In a new interview, Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) cited racial disparities in marijuana enforcement as an example of how there are effectively two separate systems of justice in the country for people of color and white people.
But while she made the accurate point during the interview with CNN, she neglected to discuss her own role in enforcing cannabis’s criminalization and campaigning against legalization as a California prosecutor.
“It does us no good if we want to solve those disparities to pretend they don’t exist,” Harris said. “You can look at, for example, marijuana offenses. Equal use between the white population and the black population, but black people are exponentially more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for those offenses.”
“I don’t think that most reasonable people who are paying attention to the facts would dispute that there are racial disparities and a system that has engaged in racism,” she said.
Harris has evolved significantly on marijuana policy over the past couple of years, but it remains the case that during her time as San Francisco’s district attorney, she oversaw thousands of misdemeanor and felony marijuana cases prosecuted by her office. It’s a history that both Democrats like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Republicans like White House counselor Kellyanne Conway have criticized.
Harris also coauthored a formal ballot argument urging voters to defeat a proposed California marijuana legalization measure while she was running to become state attorney general.
In any case, the senator today supports comprehensive marijuana reform and is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally legalize cannabis.
Advocates had hoped that a pro-legalization VP selection for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would push him in that direction, but he remains opposed to the broad policy change and instead supports decriminalizing cannabis possession, legalizing medical marijuana, expunging prior convictions and letting states set their own policies.
Harris indicated that she’s not going to proactively attempt to get Biden on board with legalization, but she did recently reiterate in another interview that cannabis decriminalization would be part of the administration’s focus if they’re elected.
A senior adviser to Biden also said recently that his administration would pursue decriminalization and automatic expungements for prior marijuana convictions if he is elected.
Earlier this year, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) established a criminal justice task force that issued various recommendations on policies they feel should be adopted. Advocates hoped the panel would push the former vice president to back legalization, but that didn’t materialize.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) platform committee rejected an amendment to make legalization a 2020 party plank. Some suspect this was because the panel didn’t want to endorse a policy that’s at odds with that of the nominee.
Democratic lawmakers have expressed confidence that Congress will deliver on legalization regardless of the Biden administration position on the issue.
House Democratic leadership recently announced that the chamber will vote its version of Harris’s comprehensive legalization bill later this month, setting the stage for a potential conflict with Biden if he’s asked to respond.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who recently won his primary battle against Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), said last month that legalization will be at the forefront of the congressional agenda in 2021 if Biden and Harris are elected. He also said during a separate interview in July that Congress will advance marijuana reform regardless of Biden’s stance.
Congressional Cannabis Caucus cochair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who was among the DNC platform committee members who surprisingly voted against the legalization amendment, said last week that the former vice president is going to need to evolve on marijuana policy and support legalization.
On the Republican end of the election, President Trump’s reelection campaign has been consistently attacking Biden over his record authoring punitive anti-drug laws in the Senate. They’ve cast him as an “architect” of the drug war while attempting to frame Trump as the criminal justice reform candidate. That’s despite the fact that the president’s administration has taken several hostile actions on the marijuana front that stop short of a full-scale crackdown on businesses in legalized states.
Last month, the president also urged Republicans not to place marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots out of concern that it will increase Democratic turnout in elections.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.