Democratic Senator Cory Booker put his spotlight on cannabis reform in the new Congress on Thursday, shifting the debate from how to address the cannabis industry’s immediate struggles, such as banking, to one about how cannabis legalization should benefit communities devastated by America’s war on drugs.
Booker, along with fellow Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee, announced that they would reintroduce the Marijuana Justice Act in both the House and Senate, legislation which Booker has been pushing for more than two years. While the Act is in line with Democrats’ shift in the new Congress toward a more progressive agenda — especially among those, including Booker, who are running for president — Booker’s stance could pit him against Democratic pragmatists and the cannabis industry members who have spent millions on lobbyists in hopes of more incremental reform that might have a better shot of passing a GOP-controlled Senate.
(Read Cannabis Wire’s three-part series on how the burgeoning industry has used its money to influence politics, and found new GOP allies in the process.)
The Cannabis Trade Federation and the National Cannabis Roundtable, which is in part spearheaded by former GOP House Speaker John Boehner, have announced a significant lobbying effort on Capitol Hill for industry and GOP-friendly reforms, including the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, or STATES Act.
The Act, co-sponsored last session by fellow Democratic presidential contender Senator Elizabeth Warren with Republican Senator Cory Gardner, leaves federal prohibition in place while solidifying protections for the industry states that have legalized cannabis, including barring federal prosecution and opening up the federal banking system for state-legal cannabis businesses. STATES, which has not yet been reintroduced, is seen as having the best chance to pass Congress this session — although hardly a certain one — with a GOP-controlled Senate.
But STATES doesn’t go nearly as far as the Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal cannabis prohibition and address concerns that states with and without legal cannabis have not adequately considered people with past cannabis convictions or those in communities most affected by prohibition. The Act would expunge past cannabis convictions, deny certain federal funds to states that do not legalize cannabis and set up a community reinvestment fund for job training and other investments.
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Booker said Thursday on Twitter and Facebook that cannabis legalization must be tied to reinvestment in communities, largely black and brown, that have been affected by disproportionate enforcement of cannabis laws, which, he said, persist to this day even where cannabis has been legalized. The bill was first introduced in 2017 and gained just six co-sponsors, with four of them now running for president: Warren and fellow Democratic presidential contenders and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.
“A marijuana conviction is often a life sentence—people can’t get jobs or many business licenses, and they can’t get food assistance like SNAP [food assistance] or public housing if it’s a felony,” Booker said on Twitter. Booker also set up a landing page to collect email addresses for those who agreed with him on the Act, and he urged voters to force the issue.
“What really ticks me off, and it gets me very angry, is that people talking about adult-use, adult use, adult-use but don’t in the same breath talk about undoing the damage of an unjust system,” he said on Facebook Live, sitting with Khanna and Lee on a couch in a Capitol Hill office. “We have got to be about restorative justice here. We need to understand that this is a war on people. It smacks of such bitter hypocrisy that we have laws [legalizing cannabis] in states but those states are not expunging records.”
Democratic strategist and pollster Celinda Lake told Cannabis Wire that Booker’s elevation of the issue as a serious contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination could take major cannabis reform off the table in this Congress, but makes it more likely that federal prohibition could end in 2021. Congressional candidates and those who run for president will be forced to stake out a position on the issue, she said.
“I don’t think it has a chance of passing” with a GOP-controlled Senate, Lake said of the Marijuana Justice Act. But Booker’s reintroduction of the Act has other benefits. “Community reinvestment is extremely popular with voters, including older Latinos and older African Americans. I think it really moves it up on the agenda and really legitimizes the debate in Congress.”
Representatives of two prominent industry lobbying groups said Booker’s announcement won’t change their focus, even if the conversation has changed direction.
Neal Levine, the CEO of the industry group Cannabis Trade Federation, told Cannabis Wire in an emailthat the group supports Booker’s bill and others. “CTF is focused on ending the conflict between federal and state cannabis law in a business friendly way that is inclusive to all. We fully support the Marijuana Justice Act and the STATES Act, and applaud all members of Congress who are pushing to end the failed policy of cannabis prohibition,” Levine said.
Michael Correia, a lobbyist for the cannabis trade group National Cannabis Industry Association, said the group remains focused on a bill that would allow cannabis businesses access to banking services called the SAFE Act, which received the new Congress’s first hearing on cannabis reform last week in a House subcommittee.
“I don’t think it takes the wind out the sails of STATES Act,” he said of Booker’s announcement. “There are going to be so many marijuana bills introduced this Congress. Every one has its own focus. NCIA’s focus is on SAFE Banking Act. That had the most co-sponsors last Congress and since there was a hearing last week, I could see it being a bill that gets moved in the House.”
Still, he said, things have changed in regard to STATES. “You mention the equity provision and that is going to be a big issue with some House Democrats, and I don’t know if STATES addresses that,” he said.