An effort to legalize marijuana at the federal level inched ahead as New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker unveiled new legislation to end the prohibition.
But the prospects for legal recreational weed nationwide are as hazy as ever.
Booker’s bill comes as the President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled its hostility toward marijuana even as eight states and the District of Columbia have greenlighted the use of marijuana.
In New Jersey, a leading candidate for governor says he backs legalization even though term-limited Republican Gov. Chris Christie is adamantly opposed to the idea.
Christie, who heads Trump’s anti-opioid commission, which just called for enacting a public health emergency in a recent interim report, said he opposes Booker’s plan.
“We’re in the middle of an opioid crisis,” he said. “We want to send a message that other drugs are OK to take? I just don’t understand the logic there.”
Booker, who held a news event in Linden, New Jersey, last week, countered — citing an ACLU study — that the wrong message is that marijuana arrests have disproportionately affected black and poor people.
“Apply the rule of law equally. Marijuana has been a tool with which we have undermined the economic well-being of millions of Americans and it’s about time it stops,” he said.
A closer look at the issues:
BOOKER’S BILL DOES WHAT?
Booker framed the issue around what he says is the unfair prosecution and imprisonment of poor and minority citizens. He says those people are more likely to be locked up on marijuana use and possession charges than wealthy, white residents.
His bill would automatically expunge federal use and possession convictions, in addition to legalizing the drug. It would also allow those currently serving time on those charges to petition for a resentencing as well as establish a fund to help communities affected by the so-called war on drugs.
“Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step in correcting this unjust system,” Booker said.
TRUMP, CHRISTIE AND OPPOSITION
Backers of Booker’s legislation acknowledge how difficult it would be to enact the measure with Trump in office.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is a well-known opponent of marijuana. He said last year before he was the nation’s top law enforcement officials that it’s “not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized” and also commissioned a task force earlier this year to review policies, including on marijuana.
Christie, who will be out of office by January, has promised to oppose any efforts at the state level to legalize the drug. He views legalization efforts as a poorly disguised way to raise tax revenues while introducing the risk of drug-related illnesses and injury.
“Why don’t we just legalize heroin? We could tax all of it and get more tax money and have more people dying. I guess some people are willing to make that sacrifice,” Christie said.
Booker’s bill had no co-sponsors when he unveiled it.
Despite the headwinds, cannabis-industry entrepreneurs view the introduction of federal legislation as a step forward.
“It’s less about getting full federal legalization at this point and more about starting the conversation and debate in Congress,” said Derek Peterson, CEO of Terra Tech, a marijuana agriculture firm hoping to use its herb and vegetable facilities in New Jersey to begin to grow cannabis in the state.
Shanel Lindsay, the founder and president of biotech and medical marijuana device company Ardent, called Booker’s effort “sensible” and said it starts a “broader national conversation.”
IS NEW JERSEY NEXT?
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy is leading in the polls against GOP Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno by double digits and backs legalization. He estimates it could bring in about $300 million in new revenues for the states.
Guadagno has said she is open to decriminalization but warned that Sessions wouldn’t support legalization.
Currently, there’s legislation pending in New Jersey that would permit possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solids, 72 ounces in liquid form and 7 grams of concentrate. It would prohibit home cultivation.
The legislation would establish a Division of Marijuana Enforcement, charged with regulating the industry. The legislation also would establish a sales tax on marijuana from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years to encourage early participation.