In hindsight, Kamala Harris' infamous 2019 radio interview with New York's hit morning show, “The Breakfast Club,” told us everything.
During the discussion she spoke of her belief that cannabis should be legalized, the need for better research on the plant's impact on brain development, its undeniable medical efficacy, concern about cannabis-impaired drivers, and that illegal cannabis has incarcerated too many young men of color.
This interview raised a few eyebrows when she admitted to have once smoked cannabis (“a long time ago”) which provided fodder for late night jokes. Others noted that she built a career using cannabis to put people in jail, and then joked about enjoying it herself.
One thing is certain: Kamala Harris, shaped by growing up with a Jamaican/South Asian lineage and a career shaped by the law and order world of the plant, seems comfortable talking about cannabis.
Now, she's been tapped to be Democratic nominee Joe Biden's running mate in the 2020 presidential election. For many, she is the ideal running mate for Biden.
But while many believe Harris is a smart and safe choice for Biden, others, particularly those in the criminal justice and cannabis communities, are conflicted. Some view Harris' prosecutorial past as someone simply carrying out the duties of her job while navigating the complexities of being a woman of color in law enforcement and politics. Others see her as an engaged general of the War on Drugs and a tough-on-crime prosecutor responsible for sending non-violent drug offenders to prison.
Similar to the examination of what could potentially change Biden's views on legalization, we took a close look at Harris' record on cannabis to try to illustrate a cautious picture of what her potential role in the future of cannabis legalization will be.
A complicated past: from “top cop” to the MORE Act
Harris' political career began in 2004 when she was elected to be San Francisco's district attorney. Once in office, Harris attempted to cultivate a reputation as a progressive prosecutor who was "smart on crime." However, throughout her time as the DA, the felony conviction rate rose from 52% to 67%, and Harris became notorious for cracking down on gangs and drug dealers. At the time, Harris opposed cannabis legalization, and her office oversaw more than 1,900 cannabis convictions.
In 2011, Harris became the highest-ranking law enforcement official in California when she was elected attorney general. Preceding her victory was a contentious election that focused heavily on her refusal as a district attorney to pursue the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a police officer. This decision followed her for years and almost ruined her political career. Her precarious position entering her new role can help explain her mixed bag of both reformist policies and a pattern of upholding the status quo during her tenure as attorney general.
In 2010, Harris opposed Proposition 19, a ballot measure that would have legalized cannabis for adults over 21. For the next five years, she opposed cannabis legalization. Between the years of 2011 and 2016, at least 1,560 people were sent to prison for cannabis-related offenses, a fact that her debate opponents used against her, derailed momentum in her campaign, further confused her cannabis record, and became one of the most provocative, watchable, and dramatic moments of all the debates. In 2019, in the midst of a crowded, heated Democratic primary, Harris' past in the criminalization of cannabis while serving as attorney general was continually put on full display.
But Harris came out in support of decriminalization in 2015 during her second term as attorney general. While this marked a significant change in her position on cannabis, she still refused to support adult-use legalization. Critics argued that her position did not go far enough, since, at the time, a handful of states already had adult-use markets, and the majority of Americans supported legalization.
In a 2017 speech, she said “While I don't believe in legalizing all drugs, as a career prosecutor I just don't, we need to do the smart thing, the right thing, and finally decriminalize marijuana.”
In 2016, Kamala Harris won her Senate race and became California's first Black senator and the first South Asian American to serve in the U.S. Senate — the same election California voted to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Since she took office in 2017, Harris has generally aligned herself with the Senate's progressive members, voting alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders 93% of the time. As a district attorney and attorney general, Harris' role was to uphold and enforce the law. As a U.S. senator, her job duties shifted from law-enforcing to law-making.
Harris supported adult-use cannabis legalization in 2018 when she cosponsored Sen. Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize cannabis at the federal level. The same year, Harris, along with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding he stop blocking medical cannabis research efforts.
“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 2018 press release. "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.”
In her 2019 book, The Truths We Hold, Harris details her support for cannabis legalization and the need to expunge all non-violent cannabis-related records. She wrote “We need to expunge non-violent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives."
That same year, alongside Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Harris introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The MORE Act decriminalizes cannabis at the federal level, expunges cannabis-related convictions, invests resources into communities most disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization, and establishes a 5% federal cannabis tax. The bill is just beginning to move through the legislative process.
With each new role Harris occupied, from district attorney to U.S. senator, her position on cannabis evolved. Far removed from her days as a prosecutor, Harris is now a full-blown supporter of cannabis legalization and a vocal proponent of ending the failed War on Drugs. Whether her shift is the result of listening to her critics, personal growth, political opportunism, or some combination of the three, Harris' views on cannabis reflect a major shift in her approach to criminal justice. Harris is now in touch with the vast majority of Americans who support legalization.
Not debatable: Harris vs. Pence
No analysis of Harris' positions on cannabis would be complete without a comparison to the policy positions of her opponent. In this case, it is impossible to do an apples-to-apples comparison since incumbent Vice President Mike Pence doesn't even consider the issue.
The former governor of Indiana is a longtime and fierce opponent of cannabis legalization and an apostle of the “pot is a gateway drug” theory. While leading the Hoosier state, Pence opposed a provision in a criminal justice reform bill that lowered the penalties for cannabis possession charges. During his time in Congress, from 2001 to 2013, he was a reliable “no" vote on any meaningful cannabis legislation.
Pence does, at times, pick peculiar and inappropriate opportunities to express his opposition to legalization. This propensity was on full display, when, at the height of contentious negotiations regarding the recent Covid-19 relief funding, he went on television and falsely stated that the Democrats bill “mentions marijuana more than it mentions jobs.”
When Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his Vice President, he chose someone who he aligned with politically but was willing to push him on issues where he has been historically weak. As someone of Jamaican and South Asian descent, a woman, and over two decades younger, Harris fills in crucial gaps that have previously been points of criticism of Biden's candidacy.
As people contemplate Harris' potential influence in a Biden administration, legalization advocates cannot help but wonder if she can chip away at his seemingly intractable, anti-legalization stance. Compared to President Donald Trump's confusing and dismal cannabis policy positions, Biden, while not supporting full adult-use legalization, does champion federal decriminalization, automatic expungement of cannabis-related convictions, and medical legalization.
In the end, nobody really knows how and when Harris might launch an internal campaign to change the boss's mind should they make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In July, when the “veepstakes” was in full throttle, Harris indicated that she had no intention to push the candidate on cannabis legalization. But when he had the job, Biden forced the shift of the Obama administration policy on gay marriage with just one appearance on Meet the Press.
Featured image by Michael F. Hiatt/Shutterstock