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. States whose marijuana laws disproportionately affect minorities or poor people would lose federal funding for law enforcement and prison construction, among other funds.
“Our country’s drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed,” Booker said in a statement. “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 a 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 crack down 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.
“We in this country have done and persecuted the drug war not on everyone but have focused it on the most vulnerable people in our communities,” Booker said yesterday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey bolstered that argument in a May report that found police in the state 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 allow medical marijuana use, while eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use.