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Cory Booker's cannabis bill would punish states for arresting disproportionate numbers of people of color for marijuana

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is reintroducing one of the longest-standing cannabis-related acts in Congress, the Marijuana Justice Act.

The act would remove cannabis from schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act — thereby allowing states to make their own decisions about regulating, taxing or outlawing cannabis — all with the blessing of the federal government.

States that decide not to enter into the legal market would need to reduce the racial disparities in their marijuana-related arrests or face penalties.

"There are still 28 states in this union that have laws on the books that can result in an American citizen spending the evening in jail as the result of simply having a joint in their pocket. It's abhorrent."
Justin Strekal, NORML policy director

According to the ACLU, blacks and whites use cannabis at a similar rate. But people of color are arrested nearly four times as often as whites for that use.

A study published by the ACLU in 2010 stated that nationwide, blacks were almost four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. It also said that some localities are worse than others; in Iowa in 2010, for example, blacks were 8.34 percent more likely to be arrested than whites, and in Washington, D.C., they were 8.05 percent more likely. In fact, in D.C. that year, according to the ACLU, the arrest rate for whites was 185 per 100,000, while it was 1,489 per 100,000 for blacks.

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"Across the river in Arlington, Virginia," pointed out Justin Strekal, policy director of pro-cannabis advocacy group NORML, during an interview in Washington, D.C, "the racial disparity of the enforcement of marijuana criminalization is eight to one."

Under Booker's bill, states that don't legalize marijuana but do continue to show data that maintains racial disparities like this will be penalized. In the 2017 version of this act, the penalties included ineligibility for federal funding for the construction or staffing of a prison or jail, or for certain programming within the jail system such as drug addiction treatment.

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"There are still 28 states in this union that have laws on the books that can result in an American citizen spending the evening in jail as the result of simply having a joint in their pocket," said Strekal. "It's abhorrent."

There are those, however, who think Booker's bill goes too far.

"Why are they always tying social justice to commercialization of marijuana?" asked William Jones of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). "There’s no reason to tie these things. They should be done irrespective of if marijuana is legal or not."

According to the ACLU, blacks and whites use cannabis at a similar rate. But people of color are arrested nearly four times as often as whites for that use.

SAM holds the position that no one should be going to jail for marijuana possession and the organization is pro-expungement of records, but believes that allowing a legal market at the same time as passing criminal justice reform isn't right.

"So, we’re saying, OK, we'll hold you accountable for that if we introduce the industry," explained Jones. "It's insulting to say we’ll connect the two when there's no reason to connect the two."

For cannabis growers, producers and dispensary owners in states that already have a commercial cannabis industry, though, many say federal descheduling will help make it easier to run a business. In some states, cannabis businesses cannot open bank accounts, receive small business loans, or write off business expenses on their federal taxes.

"As long as financial institutions aren't able to service cannabis enterprises, these businesses are forced to operate in an all-cash environment that's unsafe and lacks accountability," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., whose state legalized the sale of recreational cannabis four years ago. "This bill would place cannabis legalization in the hands of states — exactly where it should be."

Sen. Merkley's office told Circa he will again co-sponsor the Marijuana Justice Act. The Act is also cosponsored by Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

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