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Cory Booker Wants The Social Justice Mantle On Marijuana

"I hear all these people want to talk about legalizing marijuana," Booker said in a speech centered around marijuana Friday. "Well, marijuana has been legal for the people of privilege in this country for a long time."

Posted on April 20, 2018, at 5:55 p.m. ET

Eric Thayer / Reuters

Cory Booker brought his campaign to make legalized marijuana a centerpiece of the movements for social and racial justice to Al Sharpton’s annual convention, a notable venue ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Marijuana, Booker told the assembled group of faith leaders at the National Action Network, has been legal for white people who use without fear of punishment, and that legislative action should center on undoing the damage of prohibition, rather than expanding access for investors.

While other speakers — including the president of the NAACP — were warned by Sharpton that they must be brief, Booker seemed to have all of the time he wanted. Booker himself adopted a preacher’s cadence while flanked by Sharpton, and covered a range of topics, putting a social justice lens on issues from climate change to the economy. But if there was a focal point of Booker’s speech, it was the criminal justice system, which he described as “the biggest cancer on the soul of this county.”

“I hear all these people want to talk about legalizing marijuana,” Booker said in his speech, delivered the day after Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer backed decriminalizing marijuana in an interview with Vice News.

“Well,” the senator went on, “marijuana has been legal for the people of privilege in this country for a long time. Because they don't get arrested. They don't get stopped. There’s nobody stoppin’ and friskin’ on college campuses. Stanford and Harvard and Princeton — there’s a lot of drugs there, but there’s no FBI sting operation. They’re coming into our communities, coming into communities like mine.”

The former Newark, New Jersey, mayor — one of several potential presidential candidates who spoke at Sharpton’s conference Friday — told the crowd that he is the only US senator who “lives in an inner-city community in a majority black city.” Booker has been beating the drum on injustice and inequality for some time on cannabis, and his bill, the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, represents an advocate’s wish list of reparative action. Though the bill has merited several high-profile cosponsors (e.g., Bernie Sanders), given his prominent role, Schumer’s plans to develop legislation seem poised to attract a potentially wider audience in Congress.

The parade of national Democrats at Sharpton’s annual convention included Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. But perhaps none of them engaged the crowd more than Booker, who laughed, then brushed off a question about whether he felt he had won the day.

Unlike 2007, when the press dubbed the similarly well-attended event the “Sharpton Primary,” the overall frame for the day was less overtly about winning political support inside the room, and more outside-looking. Sharpton emphasized the intersection of the 50th anniversary of the death Martin Luther King Jr. and Trumpism, a political force he argues is actively working to undo what King fought for.

Asked about powerful Democrats coming forward recently in support of decriminalization, Booker told BuzzFeed News, “As this movement grows it should not just be about access to marijuana, it should be about expunging records, reinvesting in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and restorative justice and it’s just not right now.”

Booker told reporters Schumer’s announcement Thursday was an “extraordinary” move, but referred to an Instagram post in which he said, “As states are moving to legalize marijuana, most are not expunging the records of the thousands of people who have criminal convictions for marijuana possession, use or distribution crimes.”

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