving sentences for federal marijuana charges.
“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.
The Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that works for sensible drug policies and is in favor of legalizing marijuana nationally, has estimated that black Americans account for 14 percent of drug users, yet 37 percent are arrested for drug-related offenses. Nationally, more people are arrested for marijuana than other ‘harder’ drugs and violent crime.
“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. “It’s time to rectify that.”