.By the Book?

Cory Booker’s waffling on cannabis legalization is exemplary of the government’s fecklessness on the issue

What is U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s stance on cannabis? Nobody really knows. Not even Cory Booker, apparently. This despite the fact that Booker, of New Jersey, is perhaps the biggest advocate for legal cannabis in Congress.

Beyond “favors legalization,” though, it’s impossible to pin the guy down. In his latest head-scratcher, Booker last week called cannabis a “dangerous drug” and characterized its hazards as being similar to those of alcohol. He said this conclusively, as if it were an established fact, but also said, in literally the same breath, that he thinks the question of pot’s dangerousness needs more scientific study.

Booker has a long history of sending mixed messages on pot reform. He also has a long history of complaining that Congress has been unable to legalize weed. He never seems to connect those two things.

The senator appeared last week during an appearance at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Legalizing weed, he said, is “profoundly important to me.” He added, though, that he had once believed that legalization would “have a democratizing force on our country, and it has not.” This, he said, is “frustrating.”

He seemed to be referring mainly to the fact that the expungement of cannabis crimes from the criminal records of people in legal states has gone slowly, and to the lack of diversity in the pot industry. Both are certainly problems, but also aren’t really under his purview, as long as the federal government still has cannabis designated as a Schedule 1 narcotic, with several criminal penalties attached to its possession and sale.

But what does he want to legalize? A very dangerous substance, apparently. “This is a drug, and I think it’s a dangerous drug. I really do,” he said. “I think we haven’t studied it enough. I think what’s happening to the brain—I will tell you this, I think alcohol is a pretty damn dangerous drug as well.”

Yikes. Please go on. “If you have a child, or if you are younger than 25, and you’re drinking or smoking pot, you are damaging your brain in ways that will severely affect your mental health, the wellbeing of your brain,” Booker said. “The studies and the data now—when you get to be like my age, and what you’ve done to yourself if you’ve lived that way of regularly smoking drugs and smoking marijuana, I just think, why? Why would you do it?”

Keep in mind, Booker is scheduled to make an appearance in the Capitol on April 20, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York), to push for legalization. Presumably, neither of them will be talking about how bad “smoking drugs” is or asking people why they would ever do it.

It’s true that there is some research indicating that young people who use a lot of weed might be doing bad things to their brains. But it’s far from clear how bad those bad things are, or even if they’re bad at all. It’s not impossible for a politician to credibly call for legalizing pot while also warning of its potential hazards, but Booker here was using the language of a drug warrior, not a legalization advocate. That would explain why Kevin Sabet, the shrill and schoolmarmish professional anti-pot crusader, tweeted: “Booker’s turnaround on this is breathtaking (and welcome).”

After several years of Booker advocating for legalization, it was certainly breathtaking to hear him talk about pot “damaging your brain,” and comparing it to alcohol abuse. But Booker’s statements have tended to be amorphous on this issue in general. 

In 2021, he and Schumer indicated their opposition to the SAFE Banking Act, which would shield banks from criminal and civil liability for doing business with cannabis companies. They argued that the bill would stymie efforts toward broader reform, like legalization. But just this past February, Booker declared that the legal industry’s lack of access to banking amounted to a “crisis” that must be addressed quickly.

Of course, the situation changed when the Republicans took over the House this year. The Republicans still hold filibuster power in the Senate. Hopes for legalization have dimmed, so it might make some sense to change tacks and fight for whatever one can get in the short term, such as banking reform. But when that strategy includes messages that kids are destroying their minds by smoking the devil’s lettuce, it only makes that effort a tougher sell.

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