If Kentucky Rep. Charles Booker (D) wins his primary race for U.S. Senate—and initial voting returns from Tuesday’s election put him in the lead so far—the general election matchup heading up to November will see the pro-marijuana legalization candidate face off against one of the most powerful obstacles to reform in Congress: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
The primary election hasn’t been called yet, but, as votes are being counted, Booker is currently ahead by about four percentage points against competitor Amy McGrath, a military veteran who supports medical cannabis legalization but is calling for additional studies before she backs broader reform.
Booker, who also supports more broadly decriminalizing drug possession, made clear in a speech on election night that he would prioritize marijuana reform in the Senate if he defeats the body’s GOP leader on Election Day.
“We deserve a commonwealth where we don’t criminalize a plant, where we don’t throw people away that are suffering from pain and trauma, where we are not dealing with one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet because we criminalize poverty,” he said. “We can break these chains, and we’ve got to do it.”
Watch Booker talk about the need to end marijuana criminalization below, starting around 9:50:
It’s not just campaign rhetoric, either.
During his time in the Kentucky House, the legislator has ben the lead sponsor of two bills to decriminalize cannabis possession, including one that would have provided for expungements of prior marijuana convictions. The version this year would have made it so the penalty for possessing up to 100 grams of marijuana would be a $100 fine.
This session, I filed legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession. It is past time that we finally allow families and communities to heal. Legalize it, commute sentences, expunge records, provide support for marginalized communities to benefit from the new economy.#420day
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) April 20, 2019
I filed a bill to decriminalize at the state level last session, and am preparing a new draft now. We know the disparate harm in criminalizing personal possession. We know the long term damage caused to those who get trapped in the justice system.
We know it is time for reform.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) June 26, 2019
Today, I filed legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession. This bill has been pushed with bipartisan support in the past, and it is time we take this important step to bring more equity to our justice system.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) February 7, 2019
Honored to be a part of making history, herstory, theirstory, and outstory today.
Moments ago, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed a bill to legalize medical cannabis. Proud to co-sponsor this important step toward helping families ease their pain.
A good day, indeed.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) February 20, 2020
What a day!!!
Our bill to provide emergency prescription refills for diabetics (HB 64) passed out of Senate Health & Welfare! Thank you again, @drdanbentley!
PLUS, our bill to legalize medical marijuana (HB 136) passed out of the House Judiciary! Shout out to @jmnemes!
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) March 7, 2019
Booker was also one of three cosponsors of a bill to legalize marijuana for adult use that did not advance. It would have created a system of licensed businesses to grow, process, transport and sell cannabis and allowed people to get a $250 permit to grow up to five mature plants and five seedlings at home. It also proposed a process to expunge misdemeanor cannabis records.
“Full legalization and decriminalization of marijuana will allow us to empower people instead of prosecuting them; it will allow us to spend fewer taxpayer dollars on needlessly locking people up and to bring in much-needed additional revenue for state and local governments; and it will give us a non-opioid solution for people experiencing pain,” his campaign website says.
When it comes to a post-prohibition world, Booker wants to make sure that communities targeted by the war on drugs are made whole.
Agreed. I am for legalization, expungement of records, and direct pathways to economic opportunity for communities that have been directly devastated by the war on drugs. I have co-sponsored bipartisan legislation on this in the House, and will keep fighting for reform.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) November 26, 2019
– Full legalization
– Expungement of records
– Treatment, education, and support over criminalization
– Direct access to capital and entrepreneurial opportunities for marginalized communities historically targeted by the war on drugs
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) October 25, 2019
On social media, the candidate has consistently discussed drug policy reform, calling for legalization and decriminalization as a criminal justice reform priority.
Legalizing marijuana is about righting a huge wrong. It is about acknowledging our history, and accepting that our approach now is contrary to our goals of a safer, healthier society.
Legalize. Expunge. Commute. Empower. Heal.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) August 28, 2019
Though great news, this is yet another example of why we all should be sick and tired of corruption and structural inequity.
Meanwhile, we still have to move mountains to decriminalize marijuana and ensure that loose cigarettes don’t merit a suffocating chokehold. https://t.co/NywbzBKDmj
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) August 27, 2019
He has also spoken more broadly about the need to treat drug use as a health issue, instead of with a criminal justice approach.
“Charles also supports broader decriminalization of drug use, and increased treatment supports for people convicted of drug-related offenses,” his campaign website says. “To make sure the goal of our justice system is to help people heal, and not profit from the prison industrial complex, Charles supports an end to private prisons.”
Attended a community discussion on opioid abuse. It is critical we make sure all Kentuckians have the supports needed to avoid & beat addiction. Let’s finally treat the issue of drug abuse, instead of simply criminalizing people in need. @AndyBeshearKY thanks for your leadership! pic.twitter.com/4Q3sSGj7Xi
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) July 26, 2018
I often hear it said that we cannot allow gun violence to become the norm. Sadly though, it already is, and we already have. We allow it in our weak laws on gun safety. We allow it in our continued policies that concentrate poverty and criminalize drug use instead of treatment.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) August 26, 2018
McGrath, meanwhile, has also discussed cannabis policy on her social media accounts and campaign site, though her proposals and statements haven’t been nearly as far-reaching.
In 2018, she voiced support for a veterans group calling for the federal rescheduling of marijuana and said there should be increased research into the plant’s potential therapeutic benefits.
I’m proud to stand with @AmericanLegion in calling for the removal of #cannabis from Schedule I, and calling for more research into the efficacy of #MMJ in treating #PTSD, #ChronicPain and other ailments #veterans face.
— Amy McGrath (@AmyMcGrathKY) January 18, 2018
Under a veterans-focused section of her campaign site, she states that “veterans suffering from chronic pain and PTSD report improved health outcomes from medical cannabis.”
“I stand with the American Legion in calling for the removal of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug and permit its use to treat ailments that veterans, and others, face,” McGrath said. “It may also alleviate dependence on opioids for pain relief and that alone is a meaningful reason to consider moving in that direction.”
Unlike Booker, she isn’t ready to support full marijuana legalization, however.
“On the issue of full legalization, I’d like to see our government permit full research on the subject,” McGrath said in a Facebook post. “The Schedule 1 classification means that we can’t even conduct studies on the effect of legalization. Perhaps it’s the military officer in me, but I’m all about thoughtful planning and research before diving head first into fully opening that door.”
If Booker prevails in his primary race when all the votes are counted, drug policy will represent an area of significant contrast between him and McConnell, who has championed and campaigned on hemp legalization but continues to denounce what he calls the crop’s “illicit cousin,” marijuana.
But like McConnell, the state lawmaker and would-be challenger has also shown appreciation for the innovativeness of Kentucky’s hemp market. In 2016, for example, he shared a picture of a menu featuring “hemp-infused beef hot dogs” at the Kentucky State Fair.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) August 18, 2016
“Yeah, that happened today!” he said.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.