Letters + Opinion » The Week in Weed

A Snowball's Chance in D.C.



U.S. Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill Aug. 1 that would legalize marijuana federally.

"Our country's drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed," the New Jersey Democrat 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 of taxpayer dollars each year."

The bill, dubbed the Marijuana Justice Act, would remove cannabis entirely from the Controlled Substance Act and could be implemented retroactively, meaning it could expunge the records of scores of folks convicted in past possession cases. It would also earmark budget savings from legalization to be spent encouraging restrictive states to loosen local laws.

As the bill's name attests, Booker views this as a social justice issue and there's plenty of data to back him up. The American Civil Liberties Union analyzed cannabis-related criminal cases from 2001 through 2010 and found more than 8 million Americans had been arrested for possession, use or distribution. But while black and white people report using marijuana at similar rates, black people are nearly four times more likely to be the subject of a possession arrest, the ACLU found.

But in addition to giving some police a tool to disproportionately incarcerate people of color, marijuana's current federal status also brings almost a blanket prohibition on badly needed research on cannabis, which some studies have linked to everything from reducing opioid overdose rates to improving the memory of dementia patients. Booker's bill would end that, paving the way for real research.

But it should be noted that a snowball in hell is going to fare better than Booker's bill, which has exactly zero chance of passing both houses of Congress and being signed into law under President Donald Trump. Now, you might say, "Wait, haven't 29 states legalized recreational or medical marijuana at this point? Aren't we experiencing a sea change?" While it's true that 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and another eight have green-lighted recreational use, very few of those — and none of the recreational use laws — came from state legislatures. They were voter-passed initiatives. Lawmakers, it seems, are trailing far behind the general public, 57 percent of which supports federal legalization, according to an October Pew Research Center survey.

Federal legalization efforts far more timid than Booker's have been introduced annually for close to two decades and not one has even gone to hearing. And lest we forget, that includes some years when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate and admitted former tokers inhabited the White House. Now we have Republican majorities in both houses and a president who appointed a drug war crusader and eradication evangelist as the nation's chief law enforcement officer.

But snowball's chance aside, there are some really positive aspects to Booker's legislation, if you're among the rational Americans who believe the war on drugs has been an abject failure. First and foremost, Booker is currently being hyped as one of the Democratic anointeds for a potential presidential bid in 2020. The fact that he doesn't view introducing this legislation as some kind of scarlet letter that would leave him among the Ralph Naders of the world is a sign that views — even among the D.C. bigwigs and campaign consultants — are starting to change. The bill is also stronger than many of its predecessors, most of which simply relegated the issue back to states and would have done nothing to expunge records and bring some sort of retroactive justice to the conversation. The mere fact that Booker addressed the issue through a social justice lens represents progress. It's also worth noting that Booker's introduction of the bill made headlines in virtually every major news outlet.

So in short, there's a lot to like about Booker's bill. Just not its chances to become law.

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.com.

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