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Woman smokes joint

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill to end federal prohibition of marijuana and offer financial assistance to communities devastated by the War on Drugs. (Photo: Chuck Grimmett/Flickr/cc)

Far-Reaching Bill Would Legalize Weed, Offer Reparations for War on Drugs

"This is the right thing to do for public safety, and will help reduce our overflowing prison population," says Sen. Cory Booker.

Jessica Corbett

Advocates for marijuana legalization and criminal justice are lauding a bill Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced on Tuesday to end federal prohibition of pot and offer financial assistance to communities devastated by the War on Drugs.

"The War on Drugs has had disparate harm on low-income communities and communities of color. It's time to rectify that."
—Queen Adesuyi, Drug Policy Alliance

"The question is no longer 'should we legalize marijuana?'; it is 'how do we legalize marijuana?'" said Queen Adesuyi, a policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance. "We must do so in a way that recognizes that the people who suffered most under prohibition are the same people who should benefit most under legalization."

"From disparate marijuana-related arrests and incarceration rates to deportations and justifications for police brutality—the War on Drugs has had disparate harm on low-income communities and communities of color. It's time to rectify that," Adesuyi added.

Not only do states and the federal government spend billions of dollars on enforcing pot laws each year, but law enforcement officials disproportionately arrest and incarcerate people of color for weed-related offenses. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found: "Marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession."

The Marijuana Policy Project commended Sen. Booker's efforts to "alleviate some of the harms caused by bad state marijuana laws and racially disparate enforcement."

"Our country's drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed," said Sen. Booker, who introduced the bill in a Facebook Live video. "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."

"This is the right thing to do for public safety, and will help reduce our overflowing prison population," Sen. Booker added.

Marijuana Majority founder and chairman Tom Angell called it "the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that's ever been filed in either chamber of Congress," adding: "Polls increasingly show growing majority voter support for legalization, so this is something that more senators should be signing on to right away."

In April, a CBS News poll found that more than 60 percent of Americans believe weed should be legalized, and nearly 90 percent support medical use of the drug.

Although 29 states and D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, and eight have legalized recreational use, at the federal level, pot is listed as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. In addition legalizing pot nationally by descheduling it, the "Marijuana Justice Act" (pdf) would:

  • Cut federal funding for building jails and prisons if the state disproportionately arrests and locks up people of color and/or people with low incomes;
  • Expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes;
  • Prevent individuals from being deported due to weed-related offenses;
  • Allow individuals who are serving time in federal prison for pot use or possession to apply for resentencing;
  • Establish a $500 million fund to annually reinvest in communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.

The community reinvestment fund would help build libraries and community centers, and establish programs for prisoner re-entry, job training, youth outreach, and health education.

The bill aligns with calls from major human rights organizations for the U.S. government to rethink the way it responds to personal drug use. Last year, a report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch (HRW) found, as Common Dreams reported, that nationwide there were at least 574,640 arrests for pot possession in 2015 alone.

"Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources."
—Tess Borden, ACLU/Human Rights Watch

"Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use," said Tess Borden, the ACLU/HRW report's author. "Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources."

Sen. Booker's bill will likely have a tough time in the Senate, though, with opposition from members of both parties.

"I think the last thing we need is for the federal government to send a signal that marijuana should be legalized across this country," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Rolling Stone. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also said, "I'm not there."

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