Now that the Democratic presidential nominee has chosen a running mate, people are looking more closely at how the two will collide on policy and platform. During the Democratic debates before their partnership, Kamala Harris vehemently disagreed with Biden on certain topics, taking his viewpoints to task in public verbal brawls. Some have speculated his platform may lean further left with her by his side. So where does that leave the chance for marijuana legalization? When it comes to the legalization of marijuana at the federal level, Joe Biden has long been firm on his stance against it. He’s asserted that he wants more studies done on the long-term effects of cannabis use before he’ll consider making it legal nationwide as a recreational product. As for Kamala Harris, her attitude toward cannabis has changed several times over the years. In the past decade, she’s gone from staunch opposition to firm support. Though she’s been vocal about decriminalization and federal legalization in recent years, her record leaves people unconvinced that any change will happen soon – especially if it would require convincing Biden to soften his policy stance.
Initial Opposition as District Attorney
Between 2008 and 2020, Harris has nearly pulled a 180 on marijuana. In her book, Smart on Crime, released in 2008, Harris wrote, "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." In 2010, Harris co-authored an opposition guide advising voters not to legalize cannabis in California. She was the San Francisco District Attorney at the time, and a candidate for the state Attorney General. She said she supported medical marijuana use, but was firmly against Proposition 19, also called the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. That bill, pushed to allow local governments to regulate and tax recreational marijuana, failed to pass that year, falling 3.5% short in the vote. Some believe Harris’ penmanship may have had something to do with that result. Her campaign manager, Brian Brokaw, explained at the time that Harris viewed Proposition 19 as a public safety issue. “Spending two decades in courtrooms, Harris believes that drug selling harms communities. Harris supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that.”
Record as Attorney General
In an overview of her record as California’s Attorney General, the Washington Free Beacon wrote, “Kamala Harris packed California prisons with pot peddlers.” The review says under Harris’ administration between 2011 and 2016, at least 1,560 people were incarcerated in state prisons for marijuana offenses. The Beacon points out that number is, if anything, an undercount. Though possession of an ounce or less of marijuana has been decriminalized in California since 1975, selling cannabis was still banned during Harris’ time as Attorney General. In 2014, video shows Harris laughing when a reporter asked whether she’d support legalization, as her Republican opponent in that year’s vote for California Attorney General did. Gold told reporters marijuana had a good taxable base and could provide funding for education and for treatment of drug and alcohol addictions. Harris responded to the question by saying her competitor was entitled to his opinion and didn’t elaborate further.
Evolution as Senator and Democratic Leadership Candidate
Four years later, Kamala Harris seems to switch gears in her views of marijuana use. In 2018, she co-signed Senator Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act. The bill would fully legalize marijuana on the federal level and expunge past convictions for the use or possession of marijuana. The Marijuana Justice Act went hand in hand with a bill from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who hoped to remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances. From there, she gradually became more and more supportive of legalization. In 2015, Harris asked for an end to the federal ban on medical marijuana while she spoke at a California Democrats convention. However, she didn’t mention her views on recreational use of the drug. In 2016, after she was elected into congress, she spoke out against the prosecution of marijuana crimes. “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.” Harris tweeted an explanation of her support in May 2018, saying, “The fact is, marijuana laws are not applied and enforced in the same way for all people.” Attached to that tweet was a video, where Harris says, “It’s the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor, I know it as a senator, and I know it when we just look at what we want as a country and where we need to be instead of where we’ve been. Let’s get smart.” She continues, “African Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rates as whites but are approximately 4 times more likely to be arrested for possession. That’s just not fair. We need to change the system.” In 2019, Harris said in an interview on a radio show called The Breakfast Club that she’d smoked pot in college. “I believe we need to legalize marijuana… We need to move it on the Schedule so that we can research the impact of weed on a developing brain.” That happens to be in line with what Joe Biden has been saying for years. The interviewer asks Harris whether she’s smoked before, and she admitted to having a joint in college. “I believe it gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy in the world.” Harris says her main reason for supporting legalization is that young men of color have been disproportionately incarcerated for the use of cannabis. As for how her views will impact Joe Biden’s stance on the matter, that remains to be seen. The Democratic National Committee voted down an amendment that hoped to add cannabis legalization to the 2020 party platform. Many suspect that’s because it’s at odds at what Biden has been pushing, which draws the line at decriminalization of marijuana possession. Biden would prefer to leave states to set their own regulations and tax policies.