Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) announced on January 21, 2019 that she was running for president in 2020. She dropped out on December 3. The senator has made criminal justice reform—including marijuana legalization—a main component of her platform.
Though the former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general hasn’t always been friendly to cannabis reform, Harris’s evolution on the issue has earned her an A grade from NORML.
This piece was last updated on December 5, 2019 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Harris sponsored the Senate version of a marijuana descheduling bill in July 2019 that also contains a series of social equity provisions such as providing for expungements of federal cannabis convictions and funding programs aimed at repairing the harms of prohibition enforcement.
“Times have changed—marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris said when introducing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. “We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives.
The senator first came out in support of legalization in 2018, adding her name to a far-reaching marijuana bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The legislation would remove cannabis from the list of federally banned substances and also penalize states where marijuana laws are enforced disproportionately against people of color. She also cosponsored the 2019 version of the bill.
The fact is, marijuana laws are not applied and enforced in the same way for all people. That’s why I've signed onto @CoryBooker’s Marijuana Justice Act to make marijuana legal at the federal level. It’s the smart thing to do. pic.twitter.com/JD5qqm0bfU
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 10, 2018
“Right now in this country people are being arrested, being prosecuted, and end up spending time in jail or prison all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal,” she said in a press release. “Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor and I know it as a senator.”
The senator cosponsored legislation aimed at repairing land in California that’s been impacted by illicit cannabis grows and another bill that would protect people with drug convictions from losing public housing.
Harris also signed a letter alongside Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that called on the Justice Department to stop blocking federal research into medical cannabis. In a separate sign-on letter, she joined her colleagues in requesting that lawmakers include protections for legal cannabis states in a spending bill.
The limited scope of her legislative track record on cannabis policy contrasts with other Democratic candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who have co-sponsored numerous bills to change federal marijuana laws.
It is also worth noting that Harris touted her office’s drug enforcement actions on her website while running for reelection as San Francisco district attorney. One page said she “closed legal loopholes that were allowing drug dealers to escape prosecution,” and another bragged she “increased convictions of drug dealers from 56% in 2003 to 74% in 2006.”
On The Campaign Trail
Harris released a criminal justice plan in September that says “it is past time to end the failed war on drugs, and it begins with legalizing marijuana.”
It’s time to end mass incarceration.
This includes legalizing marijuana, sentencing reforms, and abolishing private prisons. With the addition of job training and education, these actions will reduce crime and help build healthy communities.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) September 9, 2019
“It’s time to end mass incarceration,” she tweeted the same day. “This includes legalizing marijuana, sentencing reforms, and abolishing private prisons. With the addition of job training and education, these actions will reduce crime and help build healthy communities.”
After House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) announced a markup of the MORE Act in November, Harris wrote that the “War on Drugs was an abject failure” and that it’s “time to legalize marijuana and bring justice to people of color harmed by failed drug policies.”
The War on Drugs was an abject failure. It's time to legalize marijuana and bring justice to people of color harmed by failed drug policies.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
“Grateful for [Nadler’s] partnership on this issue,” she said. “I look forward to getting our bill one step closer to becoming law.”
After the committee approved the legislation, Harris wrote, “Not only do we need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, but we have to do it right and bring justice to communities of color” and said the MORE Act would accomplish that.
Not only do we need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, but we have to do it right and bring justice to communities of color.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) November 20, 2019
“Last week, my bill to legalize marijuana passed through House committee with bipartisan support,” she said. “I’ll say it again: we can’t legalize marijuana without addressing the injustices to people of color caused by the War on Drugs. My bill would do just that.”
Last week, my bill to legalize marijuana passed through House committee with bipartisan support.
I’ll say it again: we can't legalize marijuana without addressing the injustices to people of color caused by the War on Drugs. My bill would do just that.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) November 26, 2019
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another presidential candidate, criticized Harris’s prosecutorial record during a Democratic debate in August. In a follow-up interview, the senator evaded a question about the exchange, dismissing the critique by stating that “I’m obviously a top tier candidate and so I did expect that I would be on the stage and take hits tonight because there are a lot of people that are trying to make the stage for the next debate.”
The Bay Area News Group analyzed the marijuana prosecution record of Harris and said the findings demonstrate that her history “is more nuanced than those debate-stage confrontations indicate.”
Days after former Vice President Joe Biden, another presidential candidate, said he doesn’t support adult-use legalization because marijuana could be a gateway to more dangerous drugs, Harris tweeted “ marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized.”
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
The candidate said that cannabis legalization is an example of an issue she’s changed her mind on over time during an interview with NowThis.
‘We all will rise or fall together.’ — Sen. @KamalaHarris talks her big middle-class tax cut, her evolving cannabis stance, and the ‘Star Wars’ actor that left her starstruck
Watch Harris answer all of our '20 Questions for 2020.' pic.twitter.com/C7gFgTh7Q1
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) July 9, 2019
“The whole war on drugs was a complete failure,” she said during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “That approach is the gateway to America’s problem with mass incarceration.” She didn’t directly answer a question about what made her change her mind about cannabis reform from prior opposition to legalization, however.
“The criminalization of marijuana has been such a big part of what has fueled America’s system of mass incarceration,” she said.
‘The criminalization of marijuana has been such a big part of what has fueled America's system of mass incarceration’ — @KamalaHarris explains why she supports legalizing cannabis pic.twitter.com/kI8kuM0ld2
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) November 18, 2019
“There are thousands of people labeled felons for life for selling marijuana, while people out there are making a fortune from the marijuana industry,” the senator said. “This is an injustice, and as president, I’ll fix it.”
Prior to a House vote on legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses, Harris joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and fellow presidential contenders Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in expressing concern about approving cannabis bills that would largely benefit the industry without first passing comprehensive legalization legislation.
I agree. We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry.
That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry. https://t.co/M1Ri1iDKra
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) September 21, 2019
“We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry,” she said of the banking bill. “That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry.”
Following the vote in favor of the legislation, Harris tweeted that the reform is “important, but it’s not enough” and that we “need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and create paths for people of color to enter the legal marijuana industry.”
Last week, the House passed a bill to give marijuana businesses access to banking. That’s important, but it's not enough.
We need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and create paths for people of color to enter the legal marijuana industry.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) September 29, 2019
“We must ensure that as marijuana becomes a bigger business, we are committing ourselves to rebuilding communities that have been disproportionately targeted by failed drug policies and creating a diverse industry going forward,” she wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “If we fail to address a system that has historically been infected by racial bias, communities of color will continue to shoulder the devastating impacts of the past.”
“Times have changed. We must get smart on marijuana reform and give everyone the opportunity to reap the benefits that come from the legal marijuana industry,” she said.
After Illinois’s governor signed a marijuana legalization bill in June, Harris said she’s thankful that “states like Illinois are stepping up to correct the mistakes of our past” and that it’s “time to do the same at the federal level.”
Thankful states like Illinois are stepping up to correct the mistakes of our past. It’s time to do the same at the federal level. https://t.co/FHZuTYS8do
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) July 1, 2019
“As the marijuana industry continues to grow, there are people of color sitting behind bars for doing the exact same thing. It’s time we changed the system,” Harris said at a conference in April 2019, adding that those most impacted by the war on drugs should be prioritized when it comes to job opportunities in the legal industry.
As the marijuana industry continues to grow, there are people of color sitting behind bars for doing the exact same thing. It's time we changed the system. #SheThePeople2020 pic.twitter.com/7KotnCqihx
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 24, 2019
She also pledged to pardon some non-violent drug offenders if elected.
“We have to have the courage to recognize that there are a lot of folks who have been incarcerated who should not have been incarcerated and are still in prison because they were convicted under draconian laws that have incarcerated them… for what is essentially a public health issue,” she said.
In November, Harris discussed the need for industry equity and joked about businesses claiming that rubbing CBD lotion all over one’s body is a cure-all.
The senator said that drug addiction should be treated as a health issue and “not in jails and prisons,” adding that people with prior cannabis convictions should be “first in line” to get jobs in the legal market.
Harris also said she would implement “mental health care on demand and drug treatment on demand.”
“As President of the United States, one of the things I will implement is that we have mental health care on demand and drug treatment on demand.”
— Women's March (@womensmarch) April 24, 2019
“Countless Americans have felt the devastating ramifications of the War on Drugs—millions still remain incarcerated to this day,” Harris said in March. “This is a matter of public health, drug addiction, and economic security. I’ll say it again as I did in 2008: it was a complete failure.”
Countless Americans have felt the devastating ramifications of the War on Drugs — millions still remain incarcerated to this day. This is a matter of public health, drug addiction, and economic security. I’ll say it again as I did in 2008: it was a complete failure. pic.twitter.com/WLjk5dMp1b
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 9, 2019
“Our justice system continues to target and imprison young Black and Latinx Americans at high levels due to outdated, unjust marijuana laws,” she wrote. “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: we must legalize marijuana across the country.”
Our justice system continues to target and imprison young Black and Latinx Americans at high levels due to outdated, unjust marijuana laws. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: we must legalize marijuana across the country.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 26, 2019
She also discussed her views on marijuana and drug policy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in July.
“We have to treat it as a public health issue, specifically on the issue of marijuana,” Harris said. “We incarcerated whole entire populations, in particular young men of color, for possessing marijuana, and they ended up being felons for life on an issue that was literally—if you look at it just in terms of the disparities in terms of who was arrested, who was incarcerated and who was abusing—it was just wrong.”
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, which provided guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, she said the Justice Department shouldn’t be focused on “going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”
California needs federal support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations. What we don’t need is Jeff Sessions going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) January 5, 2018
Sessions should be focusing on issues like transnational criminal organizations and investigating and prosecuting human trafficking, not going after Californians who are using recreational and medicinal marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 8, 2018
“This administration and Jeff Sessions want to take us back to the dark ages,” Harris said at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference in 2017. “Sessions has threatened that the United States Department of Justice may renew its focus on marijuana use even as states like California, where it is legal.”
“Well, let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, dealing with issues like human trafficking—not going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana. Leave her alone.”
Harris hadn’t signed onto any marijuana reform legislation during the time she was going after Sessions. But she was using the battle to solicit signatures on a petition, a common tactic that politicians use to build email lists that they can later use for fundraising. Several House members pressured her and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to take stronger action by blocking Justice Department nominees until the Cole memo was restored.
The senator has repeatedly called for federal cannabis decriminalization, characterizing existing laws as “regressive policies” that have “ruined” many lives.
It’s time to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. It’s time to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 20, 2018
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level isn’t just the smart thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 14, 2018
“We need to decriminalize marijuana,” she said. “We have a problem of mass incarceration in our country. And let’s be clear, the war on drug was a failed war. It was misdirected.”
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level isn’t just a smart thing to do —it’s the right thing to do. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 11, 2018
She has also criticized the federal government for blocking military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.
“As states moves toward legalizing marijuana, let’s remember how many lives have been ruined because of our regressive policies,” Harris wrote. “We must focus on restorative justice.”
As states moves toward legalizing marijuana, let's remember how many lives have been ruined because of our regressive policies. We must focus on restorative justice.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 11, 2018
In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Harris said “I started my career as a baby prosecutor during the height of the crack epidemic—not all drugs are equal.”
“We have over-criminalized so many people, in particular poor youth and men of color, in communities across this country and we need to move it on the schedule,” she said. “Plus we need to start researching the effect of marijuana and we have not been able to do it because of where it is on the schedule.”
Harris congratulated Canada on its national legalization of marijuana in 2018.
Curiously, however, Harris also has a habit of referring to the war on drugs in the past tense—as if it isn’t the case that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. are still being arrested for cannabis and other drugs every year.
The war on drugs was an abject failure which affects all of our communities, especially those struggling. We can’t turn the clock back. https://t.co/5b2fH4aBap
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
The war on drugs was a failure. It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 21, 2017
“The war on drugs was a failure,” she said in 2017. “It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.”
She also accused Sessions of ” resuscitating” the drug war.
During her time as a prosecutor, Harris said she “saw the war on drugs up close, and let me tell you, the war on drugs was an abject failure.”
“It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment, it was bad for public safety, it was bad for budgets and our economy, and it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
The fact is, the War on Drugs did not work.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
“I’ll tell you what standing up for the people also means,” Harris said in 2015. “It means challenging the policy of mass incarceration by recognizing the war on drugs was a failure. And Democrats, on that point, let’s be clear also: now is the time to end the federal ban on medical marijuana. It is.”
During a speech announcing her presidential candidacy, Harris said, “Once and for all, we have got to call drug addiction what it is: a national, public health emergency. And what we don’t need is another war on drugs.”
Before Harris backed full legalization or federal decriminalization, she was supportive of rescheduling cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. Asked about the policy in 2016, she said “I would work to remove marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
“We need to reform our criminal justice system and changing the marijuana classification and drug sentencing laws are part of that effort.”
At a debate that year, she predicted that California voters would approve full legalization via a ballot measure (which they did) and reiterated that “we have to do is move [marijuana] from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
“We have incarcerated a large number of predominantly African American and Latino men in this country for possession and use at a very small scale of one of the least dangerous drugs in the schedule,” she said.
It is worth noting that Harris did not publicly endorse California’s cannabis legalization ballot initiative, though it is unknown how she personally voted on the measure.
Two years earlier, Harris told BuzzFeed that while she wasn’t ready to back the idea of legalization, she was “not opposed” to it and that there was “a certain inevitability about it.”
“It would be easier for me to say, ‘Let’s legalize it, let’s move on,’ and everybody would be happy. I believe that would be irresponsible of me as the top cop,” she said. “The detail of these things matters… I don’t have any moral opposition to it or anything like that. Half my family’s from Jamaica.”
But amid an earlier attempt to legalize marijuana in California through a 2010 initiative that appeared on the same ballot as Harris’s candidacy for state attorney general, she called the measure a “flawed public policy.” Her campaign manager said she “supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that” and that she “believes that drug selling harms communities.”
She also co-authored an argument against the measure that appeared in the state’s official ballot guide, stating that legalization “seriously compromises the safety of our communities, roadways, and workplaces.”
During a speech at The Commonwealth Club in 2010, Harris scoffed at a question about cannabis reform and said “I’m not a proponent of that, but I know that there are a lot of people who are. It’s not my issue.” At the same event she spoke about prosecuting people for selling drugs, saying, “I don’t feel sorry for you and I’m not going to forgive you for committing a crime.”
Harris was then asked about legalizing marijuana. She laughed at the idea. pic.twitter.com/7DWpFonRd5
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) July 2, 2019
Later, during her stint as attorney general, Harris received criticism from some marijuana policy reform advocates for not doing more to push back against federal prosecutors’ crackdown against locally approved California medical cannabis dispensaries during the first term of the Obama administration, though she did send a series of letters on the topic and made some public statements.
“The federal government is ill-equipped to be the sole arbiter of whether an individual or group is acting within the bounds of California’s medical marijuana laws when cultivating marijuana for medical purposes,” she wrote in a letter to the state’s U.S. attorneys.
She also called on state lawmakers to clarify California’s medical cannabis laws in a separate letter, which argued that reforms might ward off further federal intervention. “Without a substantive change to existing law, these irreconcilable interpretations of the law, and the resulting uncertainty for law enforcement and seriously ill patients, will persist,” she wrote.
“Californians overwhelmingly support the compassionate use of medical marijuana for the ill. We should all be troubled, however, by the proliferation of gangs and criminal enterprises that seek to exploit this law by illegally cultivating and trafficking marijuana,” she said in a statement around the same time. “While there are definite ambiguities in state law that must be resolved either by the state legislature or the courts, an overly broad federal enforcement campaign will make it more difficult for legitimate patients to access physician-recommended medicine in California. I urge the federal authorities in the state to adhere to the United States Department of Justice’s stated policy and focus their enforcement efforts on ‘significant traffickers of illegal drugs.’”
An analysis by the Washington Free Beacon determined that at least 1,560 people were sent to California state prisons for marijuana-related offenses during Harris’s tenure as attorney general.
In a 2008 book, Harris argued that nonviolent crimes “exact a huge toll on America’s communities” and that it’s “important to fight all crime.”
Kamala Harris's 2008 book "Smart on Crime": "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." pic.twitter.com/cjeo71Mu0x
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) July 5, 2019
“Drug crimes in particular exact a terrible toll and rob people young and old of hope,” she wrote.
Harris’s overall evolution on cannabis can be neatly summed up with two videos. The first shows her being asked about marijuana legalization in 2014 in light of her Republican opponent for attorney general supporting it. She dismissively laughs off the question.
The second shows Harris during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing pressing President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, on whether he’d use Justice Department funds to go after marijuana businesses acting in compliance with state law.
HARRIS: You do not intend to use fed resources to enforce fed marijuana law in states that have legalized?
BARR: “That’s right. But I think i’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we are going to have a federal system.” pic.twitter.com/owWekY9PqP
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2019
Harris even attempted to crack her own marijuana joke during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, though the late night host didn’t seem especially amused.
In her book, The Truths We Hold, she took her message in support of legalization a step further. Not only should we “legalize marijuana and regulate it,” but we should also “expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives,” Harris wrote.
“We also need to stop treating drug addiction like a public safety crisis instead of what it is: a public health crisis,” she also wrote, suggesting she may be in favor of broader drug policy reforms. “When someone is suffering from addiction, their situation is made worse, not better, by involvement in the criminal justice system.”
It’s past time America legalized marijuana and regulated it. But when doing so, we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 10, 2019
Harris’s presidential campaign website hosts a petition to legalize marijuana.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Harris revealed in a radio interview that she smoked marijuana in college while listening to Tupac and Snoop Dogg, saying, “It gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy in the world.”
— The Breakfast Club (@breakfastclubam) February 11, 2019
But that admission sparked a small controversy, with several people pointing out that neither artist had released their debut albums prior to Harris graduating. She conceded in November that she “ definitely was not clear about what I was listening to” while consuming cannabis.
In a separate interview, the senator said that she knows people who have benefited from using medical cannabis.
Marijuana Under A Harris Presidency
Five years ago, marijuana reform advocates might have felt apprehensive about cannabis policy under a Harris presidency. And they would’ve been reasonably skeptical about the prospect of her administration playing an active role in reform efforts. But the senator’s recent rhetoric and legislative action suggest she would likely be an ally of the legalization movement if elected to the Oval Office.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.