U.S. Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill Tuesday to make marijuana legal at the federal level, marking the first time the New Jersey Democrat has come out in favor of full legalization and further stoking tensions with a Trump administration that has sought to roll back the clock on federal drug policy.
The Marijuana Justice Act, as Booker is calling his bill, would also allow people serving time for marijuana-related offenses to be resentenced and automatically expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes. It uses federal funds to encourage states to liberalize their marijuana laws, Booker said in a statement ahead of the bill’s formal introduction.
“Our country’s drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed,” Booker said. “They don’t make our communities any safer — instead they divert critical resources from fighting violent crimes, tear families apart, unfairly impact low-income communities and communities of color and waste billions in taxpayer dollars each year.”
But despite public support and backing from members of both political parties, marijuana legalization efforts have little chance of succeeding in the GOP-controlled Congress. Many Republicans remain skeptical about marijuana reform, while Trump’s Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has started rolling back Obama-era policies aimed at granting more leeway to drug offenders.
Sessions directed federal prosecutors earlier this year to resume the practice of pursuing the most severe penalties possible for offenses, a strategy that has resulted in long sentences for many minority defendants and packed prisons. He also petitioned Congress to undo federal provision that prevents the Justice Department from targeting medical marijuana operations in states where they are legal.
According to reports, Sessions also re-established a controversial criminal asset seizure program last month that could be used to crackdown on the sale of marijuana even where it’s legal. And Trump’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which Sessions leads, is expected to issue a report this week that advocates fear will link marijuana to violent crime and recommend tougher sentences for those growing, selling and smoking the plant.
Booker, meanwhile, has made criminal justice reform one of his central issues, arguing that drug laws perpetuate poverty in cities by creating generations of people who cannot take advantage of safety net programs such as food stamps and public housing because of nonviolent criminal records.
The American Civil Liberties Union bolstered that argument in a May report that found police in New Jersey make a marijuana possession arrest every 22 minutes and arrest black residents at three times the rate of white residents despite similar usage rates. The civil rights group called on New Jersey to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for adults.
New Jersey and 28 other states already allow medical marijuana use, while eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use.
Both policies are supported by a majority of Americans: 94 percent support medical marijuana, while 60 percent are in favor of full marijuana legalization, according to a recent Quinnipiac University national poll.
Booker’s newfound support for full legalization is in line with the views of New Jersey's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, who has said that legalizing and regulating marijuana could generate $300 million in tax revenue for the state.
Murphy’s Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, has said she favors decriminalizing marijuana but is opposed to legalizing it for recreational use.
Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, has blasted efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana as “beyond stupidity,” arguing that marijuana is a gateway to more serious drug use. Christie heads a national opioid commission that on Monday urged Trump to declare drug abuse a national health emergency.
According to Booker’s description of his legislation, the Marijuana Justice Act would:
- Remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, making it legal at the federal level
- Allow people serving time in federal prison for marijuana use or possession to petition a court for resentencing
- Automatically expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes
- Encourage states through federal funds to loosen their marijuana laws if marijuana is illegal and the state disproportionately arrests and incarcerates minorities for marijuana-related offenses
- Create a community reinvestment fund to funnel money for job training and other services into communities most impacted by the war on drugs
According to Booker’s statement, current drug laws have led police to arrest more Americans for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes, including armed robbery, murder and sexual assault, combined.