A VP Kamala Harris Might Lead To Marijuana Legalization
Disclaimer: When Kamala Harris was chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate last week, I couldn’t help but notice a sharp divide among supporters of marijuana policy reform on social media about the impact she would have on the issue. Many felt that her background as a prosecutor and longtime opposition to legalization before coming around in recent years meant that she was likely to revert to her past stance and echo Joe Biden’s lackluster position on the issue, effectively blocking any real chance of reform in the next four years. Others argue that her newfound support of the issue and sponsorship of key reform legislation provided hope that she could be the catalyst to federal legalization in a Biden administration. Virtually nobody seemed to find a middle ground. So I decided to take this to its natural extreme, writing two columns at once that make the case for both sides. To read the case for why Senator Harris is the worst thing to happen to marijuana since Harry Anslinger, click here.
Kamala Harris supports marijuana legalization. Sure, detractors can point to her checkered record as a prosecutor in California to claim that Senator Harris was late to the party on marijuana and that her conversion was based on political expediency rather than genuine conviction. But doing so would ignore the mounting evidence that Harris has been one of the most vocal and active supporters of legalization in the United States Senate, demonstrating a depth and understanding of the issue and its many nuances. If elected Vice President, she is arguably reformers best hope of moving Joe Biden and the Democratic Party towards a position of full support for cannabis legalization.
While it is undoubtedly true that Kamala Harris’ record on cannabis as San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General leaves a lot to be desired, since joining the United States Senate, Harris has not only been consistently outspoken in her support of marijuana legalization, she has taken significant legislative action to back up her rhetoric with real world solutions.
Most prominently, Senator Harris is the lead sponsor in the Senate of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, the most far ranging legalization proposal currently pending in Congress that would not only legalize cannabis, but would address some of the more egregious consequences of prohibition, in particular expunging the records of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly people of color, whose lives and livelihoods are saddled by a cannabis conviction. It would also create pathways to ownership in the emerging industry for communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition.
But Harris hasn’t stopped with putting her name on the MORE Act. She was one of the original co-sponsors of Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, the first legalization bill that attempted to frame legalization in the broader context of racial and social justice. Harris not only signed on to the legislation, she publicly campaigned for its passage and became an outspoken proponent in the media.
Since joining the Senate, Harris has become a vocal proponent of expunging records for people convicted of marijuana offenses, one of the few policy positions she seems to share with Joe Biden on the issue. She even promoted this issue in her book, The Truths We Hold, writing that we need to “expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.” When Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued pardons to more than 11,000 marijuana offenders on the eve of legalization taking effect in that state, Senator Harris applauded the move, tweeting that “Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do. Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.”
While it is true that Senator Harris is a relative latecomer to the issue of legalization, she has been consistent during her career in her support for medical cannabis. She campaigned in support of California’s medical cannabis laws during her first attorney general run in 2010, and followed through during her tenure in office. Most notably she authored a series of letters to the four U.S. attorneys in the state urging them to cease and desist their campaign to harass legal cannabis businesses through raids and civil asset forfeiture.
Senator Harris has maintained her strong support for medical cannabis during her time as a U.S. Senator, even working across party lines to strengthen federal research on the medical benefits of cannabis for Americans. In 2018 she joined conservative Utah Republican Senator Orin Hatch in writing a letter to then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions imploring him to stop blocking access to research on cannabis and cannabinoids, particularly for veterans suffering from PTSD.
She has also been a champion of the emerging cannabis industry during her tenure in the Senate, most prominently as a co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act that would provide the cannabis industry with access to the same banking industry that is enjoyed by every other legal business in the country. Earlier this year she implored Senate leaders to allow cannabis businesses to be eligible for critical coronavirus relief funding available to most small businesses during the pandemic, even using her social media presence in support of the measure and highlighting that cannabis businesses employee 240,000 Americans whose livelihoods depend on these jobs.
While certainly not an indicator of political support for legalization (President Barack Obama was famously a member of the pot smoking Choom Gang in high school but never came around to supporting legalization), Kamala Harris speaks openly and fondly about consuming cannabis herself in her younger years. Of course, she also claimed to have listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while high in college, only to have it revealed that neither artist had released their debut album at that time, something President Trump has seized on in accusing Harris of lying about marijuana. But Senator Harris can be forgiven for misremembering the exact soundtrack to her pot smoking days nearly 40 years ago, and perhaps even conflated it with a yet undisclosed smoke session later in life.
For all of the noise being made about Kamala Harris’ early record on marijuana policy, there is no denying that she fully embraces this issue today. When asked recently during an interview for Now This to name her most important political evolution, she chose marijuana legalization. Cannabis reform supporters should applaud her evolution on this issue and judge her by the actions she has taken to back up her words. After all, the goal of political movements is to create an environment where elected officials can feel comfortable coming out in support of an issue. Marijuana reformers should be proud that their decades of hard work has allowed a former prosecutor like Kamala Harris to speak to openly in support of legalization on a national stage, and to back it up by championing far reaching legislation on the issue.
Importantly, Joe Biden has said he chose Kamala Harris because he wanted a vice president who can rely on as a governing partner, trying to recreate the relationship he had when serving as vice president to Barack Obama. Perhaps Biden’s most well-known accomplishment in that role was pushing President Obama to evolve on the issue of same sex marriage. A Vice President Harris will have the ear of a President Biden like arguably nobody else in government. Given her enthusiastic and outspoken support for legalization as a Senator, it is safe to assume that she will push Biden to evolve on this issue and get himself in line with the vast majority of Americans who support legalization.
Her potential influence on a Biden administration cannot be understated. Even if Congress fails to send a legalization bill to the president’s desk for signature, there is a lot that the executive branch can do to move the issue forward. The president could ask the attorney general to stop enforcing federal marijuana laws against businesses that are legal and licensed by a state government, instruct the IRS to reinterpret the 280e provision of the tax code to no longer apply to state legal cannabis businesses, ask the Treasury Department to draft rules ensuring full banking access for the cannabis industry, and offer pardons and commutations for anyone who has been convicted of a federal non-violent cannabis offense. Given Senator Harris’ apparent passion for this issue and understanding of the nuances of cannabis policy, she will be best positioned to push the Biden administration to implement these and other executive actions that would have a major impact on the lives of countless Americans.
Make no mistake, Senator Kamala Harris was among the best choices Joe Biden could have made for people who wish to see an end to marijuana prohibition. Marijuana activists and cannabis business owners should continue to hold her feet to the fire to ensure that she doesn’t just tow the party line now that she is the running mate to a candidate whose position on legalization leaves a lot to be desired. But supporters should take comfort that they have a true champion for legalization who will have the ear of the president, and is arguably the best hope we have to shepherd the nation into a post prohibition world.