Should Progressives Trust Cory Booker on Drug Policy?

Last week, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill that would remove cannabis from the DEA scheduling system and encourage states to legalize the drug. Though a very liberal move, many find it questionable given how Booker was among the 13 Democrats who voted against Independent Senator Bernie Sanders’ amendment to import cheaper drugs from Canada. So skeptical progressives should ask: why the sudden change in drug policy?

By following the money, it turns out that Booker has taken thousands of dollars from pharmaceutical companies. According to Open Secrets, he received the 2nd highest amount of donations from the industry in the 2014 midterm elections. Big pharma donated $395,017 to Booker during his entire career. This does not even include the $1 million Booker has received from the entire health sector. Many pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co are headquartered in New Jersey, Booker’s home state. After taking heat for being part of the ‘Pharma 13’, Booker said in an NPR interview that he would “pause” on big pharma donations, but not stop altogether.

So, what does his pharma connection have to do with marijuana? One of the biggest arguments in favor of marijuana legalization is its medicinal uses. Now, pharma giants are trying to corner that market. Healthcare insider Barry Cohen says Merck & Co, Sanofi, and Pfizer are acquiring new cannabis-based drugs and would benefit from the plant being removed from the scheduling system. Since marijuana is currently a Schedule 1 drug, there are many restrictions on the research and development of the drug, even in states that have legalized it.

The aforementioned companies have financial ties to Booker. According to Open Secrets, Booker received the highest amount of money from Merck & Co in the 2014 election cycle; Booker also gave a paid speech for the company that same year. Pfizer gave the senator $25,550 in 2014, the second highest donation Pfizer gave to any politician that year. Sanofi also donated $7,500 to Booker in 2014.

Based on the facts, Booker is still protecting corporate interests by decriminalizing marijuana. It just so happens that their interests align with the interest of the American people. According to a CBS News poll, 61 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana and 88 percent support medical marijuana.

Booker’s dual appeal also helps him if he is planning a presidential run in 2020. Speculation has been surrounding Booker’s political ambitions since Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 and he has been named a top contender. Progressive advocates should support the policy change, but be wary of Booker’s intentions. As journalist Conor Lynch warns, “Cory Booker, who is beloved by Wall Street donors and pharmaceutical companies, is not likely to challenge the economic status quo, since he is a product of it.”

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