In August 2013, I walked out next to the First Amendment monument at Independence Hall National Historic Park in Philly with a joint and a bullhorn for a protest. At the direction of the U.S. attorney, hundreds police officers showed up to prevent any marijuana from being smoked.
National Park Service rangers cited me for marijuana possession, and I was brought to trial in federal court. It was a pretty open-and-shut case. In 2014, Judge Jacob Hart stated at my sentencing hearing that he would vote to legalize marijuana if he could, then handed down a $3,000 cash fine and two years of supervised probation. I was drug-tested monthly and had severe travel restrictions for possessing 0.4 gram of cannabis: my half-smoked joint.
The case was the most minor, yet my record remains. Under current law, in order to clear my name, I need a presidential pardon and, oddly for a man who comments on just about everything, President Trump has been completely silent on marijuana since taking office.
In a Facebook Live video on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) announced a new bill to bring a swift end to federal prohibition: The Marijuana Justice Act. The language also seeks to address the real terror and long-term consequences these laws have caused for millions of Americans.
Foremost in Booker’s plan is the concept of descheduling. That means removing marijuana from the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. That would put the nontoxic plant on the same level as alcohol and tobacco, allowing states to freely regulate the products. If enacted, Booker’s plan would be a truly monumental shift. By eliminating this keystone provision, a nearly century-old war against cannabis consumers and growers would end.
Booker used the introduction of his bill to recognize the tremendous positive developments in states that have legalized cannabis for adult use and also took issue with his former Senate colleague Jeff Sessions’ hard-line stance as U.S. attorney general.
Booker noted that the drug war has “a disproportionately devastating impact on Americans of color and the poor.”
That’s why Booker’s new legislation is so critical, because federal marijuana prohibition had institutional racism built into it by design.
From Harry Anslinger with Reefer Madness and the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act in the 1930s to President Richard M. Nixon’s crafting the Controlled Substances Act in 1970s, those who framed the policy of prohibition were unabashedly using drug laws to target certain groups.
John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, gave this infamous quote in a 2016 Harper’s magazine interview:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
In Philadelphia, that reality plays out every day. Leading up to our 2014 decriminalization ordinance, more than 3,000 black residents were arrested for marijuana possession every year. That was four times the rate of handcuffs used for white residents in the city over possession of the same plant. Even after decriminalization, we still have racial disparities among the remaining weed arrests.
Booker has been a longtime reform advocate, but there seems to be a new drive behind his recent passion for the issue. It may be because more elected officials from both parties are willing to get involved with cannabis legislation.
Many observers give Booker’s bill only an outside shot because of the GOP-controlled Congress. But Tom Garrett of Virginia, a Republican in the House, has already introduced a bill to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. There could be more traction on the Hill for cannabis than many politicos realize.
Still, word for word, Booker’s design is the best starting point to a real solution for marijuana in America. The bill even breaks new ground in the Senate by creating a federal grant program to give money back to communities that have felt the worst effects of criminal prohibition.
And, for thousands like me, the bill would bypass the President and allow federal marijuana records to be easily expunged.
As more states regulate cannabis, creating tens of thousands of jobs and perhaps billions of dollars in new tax revenue, Congress can no longer endorse such a costly conflict.
The Marijuana Justice Act bill presents the definitive exit from a needless war happening on our own soil.