Washington, D.C. -- It's no longer political suicide, or so it seems, to embrace legalizing marijuana. At least among the younger generation of prominent Democrats, though there seems to be cracks in the dam amongst Republicans too.
The latest evolution on the issue was on display this week as New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker – a former mayor of Newark who is a young, affable guy rumored to be considering a presidential bid in 2020 – unveiled the most sweeping proposal yet to the nation's marijuana policy. The bill, dubbed the Marijuana Justice Act, would end the federal prohibition on weed by removing the plant from the list of controlled, as in banned, substances where it currently sits next to drugs like heroine and LSD.
"Our marijuana laws have devastated communities…wrought poverty, caused crime, driven violence," Booker tells Rolling Stone. "It's wasted government investment in a way where we should have been reaping investment."
During his failed presidential bid, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders released a bill to simply legalize marijuana federally, but it didn't go nearly as far as this new one. Besides ending the federal prohibition on pot, Booker's legislation incentivize states to decrease their prison populations by withholding federal funds if they have disproportionate numbers of minorities and poor people locked up for cannabis violations. His proposal also calls on the courts to expunge the records of people behind bars for marijuana violations, while investing money in job training programs.
A sweeping proposal like this would have been seen as the political third rail a few years ago, but voters in red and blue states alike have far outpaced the nation's stodgy political class and lawmakers are now slowly catching up with voters. Now it's becoming more en vogue for politicians to challenge some of the key underpinnings of the nation's decades-long war on drugs.
When Rolling Stone pressed Booker on the rumors swirling about town that he's eyeing a White House run and whether his new marijuana bill could hamper a presidential bid, his voice passionately rose.
"I really don't care," Booker says. "The injustice here is so great I don't care what kind of hit it takes on me politically. This is something that's time has come – it came, actually, a while ago. And now we have evidence in the states that have already legalized.”
Booker isn't alone. "I'm totally in support of that," California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris tells Rolling Stone of efforts like Booker's to reschedule marijuana.
The former Attorney General of California has seen her star power rise in these first seven months of her freshman year in the Senate, because she's proven a reliable Democratic thorn in the side of the Trump administration on numerous fronts. As your star power rises in Washington so do whispers of a potential presidential bid, but according to Harris, the marijuana issue isn't political – it's criminal justice reform.
"I started my career as a baby prosecutor during the height of the crack epidemic – not all drugs are equal," Harris says. "We have over-criminalized so many people, in particular poor youth and men of color, in communities across this country and we need to move it on the schedule. Plus we need to start researching the effect of marijuana and we have not been able to do it because of where it is on the schedule."
While Democrats, especially this younger generation of lawmakers, are coming around more quickly to the will of citizens across the political spectrum – who have voted in recreational marijuana in eight states and the nation's capital, as well as in the dozens of states that allow medical marijuana – GOP leaders (including Attorney General Jeff "Just Say No" Sessions) are still proving a roadblock to the reform effort.
Before leaving town for August, Speaker Paul Ryan's top lieutenants in the House beat back a broadly supported, bipartisan effort to allow doctors at VA hospitals to prescribe marijuana to veterans suffering from everything from PTSD to losing a limb, which often comes with astronomically large and recurring opioid prescriptions.
Still other Republicans brush aside any talk of marijuana legalization. That's in part because the GOP base doesn't seem to be as vocal on the issue, which former presidential candidate Lindsey Graham says never really came up as he traversed Iowa and other states that vote early.
"No – didn't hang around with the right crowd I guess," Sen. Graham tells Rolling Stone.
Some of the older Democrats and Independents who walk the marble halls of the Capitol also don't want to discuss weed, even if they come from a state like Maine that approved recreational weed.
"That was a state issue – they made the decision up there, so I'm not going to comment," Angus King, Maine's former governor and current junior senator, tells Rolling Stone.
But that's on the surface. The glacier still seems to be barreling, albeit at the usually slow congressional pace, forward.
Some Republicans are learning marijuana is no longer the political third rail it once was. There are other efforts afoot in the Capitol to make it easier for universities and research hospitals to study marijuana, while also protecting medicinal marijuana business owners and patients. While the progressive Booker supports those efforts, so do two Tea Party darlings, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
"We've trapped a lot of people in prison with criminal records over the use of marijuana," Paul tells Rolling Stone as he briskly walks back to his office. He also says his party is coming along in much the same way that Booker and Harris have: By making it a criminal justice issue, not just a dusty old drug debate.
"I think it has been changing, and I think the Republicans for criminal justice reform is a growing movement," Paul says. "I think there are a lot of Republicans who would want to move in that direction."
While slow moving, the change is palpable, especially for the lawmakers in those purple, blue and even red states alike who represent voters who approved medical or recreational weed.
"The country is changing, as did Massachusetts, and as each state moves further than it creates a national culture," Democratic Sen. Ed Markey tells Rolling Stone. "It's like gay marriage: in Massachusetts it starts and then another state and another state and before long it's something that people understand is a part of the modern political culture."
As for whether Booker's latest effort to end the prohibition on weed will damage any potential presidential run? Many people tracking the issue say the opposite is true.
"This 'Say no to drugs' that this administration has been putting forth is not in alignment with where the rest of the country is on marijuana and where the rest of the country is getting to," Queen Adesuyi, a policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance, tells Rolling Stone. "So by the time Booker is running for president, if he is, the question about how we legalize will be at the center, it wouldn't necessarily be about whether or not we should legalize – we're getting to that point."