Cory Booker gets a bad rap from progressives. The criticism is justified: Booker’s social media grabs shows the worst of the Democratic Party’s obsession with viral-ready media posturing (especially during his time as Newark major, when they often came at the cost of neglecting the actual duties of running a city). His actual policy positions shift wildly, the main consistency being an obsession with “good feelings” in an era where such gestures feel particularly ill-suited. Also, as well documented, he is a prolific apologist for charter schools and pharmaceuticals.
I say all of this because Booker’s critics need to take notice of what he introduced into the Senate last week: the most progressive federal legalization of marijuana I’ve ever seen.
Booker’s bill, the Marijuana Justice Act, goes beyond simple legalization, creating a pathway for currently convinced marijuana offenders and a reparations system for communities affected by decades of the failed war on drugs. Booker’s bill is the most socially comprehensive and intersectional legalization path yet.
The MJA accomplishes federal legalization straightforwardly, arguably to a fault. Booker calls for removing marijuana from the federal controlled substances list and strikes down all marijuana possessions crimes.
From there, the bill offers federal funds to states to incentivize legalization on a state level. It’s likely the states would follow these directives, especially considering the popularity of legalization nationwide and the economic potential for taxing cannabis.
However, as Vanderbilt University Law School professor Robert Mikos points out at Fortune, the bill says little in terms of how individual states should implement legalization. You can easily see how America would be left with a patchwork hodgepodge of different state-to-state age limits and taxation regulations on marijuana under the current MJA language, creating a confusing system that could kneecap a potential marijuana industry.
However, I’m willing to give Booker the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that grander federal regulations would be added later in the process. In the abstract, at least, the current MJA would swiftly dismantle criminalization of marijuana on a national level.
Justice for Prior Convictions
What makes Booker’s bill so impressive is how it recognizes the decades of undue punishment that has occurred under marijuana criminalization, and the concrete ways it attempts to repair them.
The criminality of marijuana is impossible to separate from the war on drugs, a federally supported boon to the prison industrial complex that has disproportionately targeted African-Americans for decades. The ACLU found that between 2001 and 2010, African-Americans were almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marjuana procession, despite statistically using the drug at similar rates to white and other minorities. Of all drug-related arrests during that time, over half involved marijuana. You can draw similar distinctions in prosecution rates across class lines as well.
For states that don’t follow the federal government’s lead in legalization, Booker’s bill proposes federal funding cuts (specifically in the construction of prisons), as long as the state is shown to prosecute marijuana convictions in a way that disproportionately affects minority communities. Again, more pressure on states to legalize and stop discriminatory prosecution practices.
One of the failures of state-wide legalization has been a coherent path toward acquittal for people convicted for marijuana procession and use before both became legal, an underlying drawback to state-by-state legalization as opposed to federal legalization. Booker’s bill proposes a process where currently convicted marijuana offenders can petition the courts to have their sentence communed. This is similar to a process that some lawyers have used in states where marjuana is legalized to gain acquittals, but spelled out in law.
The bill also would also create a fund for communities harmed by marijuana convictions, which would go towards projects like job training and youth programs. Again, Booker is a little vague on specifics, but the idea here is something all future federal legalization efforts should adopt. Directly tying marijuana legalization with efforts to support minority communities hurt by drug prosecution is an important step towards actually addressing the continuing economic and social crisis many areas endure from the war on drugs.
Aspirational, But So Is Everything
So, what happens to AJA now? Probably nothing. The bill currently has no co-sponsors, and the way it goes after states for discriminatory drug prosecution probably means it’s not going to receive much Republican support. That’s to say nothing of the Justice Department’s recent escalation of anti-marjuana rhetoric under Attorney General Jeff “I Thought The KKK Was Cool Until I Learned They Smoked Pot Ha-Ha-Ha” Sessions.
This means AJA is the most aspiration of bills, a roadmap of how Democrats could conceivably achieve legalization if they were to regain any semblance of power in the federal government. Which, I will argue until I die is an essential way to energize public that wakes up every morning to a fresh new nightmare under the Republican-controlled government.
Viewed through the lens of an aspiration bill that could excite voter and be attainable down the road, the AJA is a triumph and should be the basis for any conversation Democrats have about marijuana legalization moving forward. Yes, the specifics of federal regulation need to be hammered out, but the bill’s awareness of the decades of harm caused by the war on drugs— and its proposed steps to rebuild communities and individuals hurt by past convictions—is essential to the conversation of marijuana legalization.
If Cory Booker really wants to run for President in 2020, he should keep doing things like this, and maybe turn down the thirstiness on Twitter a little bit.