Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says it’s been “frustrating” to see marijuana legalization fall short of equity goals, which he said is partly due to ongoing federal prohibition. And while he’s pushing for reform, he characterized cannabis as a “dangerous” drug that hasn’t been studied enough.
The senator, who has long advocated for equity-centered federal legalization and sponsored a bill to that end with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last year, discussed the prospects of drug policy reform at a panel at Tisch College on Monday.
Asked about which of his priorities could be achieved in the current Congress, Booker said that he believes that bipartisan lawmakers will be able to pass legislation to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and that marijuana “compromise legislation” is also something that “might happen” based on conversations with certain Republican colleagues.
However, while cannabis legalization is “something profoundly important to me,” Booker said that “what is really frustrating me is I thought that legalizing marijuana would have a democratizing force on our country, and it has not.”
He said he’s dissatisfied with the progress of expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions living in states where the plant is now legal, and also decried that the industry lacks critical diversity.
“Even the business side of this is not as fair and equal in terms of opportunity as you would think,” he said. “And some of that is because we have failed to deschedule it—and so if you’re a woman who gets a [cannabis] license, you can’t get the capital necessary often to hold on to that license to start a business or to fund the business.”
“So you have these multi-state operators funded by large hedge funds or large wealthy individuals who are not diverse, who are going around buying up licenses from desperate people in communities—where they thought they were going to help make sure that the very people who are disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition were now going to get an opportunity to help on the business side, but that has not happened,” the senator said.
“Marijuana business in the United States of America is overwhelmingly non-diverse, white male,” he said. “Women and minorities make up a tiny, tiny fraction—not in any way proportionate to the numbers in America, and so this is an issue I’ve been working on.”
Booker made similar points about his concerns with the equity shortcomings of cannabis reform last year as he and colleagues worked to advance a package of modest marijuana proposals including bipartisan banking and expungements legislation that ultimately did not come to pass.
But during his discussion on Monday, he also asserted that marijuana is “dangerous drug” that’s been understudied.
He said he shared the same concerns as an audience member who spoke about the risks of high-potency THC products. While Booker said that the status quo is untenable and will only lead to more discriminatory criminalization, “the question is what’s the right way to move forward?”
“This is a drug, and I think it’s a dangerous drug. I really do,” he said. “I think we haven’t studied it enough. I think what’s happening to the brain—I will tell you this, I think alcohol is a pretty damn dangerous drug as well.”
“If you have a child, or if you are younger than 25, and you’re drinking or smoking pot, you are damaging your brain in ways that will severely affect your mental health, the wellbeing of your brain,” he said. “The studies and the data now—when you get to be like my age, and what you’ve done to yourself if you’ve lived that way of regularly smoking drugs and smoking marijuana, I just think, why? Why would you do it?”
“But I will tell you this: I would rather a system that strictly regulates [and] enforces. There’s a lot more that I see being done in some jurisdictions to protect kids, especially from accessing this serious drug,” the senator said. “I would want a lot more research being done on alcohol and drugs and other things that we seem to have in our society that cause a lot more damage than we’re talking about.”
Booker, Schumer and other colleagues have held early meetings with bipartisan senators this session after failing to advance a so-called SAFE Plus package of cannabis legislation last year. The reform is now further complicated by the fact that Republicans hold control of the House.
The majority leader and other lawmakers are also scheduled to speak at an advocacy event inside the Capitol Building on the cannabis holiday 4/20 next week.
Meanwhile, Booker recently filed a bill alongside Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that’s meant to streamline the federal rescheduling of “breakthrough therapies” like psilocybin and MDMA in order to promote research and drug development. (Full Story)