Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said on Monday that a Biden administration would not be taking incremental half-steps toward criminal justice reform if elected—but she also touted marijuana policies they would pursue that advocates argue fit that exact description.
The senator said during a virtual town hall event that, under a Biden-Harris administration, “we will decriminalize the use of marijuana and automatically expunge all marijuana use convictions and incarceration for drug use alone.”
“This is no time—from, I think, our collective perspective—this is no time for half-steppin’,” she added. “This is no time for incrementalism. We need to deal with the system, and there needs to be significant change in the design of the system so that we can support working people, so that we can fight for the dignity of people, so that we can make sure that all people have equal access to opportunity and to justice.”
Of course, when it comes to cannabis reform, simply removing criminal penalties for marijuana consumption and expunging prior records is widely considered by advocates as a half-step. Actually legalizing cannabis at the federal level would be closer to a full step, and it’s a policy change that Harris advocated for prior to joining the Biden campaign.
“While I applaud Kamala Harris’s focus on criminal justice reform, and in particular expungement and decriminalization of cannabis offenses at the federal level, true reform will require more,” Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment.
“Removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession is an important first step. But as we have seen in states around the U.S., decriminalization alone will not stop the arrest and persecution of people of color—or so many others touched by the war on cannabis,” he said. “It is only when we take a comprehensive approach through the framework of legalization that can we move away from the cycle of abuse.”
Harris has evolved significantly on marijuana policy over the past couple of years. 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.
In any case, the senator today is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally legalize cannabis. House Democratic leadership recently announced that the chamber will vote on its version of that legislation next week, setting the stage for a potential conflict with Biden if he’s asked to respond.
In the weeks since she was announced as Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Harris has made an effort to highlight marijuana policy reform, but she’s so far declined to voice additional support for legalization—a policy at odds with that of the former vice president. Biden instead supports decriminalizing cannabis possession, legalizing medical marijuana, expunging prior convictions and letting states set their own policies.
Harris last week cited racial disparities in cannabis enforcement as an example of how there are effectively two separate systems of justice in the country for people of color and white people. However, she neglected to discuss her own role in enforcing marijuana’s criminalization and campaigning against legalization as a California prosecutor.
Advocates had hoped that a pro-legalization VP selection for Biden would push him in that direction, but Harris indicated that she’s not going to proactively attempt to get him on board with legalization.
She recently reiterated in a separate interview that simple 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.
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 month 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.