Cannabis and Politics

11 May 2021

Booker Backs Biden to Decriminalize Cannabis at a Federal Level

Fresh on the heels of New York’s landmark legalization of recreational cannabis and what could mark a critical turning point for the cannabis industry in the US, US Democratic Senator Cory Booker has reiterated his belief that President Joe Biden has the power to get a federal marijuana legalization bill signed into law, 

The New Jersey state senator – a longtime supporter of decriminalization – has even suggested that Biden isn’t truly opposed to legalization – despite his previous stance on the issue – and is, in fact, determined to implement marijuana reforms that would address the many injustices of the government’s failed War on Drugs, while also helping to boost the nation’s burgeoning economy.

The announcement follows Booker’s recent introduction of a bill – known as the Marijuana Justice Act – that would see an end to federal marijuana prohibition and fully legalize the plant nationwide.

Furthermore, during this year’s 4/20 celebrations, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer – another vocal activist for changes in cannabis laws – reiterated his call to Congress for restorative justice for those previously convicted of marijuana-related crimes and his desires for decriminalization, saying that he hopes for an end to the drug’s prohibition at a federal level by as early as next year.

Speaking from the upper chamber of the Senate Floor last week, Schumer commented that “hopefully, the next time this unofficial holiday, 4/20, rolls around, our country will have made progress in addressing the massive overcriminalization of marijuana in a meaningful and comprehensive way.”

But what are the real chances that federal legalization could occur in a not too distant future?

Laying Down the Law

Second only to the US Constitution, federal laws apply to everyone in the United States, overriding state and local legislation. Cannabis over 0.3% THC remains illegal under federal US law, which currently considers it to have no accepted medical value and a high potential for abuse and dependence. Despite multiple efforts to reschedule the plant under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is still currently classified as a Schedule 2 substance alongside far more harmful substances like heroin, ecstasy, and methamphetamine.

In stark contrast, many individual states permit the use, sale, and possession of cannabis under a variety of circumstances. Recreational use is currently legalized in 17 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia, while a total of 36, plus four territories, have approved it for medical purposes. Oregon became the first US state to decriminalize cannabis back in 1973, while in 2012, Colorado and Washington were the first to sanction the recreational use of marijuana.

This legal minefield has left users and suppliers extremely vulnerable to prosecution, even in areas where the drug is otherwise legally sold and consumed. The nation’s growing cannabis industry also faces massive hurdles in transporting its products across state lines and accessing the country’s federally regulated banking system.

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In a New York Minute

After many years of opposition, in April 2021, New York became the 15th US state to legalize recreational marijuana. Unlike the situation in many other states, this decision was directly linked to the city’s economic and racial equity. Previous attempts at legalization in the Big Apple have been delayed over debates about how the profits from sales should be distributed, with some calling for tighter regulations and others for the lion’s share to be earmarked for minority districts where arrests on marijuana charges are disproportionately high.

A 2013 ACLU report found that black people are about 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, while people of colour represented 94% of marijuana-related arrests by the NYPD in 2020 alone.

The recreational market in New York is expected to become one of the biggest of the entire nation, eventually generating up to $350 million in yearly tax revenue and billions of dollars in annual sales, providing thousands of new jobs and business opportunities within the industry. Recently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo – both democrats – announced their plans to use part of the money generated from cannabis sales in the city to transform its ageing infrastructure, particularly its subway system.

However, as part of the new legal change, lawmakers have ensured that 40% will be reinvested into Black and Latino communities, many of which have been ravaged by America’s decades-long War on Drugs. In contrast, those previously convicted of marijuana-related offence will have their criminal records automatically expunged.

The law also seeks to allow people with prior cannabis convictions and those involved in the illicit side of the industry to participate in the new legal market.

Cannabis decriminalisation in the US on the horizon

Time for Change?

Whether Biden truly has the power or desire for change yet to be seen. It’s important to note that the current President was a crucial figure in the War of Drugs during the 1980s and 90s – backing severe penalties for certain drug offences and helping to write and pass two of the most critical pieces of legislation involved in the failed government initiative.

During his presidential campaign, he was also the only leading primary candidate in his party who opposed the federal cannabis legalization, citing concerns that it could act as a ‘gateway drug’. Booker has previously called out former vice president Biden on his old fashioned opinions, arguing that legalization was not just a matter of drug use but a central issue of race.

“Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people,” said Booker at a 2009 Democratic debate, “The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”

However, shifting public opinion – with a recent Pew Research Poll finding that as many as 91% of Americans now support marijuana legalization – and mounting pressure from his pro-cannabis peers, has seen the President recently soften his stance on the issue.

An official statement from the White House Press Secretary Jen Paski – also released on 4/20 of this year – declared the President’s support for a state’s right to legalize recreational marijuana.

As such, Biden seems unlikely to stand in opposition to any attempts to change federal law, and he and Vice President Kamala Harris, who does support legalization, have even pledged together to decriminalize cannabis at a minimum and expunge low-level crimes related to the plant.

Legalizing marijuana would lift all legal prohibitions on the drug while decriminalizing means that it would still be illegal — although those who break the law would face lesser penalties. For Biden, this would mean allowing states to legalize recreational marijuana, medical marijuana while also banning jail time for use and personal possession.

Sen. Cory Booker, Chuck Schumer, and Ron Wyden are currently working together towards realizing this common goal and will release “a unified discussion draft on comprehensive reform” later this year. Commenting further on the President’s stance this 4/20, Booker said, “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.”

Booker appears confident that with Biden now on side, citizens and businesses nationwide will soon be able to benefit from the massive opportunities offered by the marijuana industry without fear of reprisal and that America’s healing from the War on Drugs can finally begin.

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