Why A VP Kamala Harris Could Be A Disaster For Marijuana Policy
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 best thing to happen to marijuana since the THC receptor, click here.
Kamala Is A Cop. No matter how excited Democratic voters may be about having the first woman of color on a presidential ticket, and no matter how liberal her Senate voting record may be, there is no escaping the fact that Senator Kamala Harris built her political career on her record as a prosecutor. In that position she oversaw the arrest and prosecution of thousands of people, mostly young people of color, for marijuana and other drug offenses.
That record has her selection as Biden’s running mate being roundly criticized, and not only by progressives who see her history as a “law-and-order” prosecutor and record of fighting to uphold wrongful convictions while in office. Conservatives, particularly libertarian leaning Republicans who have long been supportive of criminal justice reform have been harshly critical of her support for prosecuting so-called “quality of life” crimes that generally involve low level non-violent offenses like marijuana charges. Even the Trump campaign, in its drive to win over African American voters, has gotten in on the “Kamala Is A Cop” action.
These criticisms from the left and right should have supporters of legalization concerned, especially as they review her history and record from her time as a prosecutor, before it became politically advantageous and popular to support cannabis reform once she became a U.S. Senator. In a look back at her record as California Attorney General, the Washington Free Beacon concluded that 1,560 people were sent to prison in California for marijuana offenses between 2011 and 2016. Harris was unapologetic about her position on locking up non-violent offenders, writing in her 2008 book “Smart on Crime” that “Nonviolent crimes exact a huge toll on America’s communities…It’s important to fight all crime. Drug crimes in particular exact a terrible toll and rob people young and old of hope.”
It was during this time period that Kamala Harris had a chance to show her true colors on this issue, when California voters had the chance to vote on Prop. 19, a ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana in the state. A candidate for state Attorney General in the same election, Harris not only spoke out in opposition to the initiative, she chose to author an opposition statement in the state’s official ballot guide, claiming that legalization “seriously compromises the safety of our communities, roadways, and workplaces.” It is fair to wonder if California politicians like Harris had shown the political fortitude to support reform, whether the initiative would have passed instead of falling only 3.5% short of victory.
Even as late as 2014, when running for reelection as Attorney General, when Harris was asked about legalization, with the reporter noting her opponent’s support of the issue, Harris simply laughed in the face of the reporter. And this wasn’t the first time, in 2010 when pressed on the issue at a forum defending her “Back on Track” program that advocated prosecuting first time drug and marijuana offenders, Harris similarly laughed off the question, going on to state “I’m not a proponent of that, but I know that there are a lot of people who are. It’s not my issue.”
Many supporters of legalization will point to her more recent record in the Senate, where she has been a vocal supporter of legalization and sponsor of far reaching cannabis reform legislation, as evidence that she has fully evolved on the issue and will be a positive force for change in a Biden administration. But it is worth noting that she only took this position once it became politically advantageous to do so, after national public support for legalization eclipsed 60% and California voters approved legalization in a 2016 ballot initiative by a whopping 57%.
Given her previous positions on the issue, it is impossible to know how Kamala Harris really feels about it in her heart of hearts. That is critically important as she intends to serve as the number two to a president with a long history of opposing marijuana legalization. As Vice President, Kamala Harris’ job is largely to hold water for the president and support his policy agenda. Given that Biden’s current position on marijuana falls well short of legalization, and given Harris’ history of political expediency on this issue, it is hard to imagine her publicly breaking from President Biden on this issue.
Just last month, the Democratic National Committee overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have added support for legalization to the party platform, in a move that observers speculated was due to the party not wanting to contradict their presidential nominee on this issue. Senator Harris, who was busy jockeying to earn the VP selection at the time, remained silent.
Unfortunately for those who view Kamala Harris as the country’s best chance at legalization in a Biden administration, that silence should speak volumes. If her past is precedence, there is a good chance this silence will carry over into her tenure as Vice President, as she continues to tow the party line for a president who simply cannot get past his outdated War on Drugs mentality.