With state after state embracing efforts to decriminalize or outright legalize marijuana faster than the Trump campaign (allegedly) embraced literally any random person claiming to have dirt on Hillary Clinton, our country is slowly chipping away at the foundation stones of its mass incarceration nightmare, which has been built largely around nonviolent drug possession cases. These new laws have largely accomplished the goals stated by its advocates, namely reducing arrests and freeing up precious law enforcement resources for more pressing matters, like murder, human trafficking and money-laundering by elected officials.
The liberalization of America’s drug laws will save a lot of lives that might have otherwise been ruined by jail time, punitive probation rackets, or simply losing time spent with loved ones locked away, losses felt more acutely than usual during the holiday season. The lost productivity of able-bodied men and women whose employment prospects are diminished by their previous convictions, lost votes from millions of disenfranchised felons, violent crime committed by teenage boys whose fathers weren’t there to raise them—sociopolitical dynamics that are all expected to begin moving in the right direction, downward on a slippery slope greased-up by medical marijuana legislation.
But as we move toward a more sensible future, virtually nothing has been done to address the mistakes made in the past. No palliative measures have yet been mustered up on behalf of the millions of people who are either behind bars on marijuana charges right now, or who were years before. The fastest and most effective solution would be some kind of magic-bullet proposal that entails immediate release of all nonviolent pot possession cases in states that have decriminalized, as well as clearing the records of those bearing previous convictions, but it seems unlikely that any politician will even try such a thing, not if they want to live—I mean, keep their jobs.
One ray of hope, however, may come from Senator Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat widely touted as the leading candidate to be America’s second black president. (In retrospect, it seems clear now that Hillary’s failure to make Booker her running mate was a major mistake contributing to her eventual defeat, but that’s neither here nor there.) Booker went live on Facebook on Dec. 18 to tout his Marijuana Justice Act, which he introduced on Aug. 1. He was joined by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the bill’s first co-sponsor. More than 100,000 people viewed it in just the first two days.
At its core, the Marijuana Justice Act seeks to “remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, making it legal at the federal level,” according to the senator’s August press release. “The bill is retroactive and would apply to those already serving time behind bars for marijuana-related offenses, providing for a judge’s review of marijuana sentences.” This is, in effect, the magic bullet solution mentioned earlier, except that magic isn’t real, and this legislation is.
“Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step in correcting this unjust system,” added Booker in the release. “States have so far led the way in reforming our criminal justice system and it’s about time the federal government catches up and begins to assert leadership.”
Obviously, the bill’s chances of success are about as good as being named Omarosa’s replacement at the White House. (Spoiler alert: It’s not me.) With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, it’s unlikely to even reach the floor for a vote. There is some cause for optimism, however, as some conservatives since the days of William Buckley have made the case against prohibition on libertarian grounds; clearly all the dire predictions made about the drug war being a key incubator of narco-terrorism have proved 100 percent correct, leaving a trail of bodies from Vancouver to Veracruz.
Fiscal conservatives have also seen for themselves the massive economic impact in the relevant states, meaning that while Booker doesn’t have the votes in Washington at the moment, there are probably a handful of influential Republicans with whom he can find common ground on the issue. (It’s anyone’s guess which Republican will be first to sign on as a co-sponsor, but if I were betting money on it, I’d lean toward Susan Collins, John McCain or maybe even Marco Rubio.) With Democrats prepping for the midterms like a line cook at Golden Corral on Thanksgiving, a power switch on Capitol Hill is entirely possible, in which case the MJA moves immediately to the nation’s front-burner. And let’s not forget that the president was once on a first-name basis with the owners of Studio 54, so who knows what could happen if the bill made it to a dry spot on his desk?
The best news of all? Booker’s conceptualization of the bill is based in meticulous research and consultation with activist groups around the country, which gives it broad-based appeal nationwide. Even if it never reaches the Senate floor, the substance is potent enough for enterprising pols on state and local levels to immediately begin bringing their own smaller-scale versions of it to a vote in their own communities, many of which (like Florida, for example) have already signaled their affinity with the spirit of such proposals by voting down pot laws around the country, which itself helped create the political climate that allowed Booker to take this stand. So, although the actual legislative battle is yet to be fought, in many ways he’s already won.