Booker’s Pot Push: Progressive Posturing?

(Seth Wenig/AP)

Senator Cory Booker(D-NJ) is likely running for something in 2020. The Senator’s first term ends then, though his new marijuana bill suggests that his aspirations might be a bit higher than his current job. In this bill, Booker appears to be pandering to an increasingly vocal Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, rather than trying to get something passed.

I am not claiming that Booker is not committed to civil rights and criminal justice. I’m sure he is. Here, I think he isn’t trying to directly help those affected as much as he is letting them know he cares.

The bill, in a word, is quixotic. It consists of three main parts. One: it scratches all mentions of marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, decriminalizing it. This then leaves the matter to states. Two: to incentivize states to legalize, the bill directs the Attorney General to cut off Criminal Justice Funding from states with disproportionate incarceration levels for marijuana. “Disproportionate” is defined by the bill as minority rates being higher than non-minority rates. Three: The bill expunges all federal marijuana convictions, and resentences those with expunged convictions. The resentencing is to be done as if marijuana was legal at the time of the original sentencing.

The Bill, referred to by Booker as the Marijuana Justice Act, was proposed by Booker with no Cosponsors. At the time of writing, 347 laws have been passed in total by the 114th and 115th Congresses. Just 41, about 11%, of those had no cosponsors. Of that 41, 7 laws rename things, and 7 regard appropriations, and therefore have to be put through Congress. Basically, a bill that represents a major change in US drug policy isn’t the kind of thing that gets passed with no cosponsors.

It’s hard to imagine that this lack of cosponsors is out of necessity. Progressive poster boy Bernie Sanders (I-VT) proposed a bill to decriminalize marijuana in 2015. Booker’s bill is more ambitious, but it’s hard to imagine that Sanders would have problems with these additions and refuse to cosponsor the bill because of them. Other Senators, like Rob Wyden (D-OR) have introduced measures to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Between these two and Senators like Kamala Harris (D-CA), who also appear to be courting progressives, the bill plausibly could have gotten at least one cosponsor. This makes the lack of them seem very intentional.

Although the bill plausibly could have gotten a cosponsor, it may struggle for support among Senate Democrats, assuming they hold the establishment’s position. The 2016 DNC platform supports a state-led “labs of democracy” approach to marijuana legalization. This makes Booker’s stance on the issue decidedly progressive, conveniently for him and his potential 2020 aspirations.

Quixotic bills are often defended as conversation starters. If the conversation is meant to occur on the Senate floor, it’s not likely to happen. Booker’s bill has been referred to the Judiciary committee, which poses its own challenges to the Bill. The committee, which is majority Republican, contains high-ranking and highly visible senators like President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Majority Whip John Cornyn(R-TX). Legalization is opposed by the 2016 RNC platform, and the issue polls below 50%, according to Gallup. On the Democratic side, the Committee seems to lack any members Progressive enough to fight for this Bill. It will likely die there, alongside Sanders’s 2015 push.

So if the conversation isn’t amongst the Senate, perhaps it’s meant to be among voters saying “Gosh, this Booker guy seems really progressive. I’ll check him out.” This argument holds water, if Google analytics is to be believed. The introduction of the bill and the press surrounding it has made Booker the most popular he has been in 90 days.

If Booker is trying to garner Progressive attention, it likely isn’t from within his own state. Sanders soundly lost the Democratic primary last June by 26.4%. Last Spring, John Wisniewski, a Sanders Campaign chair running on progressive stances, lost the New Jersey Gubernatorial primary by 26%. There really doesn’t seem to be a Progressive moment in New Jersey to pander to.

Booker hasn’t officially committed to running in 2020, but between his DNC speeches, unprecedented testimonies against sitting Senators, and bills like these, a presidential campaign becomes easier and easier to imagine.

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