• February 27, 2021

Senate Dems: Marijuana Reform Isn’t About Getting High

 Senate Dems: Marijuana Reform Isn’t About Getting High

Sen. Cory Booker discusses marijuana and restorative justice with The News Station while riding the tram under the Capitol. Photo by Matt Laslo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s a new day for marijuana and justice on Capitol Hill. And that’s not because lawmakers are treating their PTSD with medicinal joints. It seems to be because the plant is no longer controversial, at least in certain circles in Washington — ever-expanding circles that now encompass the White House and leadership suites at the Capitol.

So even as the Senate prepares for the historic second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, coronavirus continues to intensify and President Joe Biden negotiates with Republicans on the contours of a package to heal this languishing economy, newly minted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other senior Democrats have set their sights on marijuana and criminal justice reform early this year.

That’s a sea change for the often-antiquated Senate, especially because the new Democratic working group that was announced this week isn’t just focusing on marijuana decriminalization — they’re putting racial and social justice issues at the forefront.

I don’t drink alcohol; never, never, never tried marijuana — for me, it’s really about the larger issues of justice.

Sen. Cory Booker

The trifecta of Democratic senators who are tackling reform now that Mitch McConnell has been relegated to minority leader are Majority Leader Schumer, Oregon’s Ron Wyden — who chairs the Finance Committee, which deals with tax policy — and New Jersey’s Cory Booker — a Rhodes Scholar who still lives in Newark and who has been a leading voice on justice issues since joining the Senate back in 2013.  

Still, back then it was almost viewed as brave — or even as a niche issue targeted towards a small sector of voters — for more progressive Democrats, along with a few Republicans from states with legal recreational cannabis, to embrace marijuana legalization federally. It took Booker four years before he dropped his seminal Marijuana Justice Act — the first cannabis bill that included restorative justice components, like expunging records for former prisoners and also investing resources in communities hit hardest by the war on ‘drugs.’

Something different is in the air these days.

“I’ve been happy that each Congress since then, more and more people have come to this idea of restorative justice,” Booker told The News Station as we rode on one of the trams underneath the Capitol.   

With 68% of Americans now endorsing marijuana legalization — a historic number reported to Gallup just this past fall — the stigma that’s long followed cannabis, perpetually nipping at its heals, is now dissipating. The feeling is palpable, because it’s no longer a discussion about recreational drug use. It’s now a debate about millions of people’s medicine — including children with epilepsy, some who now take FDA approved, and cannabis infused drugs

More so, even if it’s always been a racial issue — as the war on ‘drugs’ unleashed blight and pain on untold millions of Americans, their families and communities — it’s now a racial disparity debate in Washington. That means stoner tropes are out.  

“As a leader in the Senate on this since it was not en vogue — I don’t drink alcohol; never, never, never tried marijuana — for me, it’s really about the larger issues of justice,” Booker continued.

And for Booker, that means he’s got a firm line in the sand.

“I would not sign on to a banking bill — that was just changing the banking regulations — because that would be [people] taking the sweetener without having people really confront the racial justice and restorative justice elements,” Booker said.

This is not just about the ability to use a drug. It’s about correcting for the pain and carnage that was caused by the ‘war on drugs’

Sen. Cory Booker

His own Garden State is one of the five states that legalized cannabis in November. Even so, Booker says Congress needs to put people over profits, which is why he’s promising to vote against one of his state’s newest industries unless lawmakers come together to address the years of oppression wrought on mostly urban communities.

“This is not just about a multibillion-dollar, emerging industry — where you now see Big Pharma and Wall Street moving into this space because of the money,” Booker said. “I just really resent allowing those things to happen, fortunes being created, without people realizing that the carnage of the last 60 plus years has not been addressed. So I’m going to do everything I can to prevent this just being a wealth scheme simply and not a restorative justice ‘scheme’ and racial justice, sort of, effort.”

After voters in conservative South Dakota, Montana and even Mississippi legalized marijuana in November, Booker is now aiming to use that momentum to upend the stale debate about ending prohibition. He says that debate is so long overdue — 15 states and Washington, D.C. have now legalized recreational marijuana, while more than half the states have approved medicinal cannabis — that it’s not even worthy debating on its own.

“A marijuana bill is more than about just ending prohibition. It’s really about balancing the scales of justice and using this moment where red states are legalizing to really talk about the larger issues,” Booker told The News Station. “For too long marijuana prohibition has had a disproportionate impact on veterans, on low-income people, on Black and Brown people in particular. And it’s about time that we balance the scales.”

After November’s elections, the U.S. House passed the MORE Act, which would decriminalize marijuana nationally and then invest that revenue into communities left blighted by decades of mass incarceration directly tied to U.S. drug policy.

“I get very frustrated with people who will say, ‘I’m for ending prohibition, but I’m not about expungement or about restorative justice.’ To me this is not just about the ability to use a drug. It’s about correcting for the pain and carnage that was caused by the ‘war on drugs,’” Booker said.

That’s not just rank-and-file Democrats. That’s also the tune being sung by party leaders. While Schumer didn’t alert his number two, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, of his new working group on cannabis, Democratic leaders are on the same page about restorative justice when it comes to cannabis as this new Congress kicks into high gear.

Too many people have had their lives literally ruined over small amounts of cannabis, and they’re still suffering as a result of it.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin

“It’s critically important yet, because the injustice involved in this…has been horrible, particularly to minority populations. In my state and many others, when they decided to reform the cannabis laws, one of the early questions was equity in the process,” Durbin told The News Station after leaving a leadership press conference in the Capitol.

Still, the Senate is split 50/50, and unless Democrats blow up the filibuster, most Republicans remain wary of ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. But many members of the GOP who support some marijuana reforms — like allowing cannabis firms to use the banking system or to allow veterans to access marijuana to treat issues like PTSD — oppose efforts to redistribute cannabis profits to minority communities.

“It had at least two poison pills. You’re going to set up a new, woke program, and you’re going to set up a tax,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told The News Station earlier this month. “I have voted for it — and I’ve co-sponsored it, and I would vote for it — but I’m not going to vote for the virtue signaling exercise with poison pills.”

Massie’s not alone. And that saddens the Senate Majority Whip.  

“I hope they reconsider, because there have been too many innocent victims,” Durbin said. “Too many people have had their lives literally ruined over small amounts of cannabis, and they’re still suffering as a result of it. My state and others have tried to set the record straight.”

Before the Senate can get to the debate — the one McConnell blocked for the past six years — Democratic Sens. Schumer, Booker and Wyden of Oregon still need to come to agreement amongst themselves and produce a bill. Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, says they plan to stay focused. And that means racial issues are promising to be front and center when they unveil their proposal in the coming months.

“This is all about really three elements: ending prohibition, sensible regulatory oversight, and sensible tax policy. Those three things,” Wyden said. “We will have significant provisions to remedy some of the racial injustices from the flawed ‘war on drugs.’”

As for crafting a new proposal, now that Democrats control the Senate, these three policy makers say that’s the easy part.

“The three of us have been working together for years on this,” Wyden told The News Station. “We are all working in concert, and each has an important role to play in this…we’re going to be a team every step of the way.”

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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