Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) raised the issue of racial disparities in marijuana enforcement and the broader war on drugs during his questioning of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Wednesday.
The senator, an outspoken advocate for cannabis reform, was making the point that those racial inequities are part of a systemic problem in the U.S. judicial system that has marginalized and often disenfranchised communities of color.
“The war on marijuana—in 2017, there were more possession of marijuana arrests in America than all the violent crime arrests combined, overwhelmingly and disproportionately African American people,” he said. “My point is, you see that if a black person is not more likely to use marijuana—but they’re more likely to be convicted of a felony for it at some three-to-four times the rate [of white people]—I hope you can see that that means that they’re going to be more likely to lose other liberties, other rights, that so deeply affect their lives.”
“Their voting life, their ability to raise their children when a parent has been put in a position where now, because of that felony conviction for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing, they now can’t vote, they now can’t get jobs, they now can’t get business licenses,” the former Democratic presidential candidate said. “This is such a deeply affecting system that is disproportionately harming one class of citizens based upon race.”
While he didn’t ask Barrett any specific questions on cannabis policy issues, the senator did ask whether she’s read any books or articles that delve into racial disparities in the criminal justice system. He cited “The New Jim Crow” by civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander as an example. The would-be justice replied that she couldn’t recall having done any such specific reading but, throughout her academic career, did have regular discussions about the topic.
Booker recommended the same book to now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing in 2018.
Earlier at Wednesday’s hearing, the senator more broadly discussed the racial inequities of the war on drugs.
“One of the greatest drivers of disparities [in the justice system]—I’ve worked with partners of mine on both sides of the aisle—has been the so-called war on drugs, which really is a war on black and brown people because of the outrageous disparities,” he said. “There’s no difference between blacks and whites for using drugs, or even dealing drugs, in America but blacks are multiple times more likely to be arrested.”
He said that significant sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine is “one of the most tragic examples” of how this problem has played out.
Under that system, he said, “someone caught with the amount of crack cocaine the size of a candy bar would get roughly the same sentence as someone caught with a briefcase full of powder cocaine,” and it just so happened to be the case that black people were more often arrested with the latter substance.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.