Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) discussed the role of marijuana criminalization and the broader drug war in perpetuating racial injustices during an online town hall on Wednesday.
The former 2020 presidential candidates touched on a variety of drug-related policy issues. For example, Booker brought up an ongoing ban on access to coronavirus relief programs for business owners with prior drug convictions and said it’s an example of why the two senators “talk about marijuana justice all the time.”
“I’m all for legalization,” Booker said. “But to say that in the same breath and not to include expunging records, reinvesting profits into communities that have been economically devastated by the drug war—you’re not talking about justice if you suddenly say, ‘okay, everybody started in the same field, go ahead.'”
“All these big companies—pharmaceutical companies, others—are getting into the marijuana business,” he said. “Yet blacks in many states can’t even qualify for a license because they have nonviolent drug charges. All of these issues, you’re stripping people of their political power, their economic power, by over-criminalizing a population.”
All over this country, the American people are demanding justice and an end to police brutality. Join me and Sen. @CoryBooker for a live town hall on the fight for racial and economic justice and how Congress must act in this moment: https://t.co/ZrKPH02U9j
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 10, 2020
A virtual attendee later asked the senators: “What would legalizing marijuana, expunging the records of those arrested for marijuana, mean for people of color?”
Booker weighed in and said that in 2017, “there were more marijuana possession arrests than all the violent crime arrests in America combined. And again, they’re arresting people of color.”
“And by the way, that’s an expensive proposition,” Sanders said.
“Very expensive, and it’s ridiculous,” Booker agreed. “This demonization of marijuana, the prohibition on marijuana, is ridiculous.”
Sanders then talked about how, during his presidential campaign, he would ask people in the crowd at his rallies to raise their hands if they or someone they knew had ever been arrested for cannabis possession.
“I was astounded by the hands that went up,” he said. “Then if you get a criminal record, as you discussed earlier, right? You’re looking for a job and the boss says, ‘have you ever been arrested?’ ‘Well, yeah, I have been.’ ‘Okay, well, thank you, we’ll interview somebody else.'”
We must end the criminalization of marijuana, expunge past records for marijuana-related offenses, and invest in communities harmed by the failed war on drugs. pic.twitter.com/80OsahjjNW
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 11, 2020
Booker noted that there’s “no difference between blacks and whites for using drugs. In fact, young white men have a little bit higher rates of dealing drugs than black men.” Yet black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense.
“Now you get a nonviolent drug charge for doing something that two of the three last presidents admitted to doing,” the senator said. “Now you have 40,000 collateral consequences that strip you from your economic power. You can’t get Pell grants, can’t get public housing, can’t get jobs, can’t get loans from the bank.”
Booker raised many of these points earlier this month during an interview with MSNBC, where he highlighted systemic social issues—including racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—that need to be addressed as people across the country protest police killings of black Americans.