A new cannabis legalization bill landed in Congress on Thursday, and it already has the support of leading Democratic presidential candidates. But the Marijuana Justice Act would do much more than just greenlight cannabis nationally. It also aims to undo the detrimental—and racially disproportionate—consequences of the drug war.
The bill, reintroduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), himself a 2020 presidential candidate, is a refreshed version of a proposal he’s championed for years. Not only would it remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it would also take active steps to address past cannabis convictions and encourage racial equity in cannabis enforcement.
“The failed War on Drugs has really been a war on people—disproportionately criminalizing poor people, people of color & people with mental illnesses.”
Specifically, the Marijuana Justice Act would automatically expunge federal criminal convictions for cannabis use and possession. It would establish a community reinvestment fund that would help pay for services like job training in areas hit hardest by the war on drugs. And in a nod to the ongoing racial disparities even in legal-cannabis states, it would withhold certain federal funding from states that disproportionately enforce cannabis laws against people of color or low-income communities.
“The failed War on Drugs has really been a war on people—disproportionately criminalizing poor people, people of color & people with mental illnesses,” Booker posted to Twitter on Thursday. “Let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level, push states to do the same, AND help those who have suffered due to its prohibition.”
Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white peers even though they use marijuana at similar rates. If we truly want to be a fair and just nation we need to correct for this disparate treatment of enforcement practices.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) February 28, 2019
In addition to Booker, the bill’s cosponsors include four other 2020 presidential hopefuls: Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Other cosponsors include Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkeley (D-OR), and Michael Bennett (D-CO). US Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna, both California Democrats, are behind a companion bill in the House.
The disparity in who gets arrested for marijuana possession is one sign of how unjustly our drug laws are enforced. It’s time to legalize marijuana nationwide and start repairing the harm done to communities of color by the War on Drugs. We need the Marijuana Justice Act. pic.twitter.com/fbaen37m8r
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) February 28, 2019
The show of support among federal elected officials is a noteworthy change from the leadup to 2016’s presidential election, when Bernie Sanders was the only major candidate to endorse full legalization. Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic nominee, expressed cautious support for rescheduling the drug to better allow medical research, while Donald Trump took what sometimes seemed like conflicting positions on the issue. (Most recently, Trump said he’ll support legislation to let states chart their own course on cannabis if such a bill makes it to his desk, but his administration has also regularly criticized state-level legalization.)
Two other newly introduced bills—the REFER Act and the RESPECT Resolution—also aim to wind down the federal drug war. The REFER Act, whose sponsors include Reps. Lee and Joe Neguse (D-CO), would shield legal cannabis states by preventing federal agencies from using taxpayer funds to interfere with states or municipalities that pass cannabis reform. The RESPECT Resolution, meanwhile, highlights the racial disparities in cannabis-related criminal enforcement and sentencing, encouraging reforms to help communities of color expand their share of the cannabis industry.
“Sadly, while some have benefited from recent reforms to state and local cannabis laws, people of color, veterans and other underrepresented communities have been locked out of this progress,” Lee said in a press release, adding that the three bills will “modernize our federal cannabis policies and ensure that everyone can participate in this emerging industry.”