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What Happened In VP Harris’s Marijuana Meeting At The White House After Media Left The Room, According To An Activist Who Was There

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For Chris Goldstein, being invited to the White House to talk with Vice President Kamala Harris about his marijuana pardon last week represented a pivotal opportunity to do exactly what he was doing at the time of his arrest 10 years ago: advocate for cannabis legalization.

The Philadelphia-based activist had built a career around marijuana reform, and on Friday he found himself inside the hallowed Roosevelt Room in the company of Harris, two other pardon recipients, the governor of Kentucky, rapper Fat Joe and other officials discussing what clemency meant for him—and, importantly, why it’s crucial that the administration go further than the steps it has taken to date.

Few people would have expected Harris herself to take up that call for broader reform during the roundtable meeting that took place once the media was ushered out of the room following brief introductory remarks. Goldstein didn’t expect it either when the vice president declared that “we need to legalize marijuana,” reviving her pro-legalization position that had been muted for the past four years since she joined President Joe Biden’s ticket.

“Saying those words out loud—saying it in the Roosevelt Room—it did feel very meaningful,” Goldstein told Marijuana Moment. “It wasn’t lost on anyone there what was going on in that moment.”

While the vice president privately called for legalization, which followed her public remarks imploring the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reschedule marijuana “as quickly as possible,” one of the other more intriguing aspects of the meetings was Goldstein’s invite in the first place.

Harris’s office had been reaching out to pardon recipients for months before finally scheduling the meeting, and Goldstein made abundantly clear to her staff that he was an activist who would not shy away from pointing out the inadequacies of simply moving cannabis to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended.

That the vice president’s office moved forward with his invite seemed to signal a willingness to engage in the legalization conversation.

“The president and vice president work very closely together. This event was coordinated at the White House in the Roosevelt Room. I think that is fully coordinated and calculated,” Goldstein said. “It’s a strategic mode—and it’s a positive strategic message to send at the right time.”

While the purpose of Friday’s meeting was focused on the president’s clemency action—which Biden historically touted in his State of the Union address this month—the event seemed to be the latest example of the administration’s efforts to appeal to voters ahead of the November election by promoting an issue with bipartisan popularity, especially among critical young voters.

But for Goldstein, last week’s event was also deeply personal. The grassroots activist affiliated with NORML who was arrested and convicted for possessing marijuana while advocating for legalization on federal land made it all the way to the White House to tell his story and deliver his message directly to the second-highest official in the country.

Marijuana Moment spoke with Goldstein about the meeting, the vice president’s closed-door comments and more on Friday afternoon shortly after he left the White House. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Marijuana Moment: What can you say about the conversations that took place during the private roundtable?

Chris Goldstein: As soon as the doors closed, the vice president made some more colloquial remarks. In fact, Fat Joe and the vice president started a dialogue on a lot of things. The moment where she raised her hands in the air and said, “we need to legalize marijuana”—saying those words out loud, saying it in the Roosevelt Room, it did feel very meaningful, and it wasn’t lost on anyone there what was going on in that moment.

MM: Harris sponsored a legalization bill in the Senate, but hasn’t pushed for reform like that since joining the Biden ticket. What does that say to you?

CG: The president  and vice president work very closely together. This event was coordinated at the White House in the Roosevelt Room. I think that is fully coordinated and calculated. It’s a strategic mode. And it’s a positive strategic message to send at the right time.

I think that the president and vice president have done the executive actions that we’ve all been waiting for. But we have seen a lot of missteps in messaging, and today was some very direct and clear messaging.

MM: Did you get the sense that we might begin to hear more of this pro-legalization messaging from the White House in public?

CG: Absolutely. And again, this was is a closed-door discussion, but it was for the internal [White House] media team. I’m sure that clip will be one of the things that they’re going to share. And it certainly was one of the moments that we would like to see come out of that room first.

I don’t think that they’re going to be shy to do it. I think that the the concept of the closed-door room was to give us the comfort zone to have a discussion, but I don’t think that they were trying to keep any of the discussion private, per se.

MM: How did it go with the other participants at the meeting?

CG: First, I met the other people who were involved and we were staged together. So I got to meet Andy [Beshear], the governor of Kentucky—that’s how he introduces himself and, quite frankly, he was really impressive in person. He highlighted his own success stories in Kentucky and what he’s been doing on clemency there. So it was interesting to meet the governor of Kentucky—I’m not sure that in any other context I might have.

Fat Joe—I did not expect to be meeting, you know, a really famous rapper who’s got like 6 million followers on Instagram, I’ve got like 600. So that was really interesting. And I have to say, he brought a really interesting vibe to the whole thing, and I have nothing but respect for the guy. He really handled that situation admirably and really advanced our whole discussion. We were glad to have him there.

Before going in and before they told us Fat Joe was going to be there, I was worried about being too buttoned up and boring today. With him there, it made a vibe that made everybody, including Vice President Harris, much more comfortable and it was a much more colloquial discussion.

MM: What stood out to you about the discussion?

CG: The theme of the event was clemency and criminal justice reform. I think what was interesting today is that we went further than saying marijuana—that they were talking about drug war general issues. And you bring up Vice President Harris’s history on this. I think, today, she brought up her own history, too.

I think that that’s something that people have wanted to hear her explain and talk about. And I think that what I heard today isn’t just what people want to hear, but I think it’s a genuine and very sincere story. I don’t want to go too far into it, but for Vice President Harris’s generation, I think the drug war policies, they might want to try and make some corrective action on it.

MM: It did seem like the vice president’s mention of her record as a prosecutor—as part of the drug war system—was notable.

CG: Yeah, and it was a political role, too, because the positions that she held as a prosecutor were elected positions. I think that’s important. She might have done it not just to be a prosecutor, but to be a politician. And I think that, in hindsight, enforcing those kinds of policies may inspire her to do some reforms today. It wasn’t just Vice President Harris, this was President Biden, this was a lot of other people involved with every presidential administration, this a lot of people in Congress.

I mean, honestly, there was a generation of drug warriors that have now grown up and now they’re in the White House and in Congress and in the Senate, and they’re looking back at their histories and saying, ‘Okay, what can we do now instead?’

MM: How did Harris’s point about marijuana legalization come about?

CG: There was a pause in a moment, and it was in context of the discussion of where we’re going with federal policy. You know, she’s talking about the scheduling review. Schedule III is not legalization. Schedule III is not what our community, not what the cannabis community and not what the voting public would recognize as legalization.

Is there any state that would have ever voted to legalize Schedule III marijuana? No, that would have never flown with voters. So voters have gone way beyond Schedule III at the state level. That’s why the idea that that’s an incremental reform we can accept at the federal level really just shouldn’t be in the picture because we’re way past that.

MM: Was there any closed-door discussion about the timeline for the completion of the scheduling review?

CG: No, they seem to be, like us, waiting for the DEA to move. They don’t have an influence on what action or when the DEA could act. I think we’ve been joking around here at NORML that the DEA took like eight years [on prior drug scheduling reviews]. They run themselves out of the clock on any on any request, really, from a reasonable drug policy perspective.

But again, the White House can’t really say. I do have to say that this is the first time the White House has asked for a scheduling review in the right manner so we don’t have a context for how long they might be able to run out the clock.

We all in our mind have a political deadline of November. But the DEA doesn’t have a political deadline like that. They’re not up for election. So, there’s nothing in the rules that say they have to issue it by a certain time. One does feel that that if the president does pursue these executive actions and the DEA doesn’t do anything, you’d hate to presume what could happen. That would just be like guesswork.

Let me put it this way: This administration has been following the rules. They have been following the process to try and address marijuana laws with executive action. They’ve done everything that we’ve asked any White House to try for the last 15 years. And the Schedule III thing and where the DEA is at right now, I really do see that as due diligence. I don’t see that as them waiting out a final answer. I see them waiting out an answer.

If the DEA comes back with a defense of Schedule I and is in conflict with HHS, what does the White House do, then? The answer there, you’re gonna have to get engaged somehow or let prohibition just continue.

MM: The vice president’s comments directing DEA to move “quickly” on the scheduling review, she almost seemed to be expressing frustration with the timing or hinting at some tension with DEA in line with what The Wall Street Journal reported recently. Did you get that impression?

CG: Let me put it this way: She can create a sense of urgency on the DEA issuing their decision. Again, I think that the sense of urgency was not lost. I don’t think it’s a secret. And I do think that they want a definitive answer. HHS didn’t take that long to come up with their report, either. I have to point that out. And that was also a new process for HHS. They use like a new two-step review. I do think that it is interesting.

When the president has challenged these authorities to answer these questions, HHS has at least adapted and responded. We don’t know what the DEA is doing. It’s Secret Squirrel over there. There’s no transparency to that process, either. And, in fact, that’s one of the big problems with it. But again, I see this process with the DEA right now as due diligence.

The president still has the ability to send another letter to HHS directing descheduling and that is completely different review by both agencies.

MM: What other messages did you deliver to the vice president?

CG: I told her that the power of pardons from the White House was huge for people like me to get it. But as an activist, what I’ve done is print [the pardon certificate] out and put it in people’s hands. And it’s true—I mean, I have to tell you, it’s like doing a bit of street magic. There’s a sense of awe that comes across people’s face when they realize you’re reading a presidential pardon.

I tried to convey to her is that the power of the pardon isn’t just on those of us who get it. We take it back to our whole community. The people who see it when we print it out or when we talk about it, it really is something that affects people. Street magic inspires awe. It’s a universal emotion, a positive emotion, and I’ve got to say I have watched that happen with this pardon.

It is the best piece of street magic I’ve ever been able to do. I didn’t have my business card when I showed up at Congress yesterday, I used my pardon instead and it totally worked. And every staffer I put it in the hands of, you could see the smile, ear-to-ear. I’m not kidding.

I tried to convey to Vice President Harris that visceral reality—the good will of that I’ve seen really happen from that pardon. And so she told me that she really felt that, that’s the power of the pardon, that she heard that back. So it was nice to hear that from the vice president.

MM: It would’ve been hard to believe at the time of your arrest that you’d eventually find yourself invited to the White House to discuss clemency with the executive office. But you did have one person who predicted that at the time, right?

CG: Oh yeah, my lawyer was Bill Buckman. He was very involved with the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Bill was a world-recognized civil rights attorney. When Bill took on my case, pro bono, and I got convicted, he was exasperated. He could not believe that the judge did what he did. He couldn’t believe that we were being treated this way.

And when I got convicted and sentenced, he tried to reassure me. He said, “Chris, this was just wrong. And one day, you’re gonna get a pardon for this, you’re going to end up talking about this at the White House. This is going to turn around.”

He was fighting for an appeal for me. He thought we would win that, too, but he passed away one year into my two years of probation. I never thought I’d have to serve every day, but since Bill passed away so that’s what I had to do. But he knew in some way. He knew before I could even really realize that I’d be where I am today.

It is a community that got me here, not myself. I mean, the smartest person in the room is not me, it’s the team. And the good thing about a grassroots community is that there’s always a great team to work with. It’s not always there. There’s a lot of turnover. And, believe me, there’s a lot of infighting in any political group. Not everybody gets along.

But in going into the White House over the last couple of weeks, I tried to bring everybody I could with me, and I went around to talk with as many advocacy organizations as possible to make sure that I was conveying the message not just from my own story, but from our community to the White House. And I feel like I pulled that off in one day.

But to the same extent, the greatest thing about the meeting today was it did not feel like a one-time event. There were some words expressed about doing more things like this. The White House wants to engage on this policy consistently. And that’s that’s clemency, criminal justice, marijuana legalization. They want to be right in it. And right now, the White House has an important role to play and they’re doing it.

MM: President Biden remains opposed to legalization. Did his position come up?

CG: No. Well, [Vice President Harris] talked about about Joe Biden’s successes on clemency. And that was the theme in which she talked about the president’s work.

But, again, I think what’s interesting is that she really went out there on her own today and said, ‘We need to legalize marijuana.’

And we’ve seen the vice president really taking a lot of good, strong positions lately. I think that’s a good one to take. It’s not a new one for her, as you point out, but it’s a new setting for her to say it and it is, in many ways, a historic setting for us.

As White House Hosts Marijuana Pardon Recipients, It’s Time For Bolder Action From Biden (Op-Ed)

Photo courtesy of Chris Goldstein.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based managing editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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