Come the Democratic presidential debates, you can expect little to no debate over whether marijuana should be legalized at the federal level. Five Democratic candidates running for the party’s nomination have signed onto the Marijuana Justice Act, the latest iteration of Senator Cory Booker’s marijuana and racial justice legislation. Joining him as co-sponsors are Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders.
The Marijuana Justice Act does more than decriminalize and legalize weed. As with previous versions of the bill, Booker has included legislation that works to rectify injustice leveled against black and brown communities who have been disproportionately harmed by the criminalization of cannabis. “We must expunge the records of those who have served their time. The end we seek is not just legalization, it’s justice,” said Booker in his announcement of the bill.
Not only will the legislation enact justice at the individual level by clearing many Americans of their criminal records, it will also provide reparations at a more holistic level through the creation of a fund that supports the reintegration of former criminals into their communities and the workforce. This is what actual transformative legislation looks like.
Consider how New York City announced a concerted effort last spring to pare back arrests and summonses for marijuana possession and use. The number of arrests have since been reduced five-fold, from over 2,500 each month to just over 500 in December, according to figures cited by the New York Daily News. At first glance, you would think that these numbers demonstrate that simply decriminalizing cannabis will help divert people of color from prison.
Look closer and you’ll find that this move actually exacerbated the racial disparity of marijuana enforcement because, although it reduced the overall number of arrests, it also included provisions that made it more likely that Latinos and blacks would be arrested or given a summons; the rate of white arrests was reduced by two percentage points, while the rate of arrests for black and Hispanic people when up two percent. “If the pool of people who are not eligible for the more lenient treatment are more likely to be black or Hispanic, then the law is being enforced in a racist way,” said City Councilman Rory Lancman to the Daily News.
Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union suggested last winter that these figures simply indicate that decriminalization doesn’t go far enough. “I think that what remains unfortunately true is that low-level marijuana possession remains a crime for people of color and not for white people and it shouldn’t be crime — or even summonsable — for anybody,” said Lieberman to Politico in November, a solution that Lancman had also suggested.
San Francisco, meanwhile, just announced a plan to expunge almost 10,000 felonies and misdemeanors over the coming weeks, which will clear convictions that date back to 1975. “It was the morally right thing to do,” said the city’s District Attorney George Gascón to the Los Angeles Times. He emphasized that the city took on the task after considering how difficult it is for an individual to carry out their own effort to expunge marijuana convictions.
Looking forward at the national level, we can expect the Marijuana Justice Act to make it to the House for a vote. Senator Booker and Representatives Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee announced the legislation on Facebook Live yesterday.