Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) announced on Friday that he’s running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The former Newark, New Jersey mayor has been a consistent critic of the war on drugs and has introduced some of the boldest marijuana legislation ever seen in Congress, earning him an A+ grade from NORML.
Booker launched his candidacy with an interview on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and emphasized right away that marijuana reform is a key part of his platform.
“It means changing our drug laws, ending prohibition against marijuana, which has led—black folks are no different in their usage rates or even the dealing rates, but are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated for marijuana,” he said. “We do not have equal justice under the law.”
Legislation And Policy Actions
Booker is the chief sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act—a bill that would end federal prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. It would also penalize states where marijuana laws are enforced in a racially disproportionate manner and establish a federal grant program to invest in communities that have been targeted in the war on drugs.
Last Congress, the legislation garnered six co-sponsors, including other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), as well as potential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). That Booker was able to secure such high profile co-sponsorships on the wide-ranging marijuana legislation from lawmakers who would become rivals for their party’s presidential nomination reflects how the senator has became a de facto leader on the issue on Capitol Hill.
“Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step in correcting this unjust system,” Booker said in a press release when he filed the bill. “States have so far led the way in reforming our criminal justice system and it’s about time the federal government catches up and begins to assert leadership.”
Jeff Sessions is reviving a losing war on marijuana that is devastating low-income Americans & our communities of color and dashing our ideals of equal justice. We can’t let this happen.
That’s why I introduced the Marijuana Justice Act to legalize marijuana. Who’s with me? pic.twitter.com/OUe10vRbHs
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) January 4, 2018
He’s also championed the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, which would protect medical cannabis patients and businesses from federal intervention and also require the Drug Enforcement Administration to license additional marijuana cultivators for federal research purposes.
When Booker first introduced the CARERS Act in 2015, it was the first Senate bill ever filed to downgrade the marijuana federal status.
“We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose—recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows,” he said in a press release.
Booker has also co-sponsored legislation designed to broadly shield states that have legalized marijuana from federal enforcement and another bill that would allow banks to work with cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state law without fear of federal penalties.
In 2014, he and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who worked closely with Booker on the CARERS bill, introduced a separate amendment to block the Justice Department from using federal funds to intervene in states that have legalized marijuana, but it did not receive a vote.
Before he and Paul got to work on bipartisan cannabis legislation, they joked with each other on Twitter about the GOP senator’s Festivus grievance about partisanship. Paul suggested the two work on mandatory minimum sentencing reform, to which Booker replied, “Yes, If u throw in reforming Fed Hemp & Marijuana laws u’ve got a deal!”
@CoryBooker how about mandatory minimum sentencing reform instead?
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) December 23, 2013
Yes, If u throw in reforming Fed Hemp & Marijuana laws u’ve got a deal! RT @SenRandPaul: How about mandatory min sentencing reform instead?
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) December 23, 2013
After then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insinuated that the federal government would increase enforcement against legal marijuana states, Booker and 10 other senators sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, urging the Justice Department to respect states’ right when it comes to cannabis policy.
Sessions received another letter from Booker and two other Democratic colleagues in 2017, who implored Sessions not to reverse Obama-era Justice Department policies and make low-level drug offenders face longer mandatory minimum sentences.
He also put his name on a bipartisan letter to congressional leaders, expressing frustration that a provision that would’ve allowed physicians at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss and recommend medical cannabis was excluded from a 2016 spending bill.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
Booker has not been shy in his advocacy for marijuana reform. He’s spoken frequently about the consequences of prohibition and the need to not only legalize cannabis but also ensure that those harmed by the drug war see restorative justice in the process. He has tweets calling for cannabis reform going back to 2011, when he was still a mayor.
Over a decade ago, Booker blamed the drug war for contributing to violent crime and pledged to go “to battle on this.”
“We’re going to start doing it the gentlemanly way,” he said. “And then we’re going to do the civil disobedience way. Because this is absurd. I’m talking about marches. I’m talking about sit-ins at the state capitol. I’m talking about whatever it takes.”
“The drug war is causing crime. It is just chewing up young black men. And it’s killing Newark.”
In 2012, Booker said the drug war “has not succeeded in making significant reductions in drug use, drug arrests or violence” and that the country is “pouring huge amounts of our public resources into this current effort that are bleeding our public treasury and unnecessarily undermining human potential.”
The war on drugs has been a tremendous failure driving poverty and disparity & not helping us achieve greater security or health @LVKen7
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) August 18, 2013
I’m determined 2 see federal drug policy & criminal justice policy change so we save taxpayer $, empower people & make America safer @LVKen7
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) August 18, 2013
I’m deeply sad that US citizens (like in CA) are fully abiding by state drug laws & helping sick ppl, yet face federal prosecution @LVKen7
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) August 18, 2013
He gave an extensive response to a question about how he thought marijuana decriminalization would impact Newark during a Reddit AMA in 2013:
“I believe too many of my young people are being unfairly punished and chewed up by the criminal justice system over small amounts of marijuana. Their lives are being severely and adversely affected by the sheer number of arrests and incarcerations we are making. When a young person enters a system, it often leaves them worse off than other lower cost interventions would.”
During a conference on international drug policy, Booker called the war on drugs “a cancer on the soul of our country.”
While the senator was quick to embrace medical marijuana legalization, he said in 2014 that he remained undecided on full legalization—but argued that the fact that states like Washington had already legalized “is a really valuable American laboratory.”
“I am encouraged voters stepped out into this laboratory. If it’s a failure, it’s a failure. But if it’s a success and it doesn’t hurt public safety and improves the economy by providing greater opportunities, and doesn’t cause more crime, then I will be open to legalization.”
Booker was one of more than 1,000 leaders from around the globe who signed a 2016 letter condemning the failures of the war on drugs and advocating for “real reform of global drug control policy.”
He also stopped by a medical cannabis rally in New Jersey in 2014 and thanked reform advocates for their work.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) October 3, 2014
At a press conference unveiling the 2017 version of the CARERS Act, Booker hinted that he was inclined to back full legalization but didn’t want to detract from the bipartisan momentum behind medical marijuana legislation.
“This press conference and this bipartisan bill is about medical marijuana,” he said. “You can be confident that you’ll be hearing from me soon on a lot of the issues that are before New Jersey. But where I am on this issue, I don’t want to take away from where we have a bipartisan coalition.”
The CARERS ACT would allow States to decide what is legal regarding medical marijuana: pic.twitter.com/fnt7lWeBWv
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) April 11, 2016
In an interview with CNN in 2015, the senator said that multiple presidents and lawmakers have admitted to using cannabis recreationally and that it is hypocritical for those same individuals opposing medical marijuana legalization.
“Let’s stop the pot hypocrisy,” he said. “People that are in public office all throughout the Senate have said, ‘hey, I’ve smoked marijuana recreationally.’ How—how much of a hypocrite do you have to be to say that I broke American laws using pot as a recreational thing and that I’m not going to support this idea that as a medicine for severely sick people, that they shouldn’t be able to access this drug?”
He also called out Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana for resisting cannabis rescheduling in order to free up researchers to study the plant. He asked why, if Sabet felt the difference between Schedule I and Schedule II was negligible, and researchers say that rescheduling would make it easier to study cannabis, he would oppose it.
“Clearly—cleary it’s optics that your’e concerned about,” Booker said. “Clearly this makes a difference. But clearly the downside of this—the danger of this—is not that families will be hurt. You’re just saying that they won’t be helped enough.”
In a Senate floor speech, Booker criticized fellow lawmakers for preventing Washington D.C. from using local funds to legalize and regulate adult-use cannabis sales, saying that “self-determination of the people is at the core of our democratic ideals as a nation” and “despite this, Washington D.C., with a population larger than two of our states, sees the constant undermining of this very principle.”
When the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it would be approving applications for additional cannabis manufacturers for federal research purposes, Booker applauded the move but said the agency “hasn’t gone far enough.”
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) August 12, 2016
“While this announcement is a step in the right direction, the DEA’s failure to reclassify marijuana is disappointing,” he said in a press release. “There are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows, and choosing to ignore the medical value of marijuana defies common sense and the scientific evidence.”
In the years since President Donald Trump took office, Booker has stepped up his advocacy efforts and broadened his views on marijuana reform, which eventually led him to endorse full legalization.
For example, he called Sessions “one of the greatest threats to the safety of our local communities in America” amid concerns that the Justice Department was preparing for a crackdown on legal cannabis states.
“If you try to start prosecuting marijuana… you create more violence and more danger as well as greater government cost,” Booker said. “These policies that he’s doing ultimately go to the core of the safety of our communities.”
“If we can overcome Strom Thurmond’s filibuster against the civil rights bill, we can overcome a U.S. Attorney General who is out of step with history and out of step with his party.”
And after Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, an Obama-era guidance document to federal prosecutors on priorities for marijuana enforcement, Booker took to the Senate floor to condemn the move. The Cole memo, he said, “was a critical step and a move in the right direction, undoing some of the catastrophic damage that has been caused by the failed war on drugs.”
“This is an attack on our most sacred ideals and the very purpose of the Department of Justice, which is to protect Americans, to elevate ideals of justice and to do right by people,” he said. He expanded on that point in a press release:
“Jeff Sessions’ determination to revive the failed War on Drugs knows no bounds. History has shown that our deeply broken drug laws disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color and cost us billions annually in enforcement, incarceration, and wasted human potential, without making us any safer. This unjust, backwards decision is wrong for America, and will prove to be on the wrong side of history.”
Trump’s seeming admiration of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug policy, which is reported to have involved extrajudicial killings of hundreds of people suspected of using or selling drugs, also earned Booker’s condemnation. He said Trump’s praise of the leader “disturbs me to my core.”
Trump basically praised Duterte’s government for murdering people in the streets over a War on Drugs. That disturbs me to my core. pic.twitter.com/P48btp2CYp
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) May 27, 2017
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) May 24, 2017
At the same time that Booker was putting pressure on the Trump administration for taking a regressive stance on cannabis policy, he became increasingly vocal about the adult-use legalization. In 2017, he introduced the Marijuana Justice Act—a piece of cannabis legislation that not only ends prohibitions but also represented a paradigm shift in the reform movement for its provisions punishing states that have unfair enforcement practices.
“Federal marijuana policy has long overstepped the boundaries of common sense, fiscal prudence, and compassion,” he said. “Not to mention the hypocrisy of presidents, senators and Congress members openly admiring they have done a drug that others in this country, less privileged, have been arrested for.”
More recently, the senator pressed Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, on whether he thought it was “appropriate to use federal resources to target marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state law.”
The line of questioning caused Barr to say he would not go after state-legal cannabis businesses if confirmed, and he also urged lawmakers to resolve conflicting federal and state marijuana laws.
Policy aides to Booker told The Washington Post on the day he announced his presidential candidacy that “legalizing marijuana” and “giving federal money to areas the government determines were most hurt by the war on drugs” would be central components of his platform.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Booker said that personal experience was not what informed his position on cannabis.
“I have never smoked marijuana, I have never smoked a cigarette, I have never eaten marijuana, I have never tried another drug, I have never drank alcohol,” he told Vice. “This to me is not an issue I come at through my own experimentations.”
“I come at this as an issue of justice, as an issue of safety for our communities, as an issue of utter fairness,” he said. “But I will tell you what, I might have my first drink of alcohol if my bill can become a law.”
Marijuana Under A Booker Presidency
It is abundantly clear that Booker would be a powerful advocate for federal marijuana reform if elected president. His consistent condemnation of the drug war, in addition to his leadership on the issue of legalization in the Senate (particularly his sponsorship of the Marijuana Justice Act), makes him one of the fiercest proponents of reform in Congress. It stands to reason that he’d continue that work in the White House.