Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to meet with New Yorkers who have struggled because of low-level marijuana arrests and said the time has come for the federal government to legalize the drug.
Gillibrand said Sunday that she sent a letter to Sessions inviting him to talk about the impacts the War on Drugs has had on New York’s black and Latino communities with constituents who are denied jobs, housing and college financial aid because of nonviolent, low-level pot arrests.
“I believe that our criminal justice system is broken,” Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said during a news conference at her midtown Manhattan office. “Black Americans and white Americans use marijuana at just about the same rate, but black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white peers.
“Here in New York, the number is even worse,” Gillibrand continued. “Black and Latino New Yorkers are getting arrested for marijuana 10 times more than their white New York friends. Ten times more — that is the definition of systemic institutional racism.”
Gillibrand, who is running for re-election in November and has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2020, signed on in February as a co-sponsor of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Bill, which would remove pot from the list of controlled substances and make it legal on the federal level. On Sunday, she again called on Congress to approve the bill. She predicted marijuana will be legal in the United States within a few years, perhaps as early as 2020.
“It is time for the United States to legalize the possession of marijuana,” said Gillibrand, who said the bill has support from lawmakers in Republican-dominated states where pot is legal for medical and recreational purposes.
She called on Sessions to reinstate the Cole memo, the Obama administration policy that discouraged U.S. attorneys from enforcing the federal prohibition on marijuana in Colorado, California and other states where it is legal and regulated.
Sessions announced that he was revoking the policy in January, stoking fears about raids and arrests in states where marijuana is legal for recreational or medical purposes. President Donald Trump created new confusion about the federal government’s position on pot last week when he told Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) that his administration would not target the state’s marijuana industry — without notifying Sessions first.
Michael Torres, of the Bronx, said he was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana by police, who rifled through his pockets without permission, while on his way to a job interview. He didn’t get the job, and he said the arrest crippled his family financially for years.
“Being that I had an open case, it was difficult for me to find employment,” Torres said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Friday that he plans to introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana.
State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), sponsor of a bill that calls for marijuana to be sold and regulated like alcohol, said having the support of national leaders such as Gillibrand will make it easier for her bill to pass. She said retired cops, Drug Enforcement Administration agents and judges have told her marijuana enforcement is a waste of resources that unfairly targets and disrupts minority communities.
“I am optimistic about New York moving in the right direction down the road,” Krueger said at the news conference.