How Sen. Cory Booker Is Trying to End Federal Weed Prohibition

New bill would deschedule marijuana, incentivize state legalization and punish states that disproportionately lock up minorities and the poor

"Now I believe the federal government should get out of the illegal marijuana business," Corey Booker said Tuesday as he introduced his new bill. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While voters across the nation have legalized varying forms of marijuana, Congress has largely been silent on the issue, which is why a new bill introduced today by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is turning heads. The Democrat's legislation would end the federal prohibition on marijuana and incentivize states to as well.

The proposal, called the Marijuana Justice Act, removes marijuana from the federal list of Schedule I narcotics – think peyote, heroin and, yeah, weed – which is known as descheduling. It also punishes states that disproportionately lock up minorities and the poor for marijuana offenses, by cutting off some of their federal dollars for building jails and prisons, as well as other areas.

"You see these marijuana arrests happening so much in our country, targeting certain communities – poor communities, minority communities – targeting people with an illness," Booker said in his rollout on Facebook Live, which was viewed by more than 100,000 people.

Now that eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, Booker says the nation is finally seeing real results from local policies that are far outpacing the federal silence on the issue.

"They're actually seeing positive things coming out of that experience," Booker said. "Now I believe the federal government should get out of the illegal marijuana business."

Marijuana advocates and criminal justice oriented groups are lauding the new proposal that they say at the very least changes the dialogue on marijuana.

"This is the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that's ever been filed in either chamber of Congress," Tom Angell, founder and chairman of the pro-pot group Marijuana Majority, said in statement. "More than just getting the federal government out of the way so that states can legalize without DEA harassment, this new proposal goes even further by actually punishing states that have bad marijuana laws. Polls increasingly show growing majority voter support for legalization, so this is something that more senators should be signing on to right away."

But the legislation faces an uphill battle in Congress, even with lawmakers from the states that have legalized weed for recreational purposes.

"I do not support a national, a federal effort to decriminalize marijuana," Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins tells Rolling Stone. "We're in the midst of an opioid crisis in this country and I think the last thing we need is for the federal government to send a signal that marijuana should be legalized across this country."

It's not just Republicans from states that have approved recreational marijuana who oppose the effort – even many Democrats are dubious of the far-reaching proposal.

"I'm not there. I think there's a lot about marijuana we don't know," California Sen. Dianne Feinstein tells Rolling Stone. "I think marijuana has potential dangers to it. I think they need to be looked at – calibrated. I think we need to be concerned about young people, without judgement, particularly in cars. Particularly on Saturday night, smoking marijuana, candidly."

But other lawmakers say it's time for Congress to take a stance on pot, even if they aren't ready to support Booker's new legislation.

"I think most people think members of Congress are high, so I don't know if it matters much anyway," Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner quipped to Rolling Stone before getting serious, saying Congress should take up the issue. "It's a conversation that Congress has to have. We should have committee hearings and we should have legislative debate on it. More and more states are answering this question on their own, and it's going to result in this sort of pell-mell collection of states defying federal law, and that has consequences."