In an effort to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, senator Cory Booker, first-term New Jersey senator and former mayor of Newark, is asking Congress to legalize marijuana. The actual intention of the legislation is to reverse the damage done to minority communities by the War On Drugs. If passed, The Marijuana Justice Act would remove marijuana from the federal government’s list of controlled dangerous substances, ending a prohibition that began in the late 1930s.

Booker’s far-reaching legislation would provide incentive for states to legalize the drug. It would mandate that federal law enforcement funding be withheld from states which are found to punish minorities on a disproportionate basis. The funds would instead be reinvested in programs such as job training, prisoner re-entry, and community centers. It would also allow judges to retroactively review sentences for marijuana-related crimes. Offending states could also be sued under the bill.

“We believe that states should be moving in the same way to legalize marijuana, to end racial disparities in enforcement of marijuana laws, and frankly, to end the disproportionate targeting of poor people,” Booker said during his bill announcement on Facebook. “It is not enough just to say that marijuana is going to be legalized. Let’s move forward. This has done serious damage to our communities. It has done serious damage to American families.” 

Booker also noted that a felony marijuana conviction means “[having] to deal with about 40,000 collateral consequences” down the line for most people. “They can’t get business licenses, Pell Grants, public housing, food stamps.”

At a rally on the steps of the Linden municipal courthouse, Booker stated, “I’m the only U.S. senator I think in the history of our country that lives in an inner-city community that is overwhelmingly, predominantly Black and Latino. I see it firsthand in our nation how we have very different sets of laws for different communities. That the war on drugs is a war on people, but particularly it has been a war on low income people and disproportionately a war on minorities.”

Roseanne Scotti, the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey director, praised the bill. Scotti claims black Garden State residents “are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both use marijuana at similar rates.”

“The question is no longer ‘should we legalize marijuana?’; it is ‘how do we legalize marijuana?’ 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,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance. “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 said in a statement released by Booker’s office, “This bill is the most ambitious marijuana bill we have seen in Congress. Uniquely, it recognizes the fact that people of color have borne the brunt of the failed war on drugs and seeks to repair the damage done. We applaud Senator Booker for his leadership on this issue.”

Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group said, “This is the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that’s ever been filed in either chamber of Congress. More than just getting the federal government out of the way so that states can legalize without DEA harassment, this new proposal goes even further by actually punishing states that have bad marijuana laws.”

“These marijuana arrests are targeting poor and minority communities, [and] targeting our veterans. We see the injustice of it all. I have seen young teenagers getting arrested, saddled with criminal convictions for the rest of their lives.”

Booker also agues that legalizing marijuana would help alleviate the deadly opioid epidemic in the United States. “We see a lot of great data coming out about marijuana not being a gateway drug, but an offramp drug. I was just looking at some New York Times articles citing a lot of the research that’s being done on helping people wean off of opioids. In places where they’ve legalized marijuana, you see opioid deaths go down, overdose deaths go down. There’s so much compelling evidence out there. What are we waiting for?”

Booker hopes the bill will allow law enforcement to focus on more serious matters. “I believe the federal government should get out of the illegal marijuana business, and it disturbs me now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not moving as the states are, is not moving as public opinion is, but is actually saying we should be doubling down and enforcing federal marijuana laws even in states that have made marijuana legal,” Booker said. “This to me is outrageous and unacceptable. You see what’s happening around this country right now. Eights states and the District of Columbia have moved to legalize marijuana. And these states are seeing decreases in violent crime in their states. They’re seeing increases in revenue to their states. They’re seeing their police forces being able to focus on serious crime. They’re seeing positive things come out of that experience.”

In Booker’s home state of New Jersey, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy, who is favored to replace Gov. Chris Christie in the November election, has said he favors legalizing marijuana. And State Sen. Nick Scutari, the chairman of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation that would tax and regulate the drug.

John Malanca, co-founder of United Patients Group, believes the bill’s proposed changes to federal treatment of cannabis would be a step in the right direction, but one that’s taken far too long. “We work with thousands of patients across the country who use medical cannabis to address serious conditions and alleviate needless suffering. Even though a grassroots movement has led to medical access in 29 states, federal recognition is key, and Sen. Booker’s legislation is long overdue.”

According to Malanca, the bill will be a boon to state and local economies, in his words, “opening the floodgates of investment for entrepreneurs to innovate and bring to the market safer, more effective treatment options, [that] rigorous and standardized testing can be conducted at the federal level, and that marketers of cannabis products will have to validate their claims.” He added, “For patients and their families, that can only be good news.”

The bill is still in its infancy and the New Jersey senator does not have any co-sponsors for the legislation at this time, but Booker says he will reach out to both Republicans and Democrats as he pushes for legalization.

The senator’s plan, however, faces heavy opposition in Congress. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes marijuana legalization efforts and has vowed to crack down on states where it has been legalized.

In the past several months, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been trying to steer the Justice Department toward stricter treatment of marijuana and other drug crimes. In April, Sessions announced the department would be re-evaluating its stance on cannabis. And in May Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to seek the most severe penalties possible for drug offenders.

In a letter to his former colleagues in the Senate earlier this year, Sessions asked lawmakers to rescind federal protections for marijuana states. Just last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee ignored Sessions’ request, adding an amendment to the Justice Department’s 2018 budget which reinforces protections enacted under President Obama in 2014.

The amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), commented, “It is more humane to regulate medical marijuana than to criminalize it, [and] I don’t want [the Justice Department] spending money pursuing medical marijuana patients who are following state law. We have more important things for [it] to do than tracking down doctors or others, epileptics, who are using medical marijuana legally in their state.”

According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in April, 94% of Americans support allowing the use of medical marijuana, and 60% favor full marijuana legalization. “This is definitely going to be the law of our land,” Booker said. “It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”

Below are just a few of the effects the bill would have, if passed:

  • The Marijuana Justice Act would cut federal funding for state law enforcement and prison construction if a state disproportionately arrests and/or incarcerates low-income individuals and/or people of color for marijuana offenses.
  • It would allow entities to sue states that disproportionately arrest and/or incarcerate low-income individuals and/or people of color for marijuana offenses
  • Prevent deportations of individuals for marijuana offenses.
  • The bill would provide for a process of expungement for marijuana offenses at the federal level.
  • Provide for a process of re-sentencing for marijuana offenses at the federal level.
  • A “Community Reinvestment Fund” of $500 million would be created to invest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs, for programs such as job training, re-entry, community centers, and more. Part of the funding will come from the aforementioned cuts to state law enforcement and prison construction.
  • Universities and other medical research groups would be allowed to conduct needed cannabis research.