Senator Cory Booker (D – NJ) is now saying President Joe Biden could get a federal marijuana legalization bill signed into law this very moment. The Senator even went so far as to say President Biden isn’t truly opposed to legalization, and in fact, is determined to make reforms when it comes to the cannabis issue. Biden hasn’t given many signs to the public about that, however.
During the presidential campaign, he was the only leading primary candidate in his party who opposed the federal legalization of cannabis. Instead, he said he supported states’ rights to choose individually whether to legalize it locally. He and Vice President Kamala Harris, who does support legalization, pledged together to at least decriminalize cannabis and expunge low-level crimes related to the product. Booker also says Kamala Harris has recently been a beacon of hope when it comes to marijuana reform.
Finding Common Ground
Senator Booker argues that he and Joe Biden’s views are not really so far off. “His policy position on marijuana – he may say, ‘I’m not for legalization, I’m for decriminalization – as a federal official, that’s where I’m trying to get.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has made that same semantic argument recently. "I support decriminalization at the federal level, and we'll be introducing legislation with a few of my colleagues shortly,” said Schumer. “Decriminalization, legalization. At the federal level, you call it decriminalization, because that lets the states legalize.”
After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill legalizing marijuana in that state, Schumer tweeted out, “I will keep working in the Senate to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and undo the damage of the War on Drugs.” Schumer has also said that he personally supports legalization. He’s working to author a bill that he says heads in that direction. Joe Biden’s record on marijuana has been disappointing and even damaging, in some people’s view. Biden has proudly touted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which he authored in 1994.
The bill was during the “tough on crime” era that history books have decided was a major contributor to America’s problem with mass incarceration – an issue that discriminates heavily against minorities. Then-President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill, has even come out to say it was a mistake. Biden has admitted there are some aspects of the bill he would change, but he still believes it helped restore American cities.
Booker's Record on Marijuana
Senator Booker, meanwhile, has long been an advocate for marijuana legalization, along with criminal justice reform surrounding the plant. In 2017, Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, hoping for federal legalization. He co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 with several other Democratic Senators, hoping to take marijuana off the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of federally controlled substances, expunge criminal records, focus on equitable distribution of marijuana business licenses, and re-invest tax dollars into communities targeted by the War on Drugs.
Right now, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, on par with methamphetamine and heroin. Chuck Schumer has also vocalized support for that bill, as has Vice President Kamala Harris. Booker also supported the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, releasing a joint-statement with Senators Schumer and Ron Wyden (D-OR). That Act leans toward some of the changes President Biden has said he wants to see – namely, it would direct more funds toward research.
The President has been hesitant to support federal legalization until he knows more about the effects and potential dangers of the product. The MORE Act would establish a trust fund for programs that would aid communities affected by the War on Drugs, and impose a 5% tax on cannabis products to help pay for that fund; it would expunge convictions and change laws regarding marijuana to ensure they are not discriminatory; it also “directs the Government Accountability Office to study the societal impact of cannabis legalization.”
The joint-statement said in part, “The War on Drugs has been a war on people—particularly people of color. Ending the federal marijuana prohibition is necessary to right the wrongs of this failed war and end decades of harm inflicted on communities of color across the country. But that alone is not enough. As states continue to legalize marijuana, we must also enact measures that will lift up people who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.
So far, Biden has not lent his support to any of those measures. Vice President Kamala Harris at one point said she was on board with them but now says her platform mirrors that of the President’s exactly, meaning she has scaled back her vocal support.
The Senator's History with the President
In a Democratic Debate in November 2019, then-presidential candidate Booker called Biden out for his stance against federal legalization. Booker joked to then-candidate Biden that he wondered whether Biden was high when he vocalized the stance against it, adding, “Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people, and the war on drugs has been a war on Black and Brown people.”
Looking back on that clip, Senator Booker laughed that he hopes that clip stops being circulated soon: “Yes, indeed, I accused Joe Biden of being high. It was horrible.” Booker says the two have since talked about their differences. He also says Biden (or anyone) should not be judged for their mistakes. Rather, they should be given the opportunity to evolve.
The New Jersey Senator recently talked with John Heilemann, the host of a show called Hell and High Water. In it, he says he has been “thrilled” with the Biden Administration thus far. “At the end of the day, this is not personal. I think I’m the only Senator who lives in a low-income, Black and Brown community where the folks who are railing or wrestling or entangled with this broken system want results,” said Senator Booker. “ “He believes in decriminalization,” said Senator Booker.
“As I said to him the first time we talked about, was, my bill is no different; I think states should be allowed to do what they want. I think it should be legalized, but what we need to do at the federal level is de-list marijuana. And as soon as you decriminalize marijuana, you open up states that right now are not able to do a lot of things, to give way for what I want to achieve.” Other advocates for change have pointed out that if Biden intended to reform marijuana legislation, he should have started on it already. To adjust the DEA’s schedule classification, Biden could bypass congress entirely. So far, he’s given no indication of any plans to do so.