WASHINGTON — We’re a long way from “I didn’t inhale.”
More than 25 years after Bill Clinton tried to downplay his marijuana use, Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) is calling to legalize the drug nationwide even as he seeks to become the next president.
Booker reintroduced a bill Thursday morning to make the drug legal, expunge the criminal records of those in jail for marijuana offenses, and create a “community reinvestment fund” for job training, community service centers, and other programs in areas the sponsors say have been unfairly harmed by the so-called War on Drugs.
Many of Booker’s rivals seem to agree. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand, all competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, cosponsored the proposal. Legalization has become mainstream in a party base growing more liberal.
The bill isn’t new — Booker proposed it in 2017 — and it’s unlikely to go anywhere soon. What’s different is that the senator is bringing it back as one of the first major policy proposals since he launched his campaign for president, signaling that he believes the political terrain is much different not only from Clinton’s days as a candidate, but even from Hillary Clinton’s run in 2016, when she never went so far as to call for national legalization.
The bill is in line with Booker’s early campaign focus. While his message has centered on healing political and cultural divides, his most prominent policy theme has been social justice and the mistreatment of minorities. He cited those same issues Thursday in a Facebook Live broadcast unveiling the bill.
“This is about dealing with systemic racism that’s baked in our system,” Booker said in the video.
He pointed to the disparate consequences for some people who use or sell drugs, such as his Stanford University classmates, and the punishments faced by others, such as the low-income Newark, N.J. residents he now lives among.
“Imagine George [W.] Bush and Barack Obama, who admitted to their drug use, and, by the way, more serious drugs than marijuana, and they’ve had life pathways toward success,” Booker said. “But imagine a kid who was using drugs at the same time as they were that was in a low-income community, that got tagged. They’ve gone through decades now of disproportionate disadvantage.”
A 2015 report from the Sentencing Project, citing American Civil Liberties Union statistics, found that black people use marijuana at 1.3 times the rate of white people, but are arrested for possession 3.7 times more frequently — a figure Booker has cited in early campaign stops.
“There’s no difference between blacks and whites, for example, in using marijuana or selling marijuana, but if you’re black in America, you’re going to be arrested almost four times more likely than somebody white,” he said in Iowa in February. “As soon as you have that criminal conviction, what does that mean now? You can’t get a job. You can’t get a business license. Hello, Iowa: You can’t vote.”
Booker has long focused on such issues. His signature legislative achievement is a bipartisan criminal justice reform he helped to craft, aiming to reduce disparities in prison sentences handed to minorities.
Past presidential candidates in both parties — from Obama and John Kerry to Bush and Ted Cruz — have admitted to using marijuana. But none has gone as far in calling for legalizing the drug. Marijuana legalization advocates have hailed Booker’s bill as the most sweeping proposal ever introduced.