Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says that President Joe Biden is already where he needs to be to get a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition enacted into law—even if he personally opposes legalization. Confusion about the president’s position comes down to semantics, the senator indicated.
Booker said in a recent interview that Biden’s stance in favor of “decriminalization” will be enough to advance the reform legislation he’s working on with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR).
That reason being, he said, is that what the reform proposal would accomplish at the federal level is effectively decriminalizing marijuana by removing it from the list of controlled substances and letting states set their own policies—something Biden does supports.
“I have a great partner” in the president, Booker said in an interview on the podcast Hell & High Water that was published on Wednesday. “He believes in decriminalization—and as I said to him the first time we talked about it was, ‘well, my bill is no different. I think states should be allowed to do what they want.'”
“I think it should be legalized, but what we need to do at the federal level is de-list marijuana. And as soon as you decriminalize marijuana, you open up states that right now are not able to do a lot of things, to give way for what I want to achieve,” Booker said. “His policy position on marijuana—he may say, ‘I’m not for legalization, I’m for decriminalization’—as a federal official, that’s where I’m trying to get.”
In other words, the senator isn’t especially concerned that Biden would be an obstacle if Congress passes the legalization bill he’s planning to introduce, as long as it’s made clear that there’s no mandate for all states to set up tax-and-regulate marijuana markets if they don’t want to.
Booker also said he would like for people to stop playing a video clip of him calling out Biden’s opposition to legalization during a presidential primary debate in 2019, as the interview host did in the new podcast interview. At the time, the senator jokingly accused his fellow candidate of being “high” when he articulated his opposition to legalization days earlier.
“That is a little clip I’m hoping at some point stops being played,” he said. “But yes, indeed, I accused Joe Biden of being high.”
While the text of the pending legalization legislation has yet to be introduced, it’s expected to incorporate key provisions from past reform bills such as Booker’s own Marijuana Justice Act (MJA) that could create incentives for states to adopt legalization. For example, the MJA called for the withholding of certain federal funds to states where cannabis criminalization is enforced out in a racially disproportionate way.
That would go a bridge further than simple decriminalization, so it remains to be seen if Biden would be amendable to that kind of broader reform.
In any case, Booker’s point about the decriminalization/legalization distinction when it comes to federal policy was also made by Schumer in a recent press conference. The majority leader, who’s said that Congress will move forward with legalization regardless of the president’s position, said last month that “I support decriminalization at the federal level, and we’ll be introducing legislation with a few of my colleagues shortly.”
Asked to clarify whether he supports legalization, Schumer replied, “decriminalization, legalization,” implying that the two terms are used interchangeably.
“At the federal level, you call it ‘decriminalization’ because that lets the states legalize,” he said. But in general, advocates draw a distinction between the terms, with decriminalization usually being used to describe state or local policies that simply remove the threat of incarceration for simple possession while fines or other penalties could still be levied, which is distinct from outright legalization.
Schumer also said this week that the legalization bill they’re working on will be brought to the floor of his chamber “soon.”
He, Wyden and Booker formally started their reform efforts by holding a meeting earlier this year with representatives from a variety of advocacy groups to gain feedback on the best approach to the reform.
Schumer made a point last month to say that it will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry.
Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom,” he said.
He also urged voters to reach out to their congressional representatives and tell them that “this is long overdue.”
On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.
Now that Democrats have the majority in both chambers, as well as the White House, there’s a sense of optimism among advocates that comprehensive reform is achievable in this Congress.
But with respect to the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that Biden’s position on adult-use legalization “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the policy.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.