Democratic Sen. Cory Booker on Biden's executive order on marijuana possession
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
President Biden announced yesterday that he is pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law. He's also calling on governors to do the same for state marijuana charges. This announcement has energized activists who see it as a step toward decriminalizing the drug and addressing charging practices that disproportionately impact people of color. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker has been an advocate for changing federal marijuana policy, and he's on the line now. Welcome back, Senator.
CORY BOOKER: Thank you for having me.
SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So in the president's announcement yesterday, he said that too many lives have been upended because of this country's failed approach on this issue. The pardons he announced yesterday directly impact roughly 6,500 people with federal convictions and an additional several thousand more in the District of Columbia. So how significant is the impact on people's lives?
BOOKER: It is stunning. As a person who went to Stanford and Yale and grew up in high school in an affluent area, lots of people used marijuana. You saw it very prevalent. We've had former presidents, senators, congresspeople admit to doing it, but very low risk, low consequence. The people who often are getting these charges for simple possession and getting criminal records are disproportionately low-income, disproportionately Black and brown, and it's a lifetime sentence. In other words, they're - they may not serve any jail time, but they, for the rest of their lives, will have a hard time getting a job, getting a business license, getting loans, getting certain housing opportunities.
The American Bar Association says there are 40,000 collateral consequences for people with a criminal conviction. And it's just so profoundly unjust because of the way we enforce the war on drugs or the - in this case, the war on marijuana - because even African Americans are almost four times more likely to be convicted of that than whites are, even though their usage rates are about the same.
SUMMERS: Over the summer, you were one of a number of senators who wrote a letter to the White House that touched on this issue, calling on the administration to review its cannabis policy and to do more to address - I'm quoting here - "the racist and harmful legacy of cannabis policies on Black and brown communities." So Senator, does the action taken this week go far enough in righting that historic legacy of harm?
BOOKER: It is a significant step. I'm so grateful to the president and his team. I talked to them before they made this decision. It goes a good way. We still have longer to go. We need full expungement. Presidential pardons could be gateways for people to get out of this sort of poverty convictions often carry that force people to live on the margins, but there's more that we can do to sort of create a fair playing field when it comes to our criminal justice system. Again, we have a nation - and I see it where I live. I now live in a low-income Black and brown community. You have entire neighborhoods that are destroyed by such kind of unequal enforcement because it doesn't just affect a father or a mother. It affects their families and more. And being that that's being visited on certain communities and not others, it's created terrible disparities that we need to do everything we can to level.
SUMMERS: What the White House has done this week stopped short of calling for complete decriminalization, which is, of course, something that would have to happen in Congress, and it's a legislative push that you have been a leader on. Do you see a scenario where that can pass the Senate in the near future - any bipartisan support?
BOOKER: I do. You know, it's interesting because, you know, almost about 19, 20 states now have legalized for adult use - even more for medical marijuana. Many of those are red states that have voted overwhelmingly for it. I think that there's enough space right now, and there are already conversations and dialogue going on about some kind of bipartisan movement because we see problems within the banking industry, and a lot of people who are winning licenses can't get access to loans and more. So there's a lot of folks who understand that we have to act on the federal level to do more than the president's done, and I'm hopeful that this Congress, actually - in the lame duck after the midterms - I'm very hopeful we can get something done.
SUMMERS: And Senator, before I let you go, we've got about 30 seconds left. You've talked a lot and argued for the need for a rational drug law. What, in practice, does that look like?
BOOKER: Well, again, we have to be a country that, No. 1, doesn't treat this plant like a Schedule I drug. Fentanyl is not as highly scheduled...
BOOKER: ...Which is killing so many Americans as marijuana. So I just want to have a - marijuana laws that don't over criminalize people, that allows this to be studied...
BOOKER: ...And that opens the door for, I think, justice which is so sorely needed in this area.
SUMMERS: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Thank you so much for your time.
BOOKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.