Pubdate: Tue, 01 Aug 2017
Source: Herald News (West Paterson, NJ)
Copyright: 2017 North Jersey Media Group Inc.
Author: Nicholas Pugliese


U.S. Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill Tuesday to make marijuana
legal at the federal level, marking the first time the New Jersey
Democrat has come out in favor of full legalization and further
stoking tensions with a Trump administration that has sought to roll
back the clock on federal drug policy.

The Marijuana Justice Act, as Booker is calling his bill, would also
allow people serving time for marijuana-related offenses to be
resentenced and automatically expunge federal marijuana use and
possession crimes. States whose marijuana laws disproportionately
affect minorities or poor people would lose federal funding for law
enforcement and prison construction, among other funds.

"Our country's drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed,"
Booker said in a statement. "They don't make our communities any safer
-- instead they divert critical resources from fighting violent
crimes, tear families apart, unfairly impact low-income communities
and communities of color and waste billions in taxpayer dollars each

But despite public support and backing from members of both political
parties, marijuana legalization efforts have little chance of
succeeding in the GOP-controlled Congress. Many Republicans remain
skeptical about marijuana reform, while Trump's Justice Department,
led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has started rolling back
Obama-era policies aimed at granting more leeway to drug offenders.

Sessions directed federal prosecutors earlier this year to resume the
practice of pursuing the most severe penalties possible for offenses,
a strategy that has resulted in long sentences for many minority
defendants and packed prisons. He also petitioned Congress to undo a
federal provision that prevents the Justice Department from targeting
medical marijuana operations in states where they are legal.

According to reports, Sessions also re-established a controversial
criminal asset seizure program last month that could be used to
crackdown on the sale of marijuana even where it's legal. And Trump's
Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which Sessions leads,
is expected to issue a report this week that advocates fear will link
marijuana to violent crime and recommend tougher sentences for those
growing, selling and smoking the plant.

Booker, meanwhile, has made criminal justice reform one of his central
issues, arguing that drug laws perpetuate poverty in cities by
creating generations of people who cannot take advantage of safety net
programs such as food stamps and public housing because of nonviolent
criminal records.

"We in this country have done and persecuted the drug war not on
everyone but have focused it on the most vulnerable people in our
communities," Booker said Tuesday during an event on Facebook Live.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey bolstered that
argument in a May report that found police in the state make a
marijuana possession arrest every 22 minutes and arrest black
residents at three times the rate of white residents despite similar
usage rates. The civil rights group called on New Jersey to legalize,
tax and regulate marijuana for adults.

New Jersey and 28 other states already allow medical marijuana use,
while eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized
recreational use.

Both policies are supported by a majority of Americans: 94 percent 
support medical marijuana, while 60 percent are in favor of full 
marijuana legalization, according to a recent Quinnipiac University 
national poll.

Booker's newfound support for full legalization is in line with the
views of New Jersey's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy,
who has said that legalizing and regulating marijuana could generate
$300 million in tax revenue for the state.

State lawmakers, led by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, have already
begun a campaign to legalize marijuana through legislation.

Murphy's Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, has said she
favors decriminalizing marijuana but is opposed to legalizing it for
recreational use.

Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, has blasted efforts to legalize the
recreational use of marijuana as "beyond stupidity," arguing that
marijuana is a gateway to more serious drug use. Christie heads a
national opioid commission that on Monday urged Trump to declare drug
abuse a national health emergency.

Tom Angell, founder and chairman of the group Marijuana Majority,
called Booker's bill "the single most far-reaching marijuana bill
that's ever been filed in either chamber of Congress."

"More than just getting the federal government out of the way so that
states can legalize without [Drug Enforcement Agency] harassment, this
new proposal goes even further by actually punishing states that have
bad marijuana laws," Angell said.

According to the bill, the Marijuana Justice Act would:

"Marijuana legalization on the federal and state level must be fair
and equitable and must repair past harms to communities of color,"
Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy
Alliance, said in support of Booker's legislation. "It is time to
right the wrongs of prohibition."