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(Un)Book ’Em, Cory

In praise of the Marijuana Justice Act

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U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s landmark Marijuana Justice Act has struggled to gain traction in Washington, D.C., owing to the continued Republican control of the Senate. Still, the particulars therein have already proved to be highly influential, and that is good news for citizens far beyond Booker’s native New Jersey. The bill’s primary goal is to remove cannabis from the federal government’s list of Schedule I narcotics, which would be a key step toward full decriminalization nationwide (though that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon–unless the president has a nervous breakdown, which is entirely possible).

Rescheduling is a great idea, but the bill boasts another, absolutely brilliant idea: clearing out the criminal records of the thousands of Americans saddled with nonviolent drug convictions simply because they were caught with marijuana at some point in the past. Exact statistics are not easily obtained, but it seems that about 3,500 people were sentenced for marijuana-related crimes in 2016. That figure is way down from the nearly 7,000 sentenced in 2012, the year before Colorado and Washington became the first and second states to legalize marijuana. That move led to an immediate 30 percent drop, a trend that continues.

While Booker works to slowly build a rough consensus around the issue in D.C., cities and states are taking matters into their own hands. Lawmakers in California and Missouri have already passed legislation that would expunge the records of those with marijuana convictions. The California action followed local initiatives in San Diego and San Francisco, where thousands got justice before the statewide bill had passed.

Nevada is looking to do the same, with an effort led by former state senator Tick Segerblom (great name). Segerblom’s state already has a basic process by which individuals can petition the court on a case-by-case basis, as does Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire and Oregon. That’s great, but it’s a slow, expensive and little-known process.

Meanwhile, Washington governor Jay Inslee has emerged in just the past few days as the latest mainstream politician to advance the issue with a straight-up Thanos gimmick. With a snap of his fingers, Inslee is offering pardons to any of citizen with a prior misdemeanor pot conviction provided that it’s the only item on their criminal record and that the conviction occurred under state law between 1998 and 2012. Inslee estimates about 3,500 people could benefit from his proposal, as would their families. Like many Democrats, Inslee opposed legalization as a candidate, but once in office, he found religion in the wave of free money–as has proven the case countless times all over the country.

That’s all fine and good, of course, but most of these developments are still just half measures. It’s felony, not misdemeanor, possession that has done such grievous harm to so many thousands of Americans, coast to coast, even in states that have since legalized the stuff for medical or recreational use. Booker’s bill remains the only piece of serious legislation that offers true relief for one of the greatest injustices of our time. While it works its way toward an uncertain federal future, one hopes that more states will embrace his logic in full.

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