On Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) announced that she’s running for president in 2020. The latest in a growing list of candidates hoping to take on President Donald Trump, Harris has made criminal justice reform—including marijuana legalization—a main component of her platform.
Though the former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general hasn’t always been friendly to cannabis reform, Harris’s evolution on the issue has earned her an A grade from NORML.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Harris came out in support of legalization in 2018, adding her name to a far-reaching marijuana bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The legislation would remove cannabis from the list of federally banned substances and also penalize states where marijuana laws are enforced disproportionately against people of color.
The fact is, marijuana laws are not applied and enforced in the same way for all people. That’s why I’ve signed onto @CoryBooker’s Marijuana Justice Act to make marijuana legal at the federal level. It’s the smart thing to do. pic.twitter.com/JD5qqm0bfU
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 10, 2018
“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,” she said in a 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.”
But beyond the Marijuana Justice Act, Harris has only co-sponsored one other cannabis-related bill: the SAFE Banking Act, which would protect banks that work with marijuana businesses from federal punishment.
Harris also signed a letter alongside Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that called on the Justice Department to stop blocking federal research into medical cannabis. In a separate sign-on letter, she joined her colleagues in requesting that lawmakers include protections for legal cannabis states in a spending bill.
The limited scope of her legislative track record on cannabis policy contrasts with other Democratic candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who have co-sponsored numerous bills to change federal marijuana laws.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, which provided guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, she said the Justice Department shouldn’t be focused on “going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”
California needs federal support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations. What we don’t need is Jeff Sessions going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) January 5, 2018
Sessions should be focusing on issues like transnational criminal organizations and investigating and prosecuting human trafficking, not going after Californians who are using recreational and medicinal marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 8, 2018
“This administration and Jeff Sessions want to take us back to the dark ages,” Harris said at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference in 2017. “Sessions has threatened that the United States Department of Justice may renew its focus on marijuana use even as states like California, where it is legal.”
“Well, let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, dealing with issues like human trafficking—not going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana. Leave her alone.”
Harris hadn’t signed onto any marijuana reform legislation during the time she was going after Sessions. But she was using the battle to solicit signatures on a petition, a common tactic that politicians use to build email lists that they can later use for fundraising. Several House members pressured her and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to take stronger action by blocking Justice Department nominees until the Cole memo was restored.
The senator has repeatedly called for federal cannabis decriminalization, characterizing existing laws as “regressive policies” that have “ruined” many lives.
It’s time to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. It’s time to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 20, 2018
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level isn’t just the smart thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 14, 2018
“We need to decriminalize marijuana,” she said. “We have a problem of mass incarceration in our country. And let’s be clear, the war on drug was a failed war. It was misdirected.”
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level isn’t just a smart thing to do —it’s the right thing to do. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 11, 2018
While I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs, we need to do the smart thing, the right thing, and finally decriminalize marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
She has also criticized the federal government for blocking military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.
“As states moves toward legalizing marijuana, let’s remember how many lives have been ruined because of our regressive policies,” Harris wrote. “We must focus on restorative justice.”
As states moves toward legalizing marijuana, let’s remember how many lives have been ruined because of our regressive policies. We must focus on restorative justice.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 11, 2018
Curiously, however, Harris also has a habit of referring to the war on drugs in the past tense—as if it isn’t the case that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. are still being arrested for cannabis and other drugs every year.
The war on drugs was an abject failure which affects all of our communities, especially those struggling. We can’t turn the clock back. https://t.co/5b2fH4aBap
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
The war on drugs was a failure. It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 21, 2017
“The war on drugs was a failure,” she said in 2017. “It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.”
She also accused Sessions of “resuscitating” the drug war.
During her time as a prosecutor, Harris said she “saw the war on drugs up close, and let me tell you, the war on drugs was an abject failure.”
“It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment, it was bad for public safety, it was bad for budgets and our economy, and it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
The fact is, the War on Drugs did not work.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
“I’ll tell you what standing up for the people also means,” Harris said in 2015. “It means challenging the policy of mass incarceration by recognizing the war on drugs was a failure. And Democrats, on that point, let’s be clear also: now is the time to end the federal ban on medical marijuana. It is.”
Before Harris backed full legalization or federal decriminalization, she was supportive of rescheduling cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. Asked about the policy in 2016, she said “I would work to remove marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
“We need to reform our criminal justice system and changing the marijuana classification and drug sentencing laws are part of that effort.”
At a debate that year, she predicted that California voters would approve full legalization via a ballot measure (which they did) and reiterated that “we have to do is move [marijuana] from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
“We have incarcerated a large number of predominantly African American and Latino men in this country for possession and use at a very small scale of one of the least dangerous drugs in the schedule,” she said.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Harris said “I started my career as a baby prosecutor during the height of the crack epidemic—not all drugs are equal.”
“We have over-criminalized so many people, in particular poor youth and men of color, in communities across this country and we need to move it on the schedule,” she said. “Plus we need to start researching the effect of marijuana and we have not been able to do it because of where it is on the schedule.”
Harris congratulated Canada on its national legalization of marijuana.
Harris’s evolution on cannabis can be neatly summed up with two videos. The first shows her being asked about marijuana legalization in 2014 in light of her Republican opponent for attorney general supporting it. She dismissively laughs off the question.
The second shows Harris during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing pressing President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, on whether he’d use Justice Department funds to go after marijuana businesses acting in compliance with state law.
HARRIS: You do not intend to use fed resources to enforce fed marijuana law in states that have legalized?
BARR: “That’s right. But I think i’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we are going to have a federal system.” pic.twitter.com/owWekY9PqP
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2019
Harris even attempted to crack her own marijuana joke during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, though the late night host didn’t seem especially amused.
In her book, The Truths We Hold, she took her message in support of legalization a step further. Not only should we “legalize marijuana and regulate it,” but we should also “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,” Harris wrote.
“We also need to stop treating drug addiction like a public safety crisis instead of what it is: a public health crisis,” she also wrote, suggesting she may be in favor of broader drug policy reforms. “When someone is suffering from addiction, their situation is made worse, not better, by involvement in the criminal justice system.”
It’s past time America legalized marijuana and regulated it. But when doing so, 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.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 10, 2019
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Harris hasn’t said whether she’s personally experimented with “grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”
Marijuana Under A Harris Presidency
Five years ago, marijuana reform advocates might have felt apprehensive about cannabis policy under a Harris presidency. And they would’ve been reasonably skeptical about the prospect of her administration playing an active role in reform efforts. But the senator’s recent rhetoric and legislative action suggest she would likely be an ally of the legalization movement if elected to the Oval Office.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.