Cory Booker Knocks Presidential Rivals for Joking About Marijuana

The New Jersey senator says there's nothing funny about pot busts that warp people's lives.


Brian Cahn / Zuma Press / Newscom

Kamala Harris' joke about marijuana and Jamaica did not go over well with her Jamaican father, who criticized her for perpetuating a "fraudulent stereotype." Cory Booker, one of her rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, also was not amused. "We have presidential candidates—senators—bragging about their pot use while there are kids who can't get a job because they have a nonviolent offense," the New Jersey senator said on MSNBC last night.

When asked whether she supports marijuana legalization during an interview on the syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club last month, Harris, a California senator, replied, "Half my family is from Jamaica; are you kidding me?" Asked whether she had ever smoked marijuana, she said, "I have. And I inhaled. I did inhale. It was a long time ago."

The other senator Booker had in mind presumably was Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a presidential contender who appeared on the same show this month and described his experience with cannabis this way: "Didn't do a whole lot for me. My recollection is I nearly coughed my brains out, so it's not my cup of tea."

I'm not sure either of those answers qualifies as "bragging," but Booker's point was that such lighthearted comments tend to obscure the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are still arrested every year on marijuana charges, the vast majority of them for simple possession, and have to bear the burden of those criminal records. He made similar remarks during an appearance in Davenport, Iowa, on Sunday. "We have presidential candidates and congresspeople and senators that now talk about their marijuana use almost as if it's funny," he said. "But meanwhile, in 2017, we had more arrests for marijuana possession in this country than all the violent crime arrests combined."

Booker, a former mayor of Newark, noted that black people are much more likely to be busted for pot than white people, even though they are only slightly more likely to be cannabis consumers. "In Newark, I'm sorry, the margins for error for my kids to experiment with drugs, like people often do, that margin is not there," he said. "And then one kid gets one charge for possession of marijuana for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing, and what happens to their lives?" Booker, who recently reintroduced a bill that would remove marijuana from the federal government's list of prohibited drugs and expunge federal records of "marijuana use or possession offense[s]," said, "Do not talk to me about legalizing marijuana unless in the same breath you talk to me about expunging the records of the millions of people that are suffering with not being able to find a job."

Booker's emphasis on expungement is commendable, and his knock against Harris is fair enough, given that she not only treated marijuana as a subject of levity during her radio interview but did not embrace legalization until last year and prior to that literally laughed at the idea. But Sanders introduced a legalization bill back in 2015, two years before Booker's Marijuana Justice Act. He supports legalization even though marijuana is not his "cup of tea," and he has expressed concerns similar to Booker's.

"I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses," Sanders said during a 2015 presidential debate. "We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs, which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system."