Drug Policy

Cory Booker's Revolutionary Marijuana Reform Bill Doesn't Have a Snowball's Chance in Hell

The most far-reaching marijuana reform bill ever introduced in the Senate is essentially a progressive fantasy.


Photo credit: Horsma / Hamppuforum

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) today introduced a far-reaching marijuana reform bill that will likely never come up for a vote or obtain a single Republican co-sponsor.

In a universe where it stood even the slightest chance of being passed into law, the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017 would remove marijuana from the federal drug schedule, allow all current federal marijuana prisoners to petition for new sentences, expunge the convictions of former federal marijuana prisoners, withhold federal law enforcement funding from states that do not liberalize their own marijuana laws, and create a community reinvestment fund for communities affected by the drug war, to which Congress will appropriate $500 million a year, every year, until 2040.

Booker's bill essentially forces all of the states to legalize marijuana–or go without federal funding for law enforcement and prisons–and currently has zero co-sponsors.

Booker is not the first person to introduce a federal marijuana reform bill that will never see the Senate (or House) floor. Reps. Ron Paul and Barney Frank introduced the first federal repeal bill way back in 2011. That bill called for the repeal of federal prohibition and for states to set their own marijuana policies. In addition to Paul and Frank, there were four Democratic co-sponsors.

Booker addressed the incoherence of maintaining federal prohibition while states forge ahead with various legalization schemes during a Facebook Live event at 12:30 p.m. today. He decried the cruelty of denying veterans an alternative to prescription drugs, and outlined the disparate impact marijuana laws have on communities of color.

His reasons for reforming federal marijuana laws are as good as his legislation is bad.

Congress is closer to revisiting marijuana's place in Schedule I than it has ever been. Just last week, Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican congressman from South Carolina and a former prosecutor, grilled the interim director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy as to why marijuana is in a more restrictive schedule than cocaine and amphetamines.

But if you wanted to craft a bill that would alienate Republicans in Washington, D.C., and governors and state legislators of both parties across the country, you'd be hard pressed to surpass the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017.

Booker's bill would ensure the federal government would provide nothing for prison maintenance, construction, or staffing to any state in which the percentage of minorities arrested or convicted for a marijuana-related offense exceeded the percentage of minorities in the overall state population. And reduce federal funding for state and local law enforcement by 10 percent.

Recidivism reduction and drug rehab funding would be exempt from this rule, but you'd need an army of Government Accountability Office inspectors to keep state facilities compliant. As with equitable sharing reviews, inspectors would be able to tackle only a few facilities at a time, and only several years after the fact. (In the alternate universe where this bill gets so much as a committee hearing, congressional delegates from states likely to be affected strangle this provision before lunch.)

And then there's the $500 million-per-year Community Reinvestment Fund, some of which would be diverted from non-compliant states. The rest would simply be appropriated. Booker chose not to include a federal excise tax on marijuana sales. (Could it be that this is not a serious bill?)

The fund would pay for reentry services, job training, and "expenses related to the expungement of convictions," as well as "public libraries, community centers, and programs and opportunities dedicated to youth."

Library funding in a marijuana reform bill doesn't fly, even on Earth 2.

The most reasonable provision in the bill is re-sentencing for current federal pot prisoners. When the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed the federal sentencing guidelines for drug offenses in April 2014, it voted later that year to allow more than 40,000 prisoners to petition for shorter sentences, in line with what they would've received had they been sentenced under the new guidelines.

Congress had the opportunity to intervene, but didn't. The Sentencing Commission could do something like that again, but they wouldn't be able help federal pot prisoners serving mandatory minimums. Only Congress can do that, and thus far, it hasn't even when the opportunity presented itself.

After passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which effectively increased the quantity of crack-cocaine required to trigger a federal mandatory minimum, criminal justice reformers encouraged Congress to make those changes retroactive. Seven years later, neither the Senate nor the House has come close to doing so.

The most viable proposal in Booker's bill isn't viable.