Why Cory Booker Cares So Much About Legal Weed

"I get angry when I see people taking just one step — legalizing marijuana — without doing anything to address past harms," says Sen. Cory Booker Photo: Uncredited

In the fight to legalize pot, enthusiasts have largely pointed to the unjust demonization of the drug itself. Weed is no more harmful than alcohol, the argument goes, so why not tax it and regulate it the same way? That logic has carried the day in nearly a dozen pot-legal states from Alaska to California to Maine.

But when Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and 2020 presidential candidate, looks at the question of legalizing cannabis, he sees the stakes very differently. For Booker, the real problem is the unjust enforcement of marijuana laws — against black and brown Americans, whose usage rates are no different than their white counterparts but who are arrested at astronomically higher rates.

As Congress begins to seriously grapple with the federal legalization of cannabis, Booker has introduced, with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the Marijuana Justice Act. The bill would not simply remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. It would also create a mechanism to expunge the criminal records of many pot offenders and create a fund of at least $500 million a year to repair the damage done to communities that have been unjustly targeted. Finally, it would strip federal money from states that continue to prohibit pot if they do not enforce their laws equitably along racial and class lines.

“Booker and Lee single-handedly shifted the conversation,” says Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for the D.C. office of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Marijuana Justice Act is the first bill that deschedules marijuana that also acknowledges the harm that prohibition has done to communities of color and low income communities — connecting marijuana reform to criminal justice reform and racial justice.”

Rolling Stone recently spoke with Booker about his bill, its intersections with the broader criminal-justice-reform movement, and how pot may play in the 2020 presidential race.

With marijuana reform, what’s the distinction you see between legalization and justice?
The War on Drugs has been a war on people — and not all people equally — overwhelmingly on poor people, and disproportionately on black and brown people. There’s no difference in America in marijuana usage between blacks and whites. But African-Americans, for example, are almost four times more likely to be arrested. And this has had a profound impact on our society — driving injustice, driving disparities.

Kids who are on college campuses don’t have to worry about getting arrested for marijuana. Two of the last three presidents admitted to using the drug. We have now people who are senators who are talking about their past marijuana usage. But in 2017 there were more people arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crime combined. And it destroys lives. It destroys families. And it destroys the economic strength of communities.

So to say that we’re just going to legalize and move forward without addressing the damage that has been done, without addressing the injustices that have been heaped upon people and hurt people, to me, is unacceptable.

How can we talk about legalization and not talk about expunging the records of people who still can’t get jobs, who still can’t vote in many states, still can’t get business licenses because of doing things that congresspeople and senators now readily admit to doing? We’ve got to expunge records. We’ve got to get people who are in prison now for marijuana crimes a pathway out of prison. And we’ve got to take the resources — the incredible tax revenue that is going to come [from the legal trade in cannabis] — and reinvest it in those communities that were disproportionately targeted by the war on marijuana.

It’s not often in our history that centering the disproportionate harm experienced by black and brown Americans has been key to broadening a bill’s appeal. But this follows criminal justice reform you achieved last Congress. Can you talk about how this builds on that broader discussion and on bipartisan relationships?
I feel grateful that people are receptive to this idea of restorative justice. And I have found allies on both sides of the aisle who recognize that this has been profoundly unjust — and not just unjust but fiscally imprudent. That it is harming people in a way that undermines a basic sense of fairness and decency in our country.

I get angry when I see people taking just one step — legalizing marijuana — without doing anything to address past harms. Suddenly, you’re legalizing marijuana, and all of these people, who used marijuana in the past but were never caught, are lining up to get business licenses, who are not diverse — in the very communities that are black and brown and low-income, where there are people who wanted those business opportunities but aren’t getting them because of past convictions, or because they don’t have capital to start businesses.

I was struck by your questioning of Attorney General Bill Barr in his nomination hearing in January. He basically challenged Congress to step up and act, that Congress needs to fix the backdoor nullification of federal drug law that’s happening in states that have embraced legal marijuana. Do you think that message has a resonance with your Republican colleagues now?
I did appreciate him challenging Congress — to say that we do have these broken laws and we need to fix them. But his seeming willingness to continue to enforce these laws he knows are unjust was problematic to me. Complicity in unjust laws — we’ve seen this before with Jim Crow and more — complicity with unjust laws is unacceptable, and I think we should have more people standing up, where you have prosecutorial discretion, more people standing up and forcefully advocating for changes.

I’ve been diving into the text of your bill, and it has carrots and sticks.

You have a provision that would take Department of Justice funding away from states that practice disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws along class or racial lines.
Think about this for a second. We created a Crime Bill in 1994 that had ridiculous incentives for people to build out prisons and jails. We used federal streams of money to change laws and really further the War on Drugs, in a way that was so hurtful to society as a whole.

My team looked at that and said: “OK, if they could do these things during the Crime Bill — provide incentives and disincentives for building prisons, raising mandatory minimum [sentences] and all that — we could do this for a bill that undoes that same damage.” The idea was to make sure that we had carrots and sticks in this bill that in many ways were the opposite of what the 1994 Crime Bill did, [which] created or accelerated the problems we’re seeing today.

You have a very popular bill. Nearly all the 2020 candidates in the Senate are co-sponsors. Do you worry about this getting caught up in — or unnecessarily polarized by — presidential politics?
I’m not really worried about that. I see it already in the Senate where we have Cory Gardner [R-CO] — some conservative Republicans are coming around on these issues. And just having done a bipartisan criminal justice bill where many people like Chuck Grassley [R-IA] and others who used to argue against a lot of things that were in that bill — we’ve been able to build from Democratic-held ideals to broad-based deals. That passed!

This is so much bigger than presidential politics for me. This has been a driving purpose of mine since I watched, firsthand, how privileged people could use marijuana without fear and without concern for repercussion. And how poor kids and minority kids have no margins whatsoever. This, to me, is so much bigger than one election. This has got to be a movement to make real what we say. When we swear an oath to this country we swear an oath to “liberty and justice for all.” That’s why I don’t really, frankly, excuse my language, don’t give a damn about what the politics of this are. It’s so clearly the right thing to do.

Is sweeping federal reform inevitable, do you think?
I do believe that the arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice. I do believe that, 25-plus years from now, people are going to look back and see the absurdity — [that] a nation that professed its freedom would lock up such an unconscionably large number of their people for nonviolent drug crimes. When many of these people needed help — economic help, drug-addiction help, mental-health help. That we have a system that just churned in valuable, wonderful human beings and stripped them of their rights, their dignity.

History is going to look back at the era of mass incarceration as something that compounded society’s problems and did not alleviate society’s problems. I don’t think it’s a question of if we bring about an end to this outrageous Drug War and the way that we’ve been persecuting it and prosecuting it. But it’s a matter of when. And I’m grateful that there are more and more Americans who are getting on the right side of history.