I have had countless conversations with colleagues in elected positions about their use of marijuana. I can say with confidence that many of my colleagues in Congress have tried marijuana. In my time in other privileged institutions like Stanford and Yale, marijuana and other drugs were used with little fear of consequences and were openly spoken about and joked about with little understanding of the painful fact: the War on Drugs in America has scarcely affected the lives of the privileged but has devastated poor communities and communities of color.
I have spent most of my adult life living and working in Newark, New Jersey. For the past four decades, Newark has found many of its neighborhoods, including the one in which I live, on the front lines of a war not on drugs, but on people — individuals and families who are simultaneously over-criminalized and under-protected.
As a low income tenants’ lawyer, a city councilman, and as mayor, I saw up close how this war manufactured in Washington and state houses all across the country meant that the hardworking, brave officers of my police department were forced to spend their time enforcing drug laws that did not necessarily make our community safer — and often worsened conditions that lead to greater poverty, greater suffering and less safety. During my time as mayor, my officers often decried the churn of people arrested again and again on nonviolent charges like possessing marijuana, deepening deficits of trust within the community and too often debilitating nonviolent offenders and those struggling with the disease of addiction from turning their lives around.
“It’s time to lead with our hearts, our heads, and with policy that actually works."”
I continue to see in my community how the unequal application of these laws criminalizes large swaths of Americans — poor Americans, black and brown Americans, addicted Americans, the mentally ill and disproportionately our veterans. As a result of these broken, inequitably applied laws, I have met countless good people who couldn’t find a job, couldn’t find a decent place to live, and couldn’t support their family because they had a criminal record for doing something less serious than two of the last three presidents of the United States have admitted to doing.
It is clear to me that there’s no easy way out of the injustice system we have created. Fixing our broken system will require painstakingly undoing decades of bad policy, addressing the persistent and systemic racial bias within our system, and rethinking how we treat those addicted to harmful drugs.
I believe it also requires legalizing marijuana.
There’s a different view held by many and championed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is planning to step up the enforcement of our nation’s federal marijuana laws. But this path isn’t the answer to reducing crime or to making our communities safer. In fact, the enforcement of marijuana laws have too often led to a sacrifice of our values, our safety, and the potential of millions of Americans.
Federal marijuana laws have long undermined our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all. The unequal application of these laws on communities of color and poorer Americans has created a justice system where outcomes are often more dependent on race and class than on guilt or innocence. Despite the fact that there is no difference in marijuana use between Blacks and Whites, Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Marijuana laws have helped to make the land of the free far less free, with incarceration rates higher than any nation in human history. In fact, the United States is home to only five percent of the world’s population, but nearly twenty five percent of the world’s prison population.
We have created large illegal markets and vastly contributed to their associated violence and ancillary crime. We’ve added millions of Americans to the ranks of the “formerly incarcerated,” a population with high recidivism rates, often due to limits on their options for employment. And we’ve siphoned resources away from public safety: while Congress has increased spending on federal prisons by 45 percent since 1998, largely to house non-violent offenders, it cut spending on state and local law enforcement by a whopping 76 percent.
“The unequal application of these laws... has created a justice system where outcomes are often more dependent on race and class than on guilt or innocence.”
And these laws aren’t even working: more than half of American adults have tried marijuana, and its use is on the rise. Our nation’s arbitrary efforts to criminalize a substance that is less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes or fast food, has not only made our country less just, but our communities less safe.
Our broken marijuana laws have perpetuated unequal justice under the law, failed to make us safer, wasted taxpayer dollars and taken precious resources away from investing in our communities.
That’s why I am introducing the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill that would federally legalize marijuana, retroactively apply that policy change to those already serving time behind bars for federal marijuana offenses, and reinvest savings in public safety and community-building. It would also incentivize states to legalize marijuana if people of color and the poor in that state are disproportionately arrested or incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses.
We know from the experiences of states that have already legalized marijuana that we will gain far more than we lose ― these states have seen increased revenues and decreased rates of serious crime, and a reallocation of resources toward more productive uses. In Colorado, arrest rates have decreased and state revenues have increased. Washington saw 10 percent decrease in violent crime over the three-year period following legalization. It’s now time for the federal government to step up to the plate, and to encourage states that have yet to lead, to follow.
The Marijuana Justice Act is a serious step in acknowledging, that after 40 years, it’s time to start to end the War on Drugs. It’s time to stop our backward thinking, which has only led to backward results. It’s time to lead with our hearts, our heads, and with policy that actually works. It’s time to legalize marijuana.