The VP pick has evolved her views on cannabis reform, but her history has left her open to attacks from opponents.
When Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate Tuesday, he invited renewed interest in what cannabis reform would look like under his potential presidency. GOP figures, including President Donald Trump, immediately targeted Harris’s conflicting history with cannabis in his initial response to Biden’s historic decision.
In recent years, Harris embraced reform at the federal level by sponsoring a number of cannabis bills and has called to end the War on Drugs. So what makes her a target on cannabis reform? It has to do with her past.
California Prosecutor Kamala Harris
Harris was California’s attorney general between 2011 to 2017 before she was elected as the state’s junior senator in 2016. During her time as a California prosecutor — she was also San Francisco district attorney between 2004 and 2011 — she was associated with opposing cannabis and for good reason not hide an opposition to cannabis.
In 2010, she co-authored a voter guide argument against Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana in California, calling the initiative “flawed public policy.” As attorney general, she declined to support an effort by other states to remove cannabis from the DEA’s controlled substances list.
When she sought re-election in 2014, Harris ran against GOP candidate and strong cannabis advocate Ron Gold. A local reporter asked Harris about Gold’s views on legalizing adult-use marijuana in California. She responded by laughing in his face, and saying Gold is “entitled to his opinion.” Harris also opted not to support the 2016 ballot initiative that eventually legalized cannabis in California.
But the most damning record Harris has on cannabis comes from a 2019 Washington Free Beacon investigation. Crime records showed that between 2011-16 when Harris was attorney general, 1,560 people were sent to state prisons for cannabis-related offenses. And while low-level marijuana offenders who were sent to state prisons did decline after 2011, that was caused by a statewide effort to reduce populations in California’s overcrowded prisons.
Harris backtracks on cannabis
When she entered the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris appeared to leave behind any lingering cannabis opposition. She notably blasted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a 2017 speech at the Center for American Progress, criticizing Sessions for pursuing draconian prohibitionist policies.
“Let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions. We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations and dealing with human trafficking — not in going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana,” she said.
She then added the strongest pro-cannabis statement at that point in her career, advocating for cannabis decriminalization.
“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,” she said.
Harris later supported the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act as the lead Senate sponsor in 2018. The bill would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and included social justice provisions, like cannabis record expungements. She also added her name to Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, a more far-reaching legalization measure that would also penalize states where law enforcement disproportionately targets people of color in marijuana-related offenses.
Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do and it’s the right thing to do. Today, I’m announcing my support for @CoryBooker’s Marijuana Justice Act. pic.twitter.com/cOh3SjMaOW
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 10, 2018
“We need to legalize marijuana and regulate it,” Harris wrote in her 2019 book The Truths We Tell. “And we need to expunge nonviolent 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.”
Harris in 2020 election race
During her presidential primary bid, Harris released a criminal justice reform plan that made her cannabis views explicitly clear. writing, “[I]t is past time to end the failed war on drugs, and it begins with legalizing marijuana.”
She revisited this stance in multiple interviews and campaign trail stops.
“The whole war on drugs was a complete failure,” she said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “That approach is the gateway to America’s problem with mass incarceration.”
She also tweeted: “marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized.”
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
But that association with cannabis reform Harris had carefully developed as a senator was called into question by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. During a primary debate, Gabbard highlighted that Harris had “put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
Harris hasn’t let Gabbard’s comments reverse her cannabis policies. Before Biden selected her as his running mate, Harris signed onto a letter by fellow senators imploring Congress to allow cannabis small businesses to receive coronavirus-related funds. She also signed onto a different letter directed at Attorney General William Barr urging a federal change to improve marijuana research policies.
I applaud Illinois’ leadership on this issue. Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do.
Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.https://t.co/7M4of9Aikg
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 4, 2020