As Sen. Kamala Harris takes her place on the ticket with presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, voters are taking a closer look at her record on the issues of the day. And while Harris’ experience as a prosecutor in California gives some in the cannabis community pause, others point to her apparent evolution on the matter as a sign of hope for the future. Harris made history on Tuesday when Biden announced that he had selected her to become his vice-presidential candidate, the first woman of color to achieve that position on the ticket of a major U.S. political party.
While she was the district attorney for San Francisco, Harris oversaw the prosecution of marijuana offenses leading to nearly 2,000 convictions during her tenure, which lasted from 2004 to 2010. Also during that time, she co-wrote an argument against a cannabis legalization measure for a 2010 voter information pamphlet. And as California Attorney General in 2014, she laughed when a reporter asked if she would support the legalization of cannabis for recreational use.
Sen. Harris Espouses Reform
But following her rise to the national scene with her election as the junior Democratic senator from California in 2016, Harris’ stance on cannabis began to soften and she expressed support for several pieces of pro-cannabis legislation. In 2018, she signed on as a co-sponsor of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act in 2018, a bill that would remove cannabis from the nation’s list of controlled substances.
“Right now in this country people are being arrested, being prosecuted, and end up spending time in jail or prison all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal,” Harris said in a statement announcing her support for Booker’s bill. “Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor and I know it as a senator.”
A year later, as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Harris revealed that she had personal experience with cannabis. During an appearance on the popular New York City radio program “The Breakfast Club,” she told host Charlamagne Tha God that she had smoked cannabis while in college.
“I have. And I inhaled,” Harris said,” referring to Bill Clinton’s half-baked admission to using marijuana in 1992. “I did inhale. It was a long time ago, but yes.”
‘You know, I joke about it – half joke – but half my family’s from Jamaica! Are you kidding me?” she added, a remark that drew rebuke from her Jamaican father for perpetuating a stereotype “in the pursuit of identity politics.”
Her claim also drew criticism from those who noted that Harris said she had listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur while high, although both artists did not release any recordings until years after she graduated from college in 1986.
In October 2019, Harris reiterated her support for cannabis policy reform in an op-ed for CNN, citing the racial disparity in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws that has been documented time and time again.
“The fact is, marijuana laws have not been enforced in the same way for all people. Data show that a person of color is much more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite evidence that Americans use marijuana at nearly the same rate, regardless of race,” Harris wrote.
“As public opinion of marijuana shifts toward legalization, it’s time we do the smart thing—the right thing—and ensure any marijuana reform legislation we put on the table adequately addresses the harm caused by the failed drug policies of the past,” she continued.
As a senator, Harris has also signed on to two other important pieces of cannabis legislation, including the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would legalize cannabis at the federal level and enact provisions to address the harms caused by the failed War on Drugs. She is also the co-sponsor of a bill known as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would give legal cannabis businesses access to common financial services.
Progressives Offer Lukewarm Support
But some progressives including Cori Bush, who unseated a Democratic incumbent representative in St. Louis and will likely head to the House after the November election, aren’t completely comfortable with Harris’ seeming about-face on matters of cannabis policy and criminal justice reform. Although Bush said she would not “tear down another woman of color,” she was torn about Biden’s selection of Harris.
“I applaud her for the way that she has evolved, but people were hurt while she was figuring out how to evolve,” she told the New York Times, referring to the time Harris’ spent as a prosecutor in California. “And we cannot forget that those people matter. I stand with them and want them to know I will represent them as hard as I can.”
The chances for cannabis reform if Biden is elected president seem limited at best. Last month, Democratic Party delegates voted not to include the legalization of marijuana at the federal level in its platform for 2020, and Biden is cool to the idea after years of outright opposition. While some in the cannabis community view the democratic ticket with trepidation, Justin Strekal, the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, took the announcement of Harris’ selection as an opportunity for a potential Biden administration to express a commitment to criminal justice reform.
“Passage of the MORE Act is essential in order to truly right the wrongs of federal marijuana criminalization,” Strekal said. “It is time for the Democratic Party to adopt the marijuana policy reform platform that is currently articulated by Senator Harris’s MORE Act.”
“Should the Democratic-led House take action in the coming months to pass the MORE Act, it would demonstrate to voters that they, like the super-majority of Americans, recognize that the time has come to end the failed policy of marijuana criminalization,” he added. “Federal marijuana prohibition was implemented in 1937 explicitly out of racial animus. This criminalization is not, nor has it ever been, an evidence-based public policy. It’s time for this country to do better.”