On Tuesday, August 1st, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker introduced legislation that would end cannabis prohibition at the federal level and seek to eliminate existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in marijuana arrest and conviction rates. The proposed legislation, entitled the “Marijuana Justice Act,” would make federal funds for state law enforcement and prison construction projects contingent upon marijuana-related arrest and incarceration rates for low-income and minority individuals. This means states could lose federal funding for law enforcement and prison construction projects if state marijuana laws disproportionately impact minority or low-income populations. The bill also goes one step further by allowing entities to sue states for disparities in marijuana-related arrests and convictions, thus providing states with an additional incentive for eliminating discriminatory enforcement practices with respect to marijuana-related crimes.
Any federal funds withheld from the states would be placed in a federally-administered “Community Reinvestment Fund,” and later distributed to communities most affected by the war on drugs. Local communities could use grant funds to establish job-training and re-entry programs for ex-offenders, build public libraries and community centers, establish youth programs, and promote health education. Senator Booker introduced the broad-sweeping legislation “in an effort to remedy many of the failures of the War on Drugs,” as he says [the War on Drugs] has “locked up millions of nonviolent drug offenders—especially for marijuana-related offenses—at an incredible cost of lost human potential, torn-apart families and communities, and taxpayer dollars.”
The legislation, if enacted, also provides assistance to individuals who are currently serving time in prison for federal marijuana-related offenses, as well as individuals with prior convictions for marijuana-related offenses. Those currently serving time for marijuana-related crimes would have access to an automatic re-sentencing process, while those with prior criminal convictions for marijuana-related crimes would be able to petition for expungement of the prior conviction. The bill also contains a provision that would prohibit deportation of individuals convicted or charged with marijuana-related offenses. Although many legislative proposals have sought to end marijuana prohibition at the federal level, Senator Booker’s version is unique in seeking to hold states accountable for arbitrary enforcement of marijuana-related laws.
While the Marijuana Justice Act has virtually zero chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Congress, the legislation is significant insofar as it signals increasing acceptance of legalization among prominent politicians. Senator Booker is a high-profile member of the Democratic party, and also a strong contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. In 2015, Senator Booker declined to endorse legalization of recreational cannabis at the federal level during an interview with Vox, focusing instead on the importance of providing medical marijuana access to patients in desperate need of novel medical treatments. Given that Senator Booker was reluctant to endorse non-medical cannabis legalization just two years ago, his recent introduction of the Marijuana Justice Act demonstrates how quickly political and social norms are changing with respect to legalization.