In an interview with Vice News that aired Thursday night, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he would be introducing a bill to decriminalize marijuana. “If smoking marijuana doesn’t hurt anybody else, why shouldn’t we allow people to do it and not make it criminal?” he asked.
As he explained in the interview and on Twitter, the bill would allow states to set their own policies on marijuana without federal intervention beyond preventing the flow of marijuana to states that haven’t yet legalized it. The bill would also fund research on THC and, in Schumer’s words, “inject real dollars into minority and women-owned businesses to ensure those disproportionately affected by marijuana criminalization can benefit from this new economy.” “I recognize that time after time when these sweeping changes occur, the little guys lose while the big guys continue to profit,” he tweeted. “We saw this with big tobacco and we could see it with marijuana as well.”
This is a significant milestone for the legalization movement, as Schumer is the highest-ranking elected official yet in Washington to put forward pro-pot legislation. The move also effectively nudges the Democratic caucus toward openly supporting legalization.
A number of Senate Democrats have been working the issue for a while now, though. Last spring, Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a package of legislation that would legalize marijuana at the federal level and impose an excise tax akin to those levied on alcohol and tobacco. One bill in the package would also allow for the expungement of marijuana offenses from the criminal records of those convicted in states where marijuana was legal or those convicted for possessing an ounce or less of pot. Criminal justice reforms are the focus of Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, introduced in August. His bill, endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders on Thursday and Kirsten Gillibrand in February, would legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge all federal marijuana-related offenses from criminal records, grant convicts currently imprisoned for those offenses the right to petition for re-sentencing, and cut federal prison and law enforcement funding from states that haven’t legalized marijuana and disproportionately arrest or incarcerate the poor and minorities over pot. Booker’s bill also sets aside $500 million a year in grants for job training, ex-convict re-entry programs, libraries, youth centers, and other services and programs within communities heavily impacted by the war on drugs.
In the interview, Schumer said he supported efforts by Booker and others to pass marijuana-related criminal justice reforms, but that those proposals were on “a separate track” from federal decriminalization:
There’s two paths here. One path is decriminalization of marijuana at the federal level. That’s what we’re introducing. There’s another path that’s already being pursued, in a bipartisan way, by people like Senator Booker and Senator [Dick] Durbin, which is criminal justice reform, which I also support, but that’s a separate track dealing with people who have been unfairly punished.
Of course, there’s no inherent and obvious policy reason why decriminalization and justice reform proposals should be considered two distinct “paths” for those who support both, as Schumer says he does. In fact, Schumer could have tacked his provisions onto Booker’s far larger bill rather than introducing them in separate legislation. The goal of the new bill may, then, be to provide a vehicle for federal decriminalization that can be promoted and passed without the assumed political freight of the kinds of reforms Booker and, to a far lesser extent, Wyden have drafted. Schumer’s ensured that a separate debate will eventually be had on what people imprisoned over pot and their communities deserve.
It’s unclear how much sense this makes as political strategy. A CBS poll released Friday found that 59 percent of Americans now support pot legalization, in line with a February Fox News poll that found 59 percent support among registered voters and close to an October Gallup poll that put support at 64 percent among Americans. But the numbers in favor of criminal justice reform broadly speaking are generally as high or higher. A poll conducted last April by the Koch Institute—one of several right-wing groups that have taken an interest in reform over the past few years—found that 64 percent of voters believe that too many people are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, generally speaking. An October poll by the ACLU found that over 70 percent of Americans believe the criminal justice system should be oriented towards rehabilitation. This suggests there’s probably broad support for re-sentencing and record expungement in general—little risk would probably lie in tying them to decriminalization in comprehensive legislation.
The question of whether the federal government should spend heavily in largely minority communities affected by decades of repressive drug policy, as Booker proposes, is likely more politically fraught. But turning marijuana legalization into an issue politically salient enough for those who casually agree to come to the polls and cast votes over it—an issue politically salient enough that passing a bill or bills is assured—will require Democrats to make a clear and strident moral case, to and about minority communities in particular, on the failures of the War on Drugs and the urgency of righting the wrongs it has inflicted. That messaging won’t take as well if it seems like they’ve made justice reform a separate question or an afterthought.