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Sen. Cory Booker on legalizing marijuana: ‘We’re on the right side of history in America’

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Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss legalizing marijuana, injustices in the U.S. system regarding marijuana usage, and the bipartisan infrastructure deal.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: A group of Democratic lawmakers are pushing legislation to make cannabis legal on the federal level. Yahoo Finance's Zack Guzman here now with one of the authors of that proposed legislation, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Hi, Zack.

ZACK GUZMAN: Hey, Alexis, that's right. We've got Senator Booker here. Thanks for coming on here to chat, and congrats on getting the draft legislation out there to end the federal prohibition on marijuana. Ambitious, not just in ending that prohibition, but also adding the restorative justice piece that you and I have talked about in the past, and in redirecting the tax revenues here to communities impacted by the War on Drugs. Also, expunging records for nonviolent criminal cannabis offenders.

The critics are saying that it's a little ambitious, so ambitious that it might not get the 10 Republican votes needed in the Senate to pass. How confident are you that you're going to get there?

CORY BOOKER: Well, I know this. We are on the right side of history in America. And if you poll Americans of all parties, independents, below the age of 50, it's overwhelmingly popular. You see marijuana decriminalization efforts, efforts to improve adult use in red states and blue states.

So here on the federal level, we know the side of history. And this is not a matter of if we ever get this done, it's a matter of when. But as you said, my big issue is, in this rush to end prohibition, we need to address the outrageous injustices that have existed in a system, frankly, there was so, so, so much hypocrisy. People running for president, people running for Senate and Congress, readily admit their marijuana use while continuing to condemn millions of other Americans to a life of having a criminal record for marijuana use. And it's disproportionately, unfortunately, low-income people and people of color.

And so we need to see, as you just said, people's records being expunged. We need to see a reinvestment of a lot of that tax revenue into areas that have been disproportionately targeted by the War on Drugs. And in this billion-dollar industry, we need to make sure that people who may have had past marijuana convictions aren't held out of getting equal opportunities in business. We need there to be equity and inclusion in the economic opportunity as well.

ZACK GUZMAN: That's pretty interesting. I mean, we've seen some states tackle that restorative justice piece at the state level. Illinois kind of doing something similar and setting aside the tax revenues there, redirected to communities impacted by the drug war. Your state, New Jersey, setting up similarly. New York as well. But how important is it to do it at the federal level, and how does it look in your eyes? Maybe a little bit of a different question when you think about all the states that so far haven't legalized marijuana.

CORY BOOKER: Well, remember, the War on Drugs was accelerated by the federal policy. We gave incentives to states to build prisons, incentives to states to raise mandatory minimums, incentives to states to really prosecute the War on Drugs, which made it proliferate quite considerably. And I think the federal government now has a responsibility to provide incentives to states to begin to balance the scales of justice.

And so it's very much a federal role that we've seen on the wrong side of the War on Drugs, in doing the things that have caused such extreme damage. The federal government has an obligation, I believe, to right those wrongs.

ZACK GUZMAN: There's the other piece of this restorative component that I've been covering for a while, which is kind of minorities making up a shockingly low share of these cannabis businesses. And the states have tried to put in programs to kind of fix that as well.

But when you look at it, there is a key component here that's looking to be addressed from a bill that has passed the House four times. That would be the Safe Banking Act, that has bipartisan support here, that would make access to capital easier. And that's something that we've seen kind of minority business owners struggle with, as well as the larger corporations as well. That you came out and said that you'd do everything in your power to block the Safe Banking Act from passing. Why are you so opposed to that in particular?

CORY BOOKER: Yeah, because this is, again, an example, where the financial business, the $15 billion business, to me, I'm an American like anybody else. I love capitalism and fairness and equality and all of that. But what happens often is the urgent social justice issues get forgotten about. They can't get the kind of coalitions necessary when it's an opportunity to make money.

And what ends up, people being left behind are those people that are trapped often in poverty, because they can't get a business license, they can't get a loan from a bank, they can't even get a job at a fast food restaurant because of past criminal convictions for doing things that two of the last four presidents admitted to doing.

So far be it from me, I'm going to do everything I can to stop people just trying to do the easy stuff, to make to open the pathways to creating great wealth, that will leave behind those people right now that are struggling in the shadows of society for just doing the things that many of us who went to places like Stanford, Oxford, and Yale, like I did, watched privileged people do with no fear of consequence whatsoever.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, I agree that the restorative piece there is rather important. It's something that gets overlooked all the time. So it's ambitious, definitely, to include at the federal level here. But when you think about that, we've seen companies struggle to access the capital to grow. And of course, there are jobs being added there on that front. So you can make the argument that declining the Safe Banking Act might be letting the good get in the way of the perfect, if you are kind of, like you and I, looking for the more important restorative justice components.

I mean, how strong are you opposed to the Safe Banking Act? Since it does seem like it would support maybe all cannabis businesses. I know it doesn't address the restorative justice piece and kind of the crime that we've talked about, but you at least can see that businesses are helping in that front, and bringing some people along for the ride as well.

CORY BOOKER: Oh, first of all, don't get me wrong, I support the Safe Banking Act. I think it's a phenomenal bill. I'm one of these folks that is out here working with cannabis industries, not only across the state of New Jersey, but around the country. I feel like I am one of their greatest champions when it comes to ending the nightmare of prohibition, and the ridiculousness of so many businesses having to operate in cash. It increases danger, not to mention what you talked about, which is easing access to capital for a lot of folks. So please, I support this completely.

But if there's anybody in the Senate, I hope, that's earned a reputation for being at the center of driving some of the greatest bipartisan criminal justice reform bills in a generation, things like the First Step Act, for example, I know how hard it is to get the kind of coalitions necessary to get across the line the kind of justice that is urgently needed in so many communities, from low-income rural communities to inner cities, where so many people are forgotten about.

So for me, a good bipartisan bill like the banking bill is a necessary sweetener to get people to move along on the equitable justice element, to restorative justice elements that are really critical. And so I agree, we need to get that bill, banking bill done.

And I'm hoping that all the industries that are out there, that know that they're going to make tremendous profits, join me in standing up for what I think is the greatest act of patriotism there is, saying, "I'm not going to put my interests alone. I am actually going to look out for my fellow American. I'm actually going to pledge to them that I'm going to fight for those people who are in economic devastation because of a nonviolent marijuana charge. That I'm going to make sure that we take care of everybody."

That's what this country was founded on. Our founders signed the Declaration, ending with this ideal of pledging to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. Well, dear God, let's make that kind of pledge, and all go together in reforming our marijuana laws, leaving no one behind.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, comforting to hear you say that you would be kind of supportive there of the Safe Banking Act as well. I mean, your name comes to mind and thinking about pushing for big changes here, as well as your colleague in the House, Ed Perlmutter. We've had him on, God bless him. Four times that we've seen the Safe Banking Act passed the House. Still not making much progress there in the Senate.

But it raises questions, and we're seeing this play out right now in the infrastructure battle as well. Kind of the good getting in the way of the great. I'd be curious of your take, too, as we're kind of watching that play out and what it looks like, going to be taking another week to get the GOP votes on that compromise infrastructure bill. How you're seeing that battle shape up, and how, if that plan falls through, what you're expecting to see on the infrastructure front.

CORY BOOKER: Look, at the end of the day, none of us remember whether the Eisenhower Highway Act, which would have been a well over a trillion dollars in today's money, was done with whatever the vote was in the Senate and how it got done. We just know that it created a transportation boom for businesses all across our country. We are still living off of the investments made two generations ago.

We need to get massive infrastructure done. Not just repairing the 20th-century infrastructure, which is going to cost about $2 trillion to bring it up to today's standards. But we need to begin to start to reimagine what infrastructure is. It most definitely is broadband penetration for all Americans. It most definitely is making sure that we have the kind of human infrastructure necessary to run a 21st-century economy.

Our competitors understand that. The 36 richest nations do things for families, to empower their workers, that we just don't do. We're at the bottom of those lists. So I want to get this done. Generations from now, we'll celebrate what we did, the investments we made, however we do it, through reconciliation or through a bipartisan compromise. I know that that's the question of the day.

But I promise you, the things that we are investing in are going to make our economy stronger, make us more internationally competitive, and empower working Americans who have seen decades of stagnant wages. And more stress on families, because we're the only developed nation that doesn't have something as simple as paid family leave. Afghanistan and the Congo have paid family leave and the United States of America doesn't.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, there's a lot of initiatives here that we're discussing and the big infrastructure bill, and I know progressive Democrats like yourself want to see through it, on the same side as marijuana. And the new bill there, congrats on getting that out. Thanks again for taking the time to chat, senator from the great state of New Jersey, Cory Booker.