Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee said during a Virtual Roundtable that if elected, she and Joe Biden will decriminalize marijuana and automatically expunge the records of anyone with a nonviolent marijuana-related conviction.   “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will decriminalize the use of marijuana and automatically expunge all marijuana-use convictions, and end incarceration for drug use alone,” Harris said during the Sept. 14 virtual event. “This is no time… for half steppin’, this is no time for incrementalism. We need to deal with the system, and there needs to be a significant change in the design of the system.”

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Evolving Stances

Harris’s stance on marijuana has changed considerably over the last decade. As San Francisco’s District Attorney, she opposed Proposition 19, a state initiative to legalize and tax marijuana. Her campaign manager at the time told Capitol Weekly that she supported medical marijuana legalization but not recreational.  Biden’s view on marijuana has evolved, too. As a 31-year-old senator in 1974, Biden told the Washingtonian “when it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion I support a limited amnesty, and I don’t think marijuana should be legalized”  Harris is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, which will reach the House floor later this month. The bill would deschedule cannabis and legalize it federally, expunging the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and arrests.  It would also impose a 5% sales tax on cannabis, creating an Opportunity Trust Fund that would reinvest the money back into communities hit hardest by the war on drugs. States would still have to vote individually on legalization under the MORE Act.  Though Harris supports federal legalization, Biden remains against blanket legalization. But decriminalization and expungements are a far cry from his long-held anti-drug beliefs and policies. 

The Distinction Between Legalization and Decriminalization

"It's a step," Karen Seeb Goldstein, Executive Director of NORML of Florida told Wikileaf. "Decriminalization is not legalization. This is a point not understood by many consumers. Decriminalization allows for an individual to possess a certain, pre-determined amount of marijuana but creates no avenue for sale or purchase. It does not allow for home cultivation nor for retail cultivation," Seeb Goldstein said. "By decriminalizing marijuana use, the opportunity to educate regarding safe consumption then becomes a reality, with messaging to discourage underage use, as well as educating non-consumers as to its safety.  It’s certainly a step, a beginning to sensible marijuana policy, and may help lead to the transition to a legal adult-use market." According to Biden’s campaign website, “Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use. As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior conviction. And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”  In an interview with Revolt TV, Cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) said she thinks Harris will be effective in further pushing Biden toward federal legalization.  On the Republican side of the ballot, President Trump said that placing cannabis legalization initiatives on state ballots increases Democratic turnout in elections, telling GOP policymakers not to give them that advantage. 

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