Senator Corey Booker introduced a bill Tuesday seeking to drop marijuana from America’s list of controlled substances, making pot legal across the U.S.
Federal law right now considers weed as dangerous as heroin and more dangerous than cocaine. The proposal rides a wave of recreational legalization across America, but there’s another impact to Booker’s bill: it would free thousands of state and federal inmates incarcerated for possession and trafficking.
“Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step,” Booker said, to correct an “unjust system.” The bill would "automatically expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes."
Marijuana laws, Booker said, largely impact communities “of color.”
Out of federal prison inmates jailed for marijuana offenses between the fiscal years of 1994-2012, 59 percent were Hispanic or Latino and 13.9 percent black or African American, according to a 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis. White Americans are incarcerated for the same crimes at a much lower rate.
In 2012, about 40,000 inmates in state and federal prisons were serving time for crimes involving marijuana. Roughly half were for marijuana offenses alone and were largely charges for distributing the drug.
“Our country’s drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed,” Booker said. “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 year.”
States spend about $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana laws annually, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil rights nonprofit calculated of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simply possessing the drug.
Marijuana possession and trafficking make up a large portion of the arrests made in every state each year. In Texas, where pot is still illegal, 97 percent of their convictionsinvolving marijuana are for possession.
Last year, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine voted to join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington in legalizing recreational pot use.
In April, a CBS News poll found that 61 percent of Americans want marijuana to be legalized—a five percentage point increase from the year before and the highest level of support recorded by the poll.
Not all Democratic senators support Booker’s proposal. “I'm not there. I think there's a lot about marijuana we don't know,” California Senator Dianne Feinstein told Rolling Stone Tuesday.
“I think marijuana has potential dangers to it,” Feinstein said, noting her concern about how access to the drug could impact the judgement of young people who are driving.
“I do not support a national, a federal effort to decriminalize marijuana,” Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins said. “We're in the midst of an opioid crisis in this country and I think the last thing we need is for the federal government to send a signal that marijuana should be legalized across this country.”
Even so, Congress has been reluctant to give Attorney General Jeff Sessions any money to go after states that have legalized recreational marijuana or allowed medicinal pot use.
Sessions is likely to work hard to fight Booker’s efforts to federally legalize pot, after he said in March that he rejects “the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store.”
But the current approach of letting states write their own laws is likely to stand after Sessions reviewed an Obama-era directive that prevents the federal government from interfering in state level marijuana laws early this year and said it’s “not too far from good policy."