Could the United States Be About to Legalize Cannabis?
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Presidential hopeful, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), the Co-Chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, and Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), have re-introduced a version of the Marijuana Justice Act to Congress.
The Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 would end the federal prohibition on marijuana by removing the drug completely from the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act.
But the Act wouldn’t just legalize cannabis, it would also seek an end to the American ‘war on drugs’ by providing support and securing justice for the communities that have been disproportionally affected by marijuana prohibition. To this effect, the act includes provisions that would automatically expunge the criminal records of those with past cannabis-related convictions and allow those currently incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses to seek a re-sentencing hearing.
Section 3 of the act would also give the government the power to withhold certain federal funding from states that are found to be disproportionately enforcing marijuana criminalization laws against people of color and low-income individuals. Section 4 deals with the establishment of a Community Reinvestment Fund — in part funded by any monies withheld from states that infringe on Section 3 — to be used for projects such as job training programs, re-entry services, and community centers in areas that have been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition.
Sen. Booker first introduced a version of this act in 2017, but at the time it failed to make it past the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The 2019 version is near-identical to that filed in the 2017 session, the only exception being that the community reinvestment fund is explicitly made to cover the fiscal years of 2020 through 2042, rather than 2018 through 2040, as per the last bill.
The act has already been praised by fellow Democrats in the Senate, and is expected to progress further than the 2017 bill as the congressional support for a legalization measure is now thought to be at an all-time high. Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna have also filed a House companion bill to the Marijuana Justice Act, and so both chambers of the legislature will be given the opportunity to debate the bill simultaneously.
Ending the war on drugs
“The war on drugs has not been a war on drugs, it's been a war on people, and disproportionately people of color and low-income individuals," said Booker in a statement on his Senate webpage. "The Marijuana Justice Act seeks to reverse decades of this unfair, unjust, and failed policy by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances and making it legal at the federal level.”
"But it's not enough to simply decriminalize marijuana. We must also repair the damage caused by reinvesting in those communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs. And we must expunge the records of those who have served their time. The end we seek is not just legalization, it's justice.”
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which studied a decade worth of cannabis-related arrest data between 2001 to 2010, African Americans were on average 3.73 times more likely to be arrested of cannabis possession, despite both black and white people using the drug at roughly equal rates.
Since 2010, cannabis has become legal for recreational use in 10 states and legal for medical purposes in 33, but the racial disparities have continued. A 2018 report from the Drug Policy Alliance found that, as expected, total arrest numbers are down in states which legalized adult use cannabis, but in these areas black and Latinx people still make up a disproportionate fraction of arrests.
Outside of policing and law enforcement matters, this racial divide is also seen in the cannabis industry, where 2017 figures show that 81 percent of cannabis executives were white. This may be in part due to state level restrictions on who can participate in cannabis industry, with some states holding rules that bar those with past cannabis-related convictions from holding a marijuana business license. With people of color already being disproportionately represented in arrest figures, this can present an unfair barrier to many black and Latinx entrepreneurs from entering the industry.
“A marijuana conviction is often a life sentence, people can’t get jobs or many business licenses, and they can’t get food assistance like SNAP or public housing if it's a felony.” continued Booker in a Facebook post following the announcement of his Act. “I’ve met countless good people who couldn’t find a job, couldn’t find a decent place to live, and couldn’t support their family because they had a criminal record [for marijuana offenses] for doing something less serious than two of the last three presidents of the United States have admitted to doing. This is wrong and must change.”
With his sweeping legislation, Booker hopes to address some of those systemic problems by making sure that legalization of cannabis also comes with adequate support and reinvestment in the communities that have been most affected.
Democratic presidential nominees unite behind the legislation
Several of Sen. Booker’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have joined him in co-sponsoring the Marijuana Justice Act: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY); Kamala Harris (D-CA); Bernie Sanders (I-VT); and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have all put their names to the legislation. They are joined by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Michael Bennet (D-CO) as initial cosponsors.
"Marijuana should be legalized, and we should wipe clean the records of those unjustly jailed for minor marijuana crimes. By outlawing marijuana, the federal government puts communities of color, small businesses, public health, and safety at risk." said Warren, as a part of Booker’s official statement.
Sen. Harris also added a statement of support. Harris has not always been a strong supporter of cannabis law reform — in 2010 while acting as the district attorney for San Francisco, Harris openly opposed a Californian ballot measure that would have made the state the first to legalize recreational cannabis. But now she has made cannabis legalization a part of her presidential campaign promise to bring about widespread criminal justice reform.
“Marijuana laws in this country have not been applied equally, and as a result we have criminalized marijuana use in a way that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of young men of color. It's time to change that,” said Harris. “Legalizing marijuana is the smart thing to do and the right thing to do in order to advance justice and equality for every American.”
Legalization advocates have also expressed their support for the Marijuana Justice Act. In a statement published online, Justin Strekal, the Political Director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said, “The Marijuana Justice Act is the most comprehensive piece of federal legislation ever introduced to end the failed policy of marijuana prohibition and to address the egregious harms that this policy has wrought on already marginalized communities.”
“This robust legislation not only removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, but it also provides a path forward for the individuals and communities that have been most disproportionately impacted by our nation’s failed war on marijuana consumers.”