During the Annual Legislative Conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s first ever panel addressing marijuana, the failed war on drugs, and restorative justice, Drug Policy Alliance debuted a new video featuring U.S. Senator Cory Booker highlighting the racialized harm of the drug war, and the responsibility that policymakers have to right those wrongs while ending prohibition.
Public support for marijuana legalization is at an all-time high with 68 percent of American voters in favor of marijuana legalization. Notwithstanding the anti-marijuana sentiments and fear-mongering spewed from the White House and the Department of Justice, national and congressional conversations around marijuana reform have deeply shifted. Congressional Black Caucus members have been leading this shift in dialogue, connecting the necessary dots between marijuana reform, criminal justice reform, and reparative justice.
It’s been a year since Senator Booker championed the groundbreaking introduction of the Marijuana Justice Act, which is the first bill in Congress that ends marijuana prohibition, while also incorporating criminal justice-related relief and forward thinking restorative justice measures. Since then, there has been great legislative momentum around the responsibility owed to communities most harmed by the war on drugs.
Representative Barbara Lee introduced the House version of the Marijuana Justice Act, and led on the first resolution that lays out the racialized harm caused by the war on drugs and comprehensively lists measures that states can take to ensure an equitable industry. Representative Bonnie Watson-Coleman introduced a resolution calling for a congressional apology for the failed war on drugs’ decades of harms to individuals and communities of color.
Furthermore, this year, the Congressional Black Caucus formally announced their position on marijuana, supported by an overwhelming majority of 48-member caucus. The Congressional Black Caucus included ending prohibition, eliminating mandatory minimums for federal drug offenses, establishing a reinvestment fund for communities negatively impacted by the war on drugs in their 1,300-page omnibus legislation meant to increase upward social mobility of Black families.
In a packed room, participants of the 48th Annual Legislative Conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation got an exclusive viewing of the video featuring the senator, but also saw both Senator Booker and Representative Lee live vibrantly framing the conversation that followed with the panel of African Americans within the industry, as well as drug policy and criminal justice reform advocates.
“For the rest of your life, it is hard for you to get a job, you can’t get many business licenses, you can’t get a Pell grant, you can’t get food stamps, public housing -- we’ve created a caste society in our country, that has affected millions of people, concentrated in certain communities,” says Senator Booker.
These sentiments have steadily been endorsed and defended by Black congressional members, but also by the majority of Senate Democrats reported to be 2020 candidates. It is vital that the position and commitment to recognizing the war on drugs as an engine of mass criminalization is taken seriously in all attempts to reform marijuana laws. Marijuana reform that fails to account for the individual and communal harm faced disproportionately by Black and Brown people, low-income people, and veterans is negligent.
We’re on the horizon of marijuana no longer being a controlled substance. Policymakers and advocates on the right side of history ought to boldly take a stand with people impacted by marijuana law violations, from people who consume to people who sell. There is a moral obligation to ensure on the front-end of marijuana legalization and within the infrastructure of the industry, that people do not continue to suffer from the consequences of previous arrests or convictions, and that the most impacted by prohibition is not systematically shut out from its profits and opportunities.
Marijuana reform is not about freeing the plant. Marijuana reform is about freeing people.
Queen Adesuyi is a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs.