Senator Cory Booker with Representatives Barbara Lee and Ro Kahanna at the Washington D.C. news conference announcing the introduction of the Marijuana Justice Act into the House.

Jan 22, 2018



by Nathan Riley

A bill dubbed the “most ambitious marijuana legislation in recent history” by a prestigious law school journal has just been introduced into the House of Representatives.

A trio of House Members with strong credentials makes this filing impressive. The lead sponsor rocked to fame with a vote seven days after the 9/11 terrorists brought down the World Trade Center and engulfed the Pentagon in flames, causing a war frenzy. She stood alone and voted no on the authorization of force. The resolution she said, with a foresight that must cause her pain because it turned out to be true, would be a blank check sending soldiers all over the world to fight without an exit strategy and a specific target. Hers was the only “no” vote, public opinion was in a frenzy creating near unanimity.

And now she offers a plan for ending another war, the war on drugs, with this bill linking legalized sale of cannabis to programs making life easier for former prisoners and rather than sending police into poor neighborhoods put in libraries and recreational centers. The neighborhoods that got whacked the hardest get the whip replaced with the helping hand. Comfort rather than pain becomes the policy of this government. Barbara Lee is a peacenik, she prefers talking over handcuffs.

Rep Lee represents Oakland, and has 20 years of Congressional Service but she sat down at the news conference with the first-term Member from Silicon Valley Ro Khanna and a bit of a brain. As in he’s both a lawyer and an economist, and oh on the way to Washington, he taught economics at Stanford University. He’s erudite and loves to boil down arguments to essentials. He believes marijuana legalization is good for the American economy.

And the third member of the trio is in the background. The Representative from New York and in an old Democratic Party tradition, he is also the Queen County Democratic Leader. Joe Crowley recently backed the new Speaker of the New York City Council who promptly promised to be a watchdog over the Mayor. Crowley is spoken of with respect and mentioned as the next Speaker of the House succeeding Nancy Pelosi. That he should cosponsor a bill that unites into a coalition veterans, African-Americans, Latinx, immigrants, business people and civil libertarians, and oh by the way it also generate new income that could be directed to the most underserved residents in the nation is a sign that this legislation has political clout. This may be a man who will use political power to do good. In New York City, a strong Democratic leadership has often sparked progressive legislation.

This marks an equally rare event; the introduction of the same legalization bill into both houses of Congress. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker first introduced the Marijuana Justice Act five months ago and it received a detailed analysis in a Harvard Law Review article earning praise for its ambitions that would repair “past harms” while “trying to prevent future ones.”

Queen Adesauyi of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization dedicated to ending police harassment of drug users and their neighborhoods, applauded the bill’s attempt to redress “the lasting impact” of law enforcement’s “disproportionate” focus on people of color, residents of low-income neighborhoods and veterans.

Barbara Lee, the feisty Representative from Oakland stressed, “This bill is an essential step in correcting the racial disparities in arrests and incarceration” of the war on drugs. Rep. Lee and Ro Khanna the erudite Member from Silicon Valley held a news conference to announce the introduction and were joined by Senator Booker.

In a sign that Congressional doubts about the war on drugs are rising, the new bill drew 23 co-sponsors within hours of its filing. Four are from California where legal pot sales started January first and three from New York, which is beginning to confront the problem. Illinois has two and 14 other States have one representative backing marijuana justice.

Congressional legalization bills repudiate the war on drug’s big lie exaggerating the dangers of marijuana. By law, not by scientific evidence, the government decrees the marijuana plant has a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.” Yet most people who smoked pot tried it and gave it up. It wasn’t to their taste and they didn’t like breaking the law. This psychoactive drug has no “high potential for abuse,” its use is voluntary. Estimates of the number of marijuana users reach 35 million with only a fraction showing compulsive use. A standard estimate of pot abusers is 9% meaning that 91% control their use. As for accepted medical use, cancer doctors tell patients that pot relieves the side effects of chemo, and of course pot makes people feel good like Prozac or other legal drugs. The extremist views about pot expressed in Federal law expose an authoritarian impulse. A government insisting it’s right no matter what the users or experts say.

Marijuana isn’t dangerous, but it has risks. Pot is seductive; some people experience it as bliss and just keep doing it and not much else. There is a public health rule: if you do a psychoactive drug and it really rocks your world—watch out, examine, your use. The drive to legalize reflects a basic principle of modern life: accepting differences and minimizing coercion. Under legalization marijuana use would be controlled by the same methods employed with cigarettes; public health messages and education. Arrests and handcuffs would draw to a close.

Making marijuana a criminal enterprise flouts this basic principle of accommodating differences. It has created an alarmingly harsh environment for veterans, people of color, low-income people and neighborhoods. It abets “community disinvestment” observed Rep. Lee.

To Senator Booker. “It strikes me as hypocrisy and injustice if you legalize and don’t undo the damage done by the war on drugs.” To repair these harms, the Marijuana Justice Act takes direct action by reducing Federal spending for police or prison construction in States where enforcement is marred by racial disparities or discrimination against the poor. The bill, explains the anonymous Harvard Law reviewer, permits the Justice Department to reduce federal spending for states who exhibit “racial and/or class bias in marijuana arrests or incarceration rates.” It’s a strict standard “every state without a market for legal marijuana would likely be deemed ineligible for federal funding under this provision.”

The world is turned right side up; only those states that regulate sale rather than outlaw it would be obeying Marijuana Justice Act. With legalization persons who were outlaws become everyday folk and enjoying the same rights and duties as everyone else. Pot users are no longer searched; they are protected by the law and that is good for them and good for the public.

“This would force states with records of racial bias in arrests and sentencing to clean up their acts by cutting funds to the worst offenders,” said Lee. Under the law the U.S. Attorney General would examine arrests and imprisonment for bias and could reduce federal spending in those states. These strict provisions have a fiscal purpose; the money withheld would be redirected to fund community reinvestment.

Nurturing services would help heal the wounds left by the war on drugs. Individuals eligible to have their records wiped clean wouldn’t have to pay to go to court those expenses would be covered from funds withheld from States practicing discriminatory law enforcement. This money may also be spent for programs providing job training, reentry services for prisoners, health education programs, public libraries, community centers, and youth programs. The bill takes aim at mass incarceration by permitting judges to resentence Federal prisoners using the new standards in this bill. Prisoners with long sentence would become eligible for release.

Enforcement would not be left exclusively to the government. Lawsuits could also be filed by those aggrieved by biased law enforcement.

Rep. Khanna, who taught economics at Stanford, emphasized the bill’s economic benefits. He predicted the marijuana trade would generate $40 billion in new business, create near a million jobs and bring in $7 billion in new taxes. These new revenues would more than cover the $500 million allocated by the legislation the help prisoners and provide assistance to communities targeted by law enforcement. Kohanna called it a “net gain” for government and for job creation.

But a second gain is harder to quantify but undoubtedly significant. Khanna mentioned the story of Chris Hayes who had a pot bust without getting a lasting record and who is now a national correspondent on MSNBC. How many people “who did not get this leniency” he asked could have gone on to be another Chris Hayes? Draconian law enforcement has cost 100s of billion of dollars in “lost economic potential” for young men who have been kept in poverty by incarceration and its aftermath in parole.

Repairing the damage to communities impacted by the war on drugs is the novel feature of the Marijuana Justice Act. So far it has attracted no Republican support unlike other bills ending marijuana prohibition. But for New York political observers Joe Crowley from Queens joined Yvette Clark & Hakeem Jeffries from Brooklyn as cosponsors of H.R. 4815.

The list can be found at

The Harvard Law Review Article is here:

The news conference is here: Http://


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