Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, in an op-ed he wrote for the Huff Post, talked about why the U.S. justice system treats the country’s most marginalized groups in society very differently — even for nonviolent drug offenses.
“I can still remember the basement of the Willie T. Wright Apartments in Newark, where men of all ages packed together in a standing-room-only space. I was only 29 at the time, freshly elected to the Newark City Council and just a year out of law school, yet no classroom learning or political experience could prepare me for the situation at hand,” Booker wrote referring to a legal clinic his council staff was hosting. “I could see the pain on the faces of these men, many of whom had spent years struggling to reintegrate into society after being convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. Beaten down by circumstance, they were now looking to defy the odds in a fixed game.”
Booker called that day a “vivid illustration of a reality” he’d known about most of his life: the U.S. justice system’s unequal treatment of most marginalized groups. Quoting an ACLU report that Black people are nearly 4 times more likely than whites nationwide to be arrested for cannabis possession despite the fact that both groups consume at roughly equal rates.
And then there’s the shocking 2021 report of weed-related arrests in New York City that confirmed people of color comprised fully 94% of those arrested.
“These injustices are precisely why we must ensure that restorative justice is the starting point of any cannabis reform legislation, not an afterthought. With this fundamental belief in mind, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and I announced a discussion draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act last fall,” Booker said, adding that “our proposed bill would remove the federal prohibition on cannabis, expunge federal non-violent cannabis crimes, and reinvest funds into communities that are languishing under the weight of prior criminal convictions, erosion of employment prospects, and denial of basic social services.”
Booker called the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act historic as the first time a Senate leader has called for ending the federal ban on cannabis. Also, the fact that there are members on both sides of the aisle in agreement and who understand the need for restorative and racial justice to help to right the wrongs the nation’s failed war on drugs.
Booker added that the bill forges a path forward on securing economic justice for minority small business owners who are looking to gain a foothold in the burgeoning cannabis industry. However, “We know that our financial system upholds immense barriers to fairness and equality. Studies have shown that Black and Brown entrepreneurs, despite starting new businesses at higher rates than their peers, consistently struggle to access the critical funding they need to invest in their employees, scale up operations, and expand their business.”
Noting that less than 5% of cannabis businesses are owned by Black people, Booker said that many express concern that systemic barriers and lack of capital will prevent them from ever entering the industry.
“Cannabis-related businesses need capital to flourish, and I support granting them access to these financial resources. But simply opening the floodgates to billions of dollars for cannabis businesses will not solve the racial inequities in the banking system,” Booker said.
The Process Must Be Done Equitably
“That’s why the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act also creates a grant program overseen by the Small Business Administration that will provide resources to minority entrepreneurs looking to launch cannabis-related businesses,” Booker said.
Circling back to the night that changed his life at the Willie T. Wright Apartments, Booker said a frustrated man asked him, “What is it going to take? It’s been over 10 years. What is it going to take for me to get a second chance?”
Booker’s reply: “It’s going to take all of us, coming together, to reckon with the racial injustices that have plagued America and to understand the pain communities of color have felt for years. Only then will we have the moral determination, the empathy, and the political urgency to make sure no one is left behind as we rectify the many inequities caused by America’s drug laws. Only then will we make sure all people are afforded the justice they deserve but have long been denied.”