Booker says Jeff Sessions' 'obsession with marijuana' puts him 'on the wrong side of history'

WASHINGTON — In a conversation with Yahoo News on Thursday evening, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., offered a blunt assessment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to end the federal government’s hands-off policy toward marijuana.

“He is out of step with our nation. He is on the wrong side of history just like you look back on those people who were pushing alcohol prohibition,” Booker said of Sessions. “He’s going to be looked back at as someone who was undermining and hurting this country.”

Booker predicted Sessions’s decision could lead to a “massive pushback” that could include increased support for legalization in Congress.

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2017.

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Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama arrives at Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump works from home November 15, 2016. Making the vital choices for President-elect Donald Trump's White House cabinet has sparked intense infighting, CNN reported Monday, with one source calling it a 'knife fight.' The jobs to be filled include national security positions and West Wing posts, the television news network said, as Trump gathered with transition team members in New York.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump greets Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's picks for attorney general, during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama. President-elect Trump has been visiting several states that he won, to thank people for their support during the U.S. election.

(Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., nominee for attorney general, talk near the Ohio Clock after a meeting in the Capitol, November 30, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks during a 'USA Thank You Tour 2016' event at the LaddPeebles Stadium in Mobile, AL on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Senator Jeff Sessions, attorney general pick for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, right, listens as Senator Charles 'Chuck' Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, speaks during a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Sessions, the 69-year-old, four-term Alabama Republican is a hard-liner on free trade and immigration, arguing that prospective immigrants don't have constitutional protections.

(Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

US President-elect Donald Trump (C) talks with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (2nd L) and US Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions (L) as he arrives in Mobile, Alabama, for a 'Thank You Tour 2016' rally on December 17, 2016.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Mike Pence, 2016 Republican vice presidential nominee, left, and Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, gesture during a campaign event for Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, not pictured, in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Trump returned to form in Phoenix Wednesday night with a nativist immigration plan definitively ruling out legal status for undocumented immigrants, as well as proposing to build a wall on the southern border of the United States and forcing Mexico to cover the cost.

(Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

MADISON, AL - FEBRUARY 28: United States Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, beomes the first Senator to endorse Donald Trump for President of the United States at Madison City Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Madison, Alabama.

(Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)(L) speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, February 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan on President Obamas FY2016 budget request. Also pitcured are (L-R), Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sen. Rob Poertman (R-OH).

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (2nd L) speaks as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L), and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) (R) listen during a news conference September 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The legislators discussed on immigration reform during the news conference.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

House Budget Chairman, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL., and members of the House Budget Committee during the House Budget Committee's news conference on the 'Introduction of the FY2013 Budget - Pathway to Prosperity.'

(Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call)

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., left, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, leave the Capitol en route to a news conference to oppose the immigration reform bill in the Senate.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performs during the National Prayer Breakfast as First Lady Michelle Obama (L), US President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Senator Jeff Sessions (3rd L), R-AL, watch on February 7, 2013 at a hotel in Washington, DC.

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Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL., talks with Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA., as they make their way to the Senate policy luncheons through the Senate subway in the U.S. Capitol on September 17, 2013.

(Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is interviewed by the press during the weekly Senate policy luncheons. The Senate vote will this afternoon on Obama's small-business tax relief legislation.

(Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks at the 'Iran Democratic Transition Conference,' hosted by the Institute of World Politics in Capitol Visitor Center. The conference explored the prospects of political change in Iran.

(Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)

US President Barack Obama (C) signs the Fair Sentencing Act in the Oval Office of the White House, on August 3, 2010 in Washington, DC. The law will aim to correct the disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. Also in the picture (L to R); Attorney General Eric Holder, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Democratic Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas. Previously, people in possession of powder cocaine could carry up to one hundred times more grams than crack offenders and receive the same sentence.

(Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan (L) shakes hands with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (R), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) looks on, after she arrived for the first day of her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill June 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. Kagan is U.S. President Barack Obama's second Supreme Court nominee since taking office.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The new co chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Jeff Sessions (D-AL) works in his office on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning May 02, 2009. Sen. Sessions speaks to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) before visiting with US Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

(The Washington Post via Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama (3rd-R) and Vice President Joe Biden (3rd-L) meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (2nd-R) ,D-NV, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (2nd-L),R-KY, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (R) ,D-VT, and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (L),R-AL, about the upcoming Supreme Court nomination on May 13, 2009 at the White House in Washington, DC.  

(TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (R) listens as ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (L) questions Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor during the second day of her confirmation hearings July 14, 2009 in Washington, DC. Sotomayor faces a full day of questioning from Senators on the committee today. Sotomayor, an appeals court judge and U.S. President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, will become the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court if confirmed.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

US President George W. Bush (L) listens as Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R) speaks during a Republican fundraiser for Sessions at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Alabama, 21 June 2007.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

US President George W. Bush (2R) waves as he stands with First Lady Laura Bush (R), Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (2L) and his wife Mary (L) after a Republican fundraiser for Sessions at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Alabama, 21 June 2007.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghdad, IRAQ: US Senators Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, (L) and Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, speak to the media after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, 28 April 2007. Maliki told a delegation of visiting US lawmakers today that foreign powers should not try to influence the Iraqi political process. He also resisted calls for his Shiite-led government to rehabilitate former members of ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein's regime. Maliki met a group of US congressmen shortly after their chamber voted for a law calling for a timetable for American troop withdrawal from Iraq.

(KHALID MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL, (C) speaks with the media as (L-R) U.S. Senator George Allen (R-VA), U.S. Representative David Dreier (R-CA) and U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) listen at the White House after participating in a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on March 16, 2006 in Washington, DC. Senators from various states, including U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), participated in a line item veto legislation meeting.

(Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., during a news conference after the Senate took a step Wednesday toward the 'security first' approach to immigration control promoted in the House, paving the way for action on legislation that would require construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing along segments of the U.S. border with Mexico. Despite Democratic charges that Republicans were moving the bill (HR 6061) to score political points seven weeks before Election Day, the Senate voted 94-0 to limit debate on a motion to proceed to formal consideration of the measure. The bill (HR 6061), which would also authorize a 'virtual fence' of sensors, cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and other surveillance technology along the entire southwest border, was passed by the House last week. Three more targeted border security and internal immigration enforcement measures are set for House action, possibly as early as Thursday. Frist supported an earlier Senate comprehensive bill that would offer a path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants. Sessions did not; he considers that aspect of the bill amnesty.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (L), speaks with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Alberto R. Gonzales January 6, 2005 in Washington, DC. U.S. President George W. Bush has nominated Gonzales to be the U.S. Attorney General.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in his office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Senator-elect Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., talk in the Ohio Clock Corridor during the election meeting for Senate Republican leadership.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions at a hearing to examine 'President Clinton's Eleventh Hour Pardons.'

(Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

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The senator’s comments came hours after Sessions rescinded three memos from the Obama administration that largely left the question of legalizing marijuana up to individual states — keeping federal laws against it on the books while not challenging local laws that allowed its distribution or sale. That policy encouraged many states to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes and, increasingly, for recreational users.

During the campaign, Trump said he would leave the issue up to the states, but Booker said he knew Sessions might reverse that course. “I was incredibly angered but really not that shocked. I’ve been warning people about this possibility,” Booker said. “Because not only did [Sessions] speak out against state action on marijuana, but he seemed to have a particular obsession with marijuana and I think a misperception on how dangerous the drug is.”

In a statement on Thursday, Sessions called his shift a “return to the rule of law.” But his directive to U.S. attorneys, while a clear change in direction from the Obama position, did not include an explicit order to begin a crackdown. Rather, Sessions said federal prosecutors should use their own discretion “in deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute.”

Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use and 21 other states have medical marijuana programs. In Booker’s home state of New Jersey, the incoming governor, Democrat Phil Murphy, has said he wants to legalize marijuana within 100 days of taking office later this month. Marijuana advocates say legalization has provided a new source of tax revenue and claim it has not led to increased underage use or traffic accidents. Proponents of legalization also cite evidence that increased access of marijuana leads to declined opioid use. Critics of marijuana argue it is a threat to public health that has led to increased hospitalizations and other dangers associated with intoxication.

Booker has been a leading advocate of legalization in Congress. In August 2017, he introduced legislation that would legalize marijuana, expunge federal marijuana convictions, and apply penalties to states where minorities faced disproportionate marijuana-related arrest or incarceration rates. Booker, a former mayor of Newark who has made criminal justice reform one of his priorities since taking office in 2013, told Yahoo News that he doesn’t think Sessions grasps how marijuana prohibition is “targeting poor people, vulnerable people [and] minorities.”

“I don’t think he has an understanding of how the war on drugs has not been a war on drugs but a war on people and has had a devastating impact on poor Americans and communities of color,” Booker said of Sessions. “We know objectively that blacks and whites have no difference in marijuana usage or selling, but blacks are about 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it.

“Getting arrested for marijuana usage has more to do with class or race than innocence or guilt,” Booker says, adding that marijuana convictions can have dire consequences, including the loss of federal student loans and access to public housing and diminished job prospects. He said the disparities in marijuana arrest and incarceration rates make Sessions’s directive “something that is violating the ideals in our country of equal justice under the law.”

“It is punishing not just to individual families and children but to entire communities when that enforcement is disproportionately targeted towards low-income folks and frankly towards minorities,” said Booker.

He added: “Three out of the last four presidents have admitted to using marijuana. I went to Stanford and Yale, where people cavalierly used the drug without any fear of consequences. … I serve in a body in Congress where people openly admit to using marijuana. Every single House and Senate member that has tried marijuana … faced no consequences.”

(For his part, Booker told Yahoo News he has never used marijuana. “No. I don’t drink. I’ve never tried marijuana. No on even alcohol,” he said.)

Booker described Sessions’s decision as “hypocrisy” because of Trump’s campaign promise not to interfere with local marijuana laws and vocal support for states’ rights. He also argued the economic and racial disparities in marijuana enforcement have benefited members of Congress.

RELATED SLIDESHOW: California recreational marijuana sales begin as Trump administration toughens law >>>

Polls show a majority of Americans, particularly millennials, favor marijuana legalization. Booker attributes this, in part, to the value of medical marijuana.

“The American public, I’m sure, feels a deep sympathy and empathy for people that are benefiting from this, whether it’s parents who have kids with Dravet syndrome [a seizure disorder] veterans who are suffering from PTSD, individuals who are using pot as an off-ramp drug from serious opioids,” Booker said.

Booker also rattled off a series of positive side effects that he said have come in the areas where recreational marijuana use has been legalized.

“The reality is, we’re starting to see so much good that’s being done by this, not to mention well over 100,000 jobs in the United States, not to mention the incredible revenues states are receiving, not to mention the fact that places that have done it, like Washington, D.C., where I am right now, have seen drops in violent crime,” said Booker.

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Sessions’s decision drew swift criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, which has legalized both recreational and medical marijuana, was particularly harsh in rebukes delivered on the Senate floor and in an interview with Yahoo News. Gardner said the attorney general “went back on his word” after personally promising him that he would not take steps toward stricter marijuana enforcement. Gardner, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pointed to the revenue and jobs legalization has created in his home state as well as “the question of constitutional states rights.”

Booker predicted Sessions’s directive would increase support for his legalization legislation. He is looking to team up with Gardner on the issue.

“I think it’s going to create more momentum towards my legislation,” said Booker. “My staff’s already reached out to Cory’s staff to see if the ‘Cory caucus’ could come up with some legislation that might be even more amenable to him that could directly respond to Jeff Sessions’s actions.”

Booker laughed when asked if he thinks Sessions would benefit from trying marijuana.

“I don’t know if he has or if he hasn’t. He may have already, but who knows? To me, it’s bigger than any individual in the attorney general’s division or the Senate,” said Booker. “This is really a larger issue of justice. It’s not about a plant ultimately. This is about what’s just and right in our country.”

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