On Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) announced that she’s running for president in 2020. The latest in a growing list of candidates hoping to take on President Donald Trump, Harris 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.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Harris 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.
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.”
But beyond the Marijuana Justice Act, Harris has only co-sponsored one other cannabis-related bill: the SAFE Banking Act, which would protect banks that work with marijuana businesses from federal punishment.
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.”
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
While I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs, we need to do the smart thing, the right thing, and finally decriminalize marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
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.”
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.
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
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.
Congressional Committee Asks JUUL For Documents On Marijuana Partnerships
Is the e-cigarette company JUUL planning on expanding its stake in the marijuana industry?
That’s one question the chair of a congressional subcommittee asked the company in a letter concerning JUUL’s role in the “youth e-cigarette epidemic” earlier this month.
Lawmakers have frequently criticized JUUL for making products—specifically flavored e-cigarette cartridges—that allegedly appeal to young people at a time when rates of cigarette use are steadily declining. But while JUUL was developed by the cannabis vaporizer company PAX, it hasn’t announced plans to further partner with marijuana companies.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, apparently sees the possibility on the horizon, though.
In a letter sent to JUUL on June 7, the congressman said his panel was investigating youth e-cigarette usage and, specifically, how the company’s marketing tactics might be exacerbating the issue. He requested documents on everything from clinical trials on how JUUL devices divert people away from traditional cigarettes to communications on the company’s rationale for the nicotine concentration of JUUL pods.
Tucked within the extensive request is a question about potential marijuana partnerships. Krishnamoorthi asked for:
“All documents, including memoranda and communications, referring or relating to proposals, plans, and/or intended partnerships or collaborations between JUUL and any cannabis-related companies, including but not limited to Cronos Group.”
It’s not clear where the Cronos-specific mention comes from, but the company has perviously caught the interest of the tobacco industry. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes, Altria Group, invested almost $2 billion in the Canada-based cannabis company in December. Two weeks later, Altria invested $13 billion in JUUL.
Marijuana Moment reached out to JUUL, Cronos and Krishnamoorthi’s office for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
If a partnership does emerge, it would likely be met with some controversy, as opponents and proponents of marijuana reform alike have long expressed concern that the tobacco industry would take over the cannabis market and commercialize it in a way that mirrors how it peddled cigarettes.
Of course, given that tobacco use is declining and tobacco companies generally have the infrastructure that would make a pivot to cannabis relatively simple, such a partnership would not be especially surprising.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made the case several times that tobacco farmers in his state could leverage the federal legalization of industrial hemp and its derivatives by growing the crop to offset profit losses from declining tobacco sales.
Read Rep. Krishnamoorthi’s full letter to JUUL below:
2019-06-07.Krishnamoorthi t… by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
New York Lawmakers Might Actually Vote On Marijuana Legalization This Week
With just days left before the end of the legislative session, efforts to legalize marijuana in New York have been revived, with a possible vote this coming week.
Though momentum to pass a legalization measure seemed to largely die off after lawmakers in neighboring New Jersey announced they wouldn’t move forward with plans to end cannabis prohibition through the legislature, advocates are increasingly optimistic that a deal in the Empire State is imminent.
Democratic members in both the Senate and Assembly held conferences last week to discuss details of the legislation. Spectrum News reported that the meetings went well, with members indicating that there’s support for the measure.
That’s just one of several positive signs that a proposal many observers thought was dead for the year has new life.
On Saturday and Sunday, staff for legislative leaders from both chambers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) met to negotiate provisions of a revised legalization plan.
Source says three way talks on marijuana taking place today in Albany among staff of two legislative leaders and @NYGovCuomo
Final bill expected to be posted Sunday night
— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) June 15, 2019
On Wednesday, an earlier Senate version of the bill was assigned “same as” status in the Assembly version. That means the current proposals in each chamber lined up with identical language and is considered to be an indicator that the legislation could pass.
— Mike Baggerman (@MikeBaggerman) June 14, 2019
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said on Friday that his party has yet to determine whether they’ll bring the bill to the floor, but he added that “I think there is support in the conference.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters his conference hasn't made a decision yet on whether to put a bill legalizing marijuana on the floor for a vote.
"We haven't made a final decision yet, but I think there is support in the conference," he said.
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) June 14, 2019
He also characterized the window of time until the end of the session on Wednesday as “an eternity.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says there is no final determination on a marijuana legalization bill, but notes there is “an eternity” between now and the end of session on Wednesday.
— Nick Reisman (@NickReisman) June 14, 2019
Cuomo, who said late last month that passing legalization remains a top 10 priority, has said that lawmakers who fail to approve items on his agenda, including ending cannabis prohibition, “should all be primaried, because that is a failure of a basic progressive agenda.”
On the flip side, the chairman of New York’s Democratic Party said earlier this month that if the Senate approves the legalization bill, they run to risk of alienating voters in certain areas such as Long Island and upstate New York. But that argument neglects to account for recent polling that shows voters in those regions strongly support legalization.
Notably, the measure’s most vocal opponents with the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana have been sending email blasts in recent days urging their supports to call senators and voice opposition to the bill, giving the impression that the group is anticipating a vote.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), sponsor of the legalization legislation, seemed to confirm that suspicion on Friday, stating that after “conversations with my co-sponsor and colleague in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory.”
.@CPeoplesStokes on status of marijuana legislation: "After conversations with my co-sponsor and colleague in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory."
— Yancey Roy (@YanceyRoy) June 14, 2019
But despite that confidence, the fate of legalization in New York remains murky. An analysis earlier this month found that legalization was two votes short of a needed majority in the Senate.
Meanwhile, a number of key elected officials are calling on the governor and lawmakers to not only push legalization over the finish line but to include certain key provisions in the final legislation.
State Attorney General Letitia James (D) sent a letter urging that the bill expunge prior cannabis records.
“Before we create a booming business for legal marijuana, we must provide relief to those individuals that have paid much more to society than what was due,” she wrote.
Legalizing marijuana is a racial & criminal justice imperative. If we truly want a more fair system, we must ensure that those who were unjustly harmed be given a clean slate.
That means providing full expungement for those convicted for non-violent marijuana offenses. https://t.co/jt8lEkrnz7
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) June 16, 2019
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), a 2020 presidential candidate, also pushed for expungements and said in a Twitter thread that legalization should “empower local business and not big corporations.”
With only a few days left this session in Albany, we have a small window to legalize marijuana the RIGHT way.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) June 16, 2019
We can right the wrongs of the past. We can bring fairness to communities of color. We can empower local business and not big corporations.
We have to keep the focus and bring this home.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) June 16, 2019
And the Manhattan and Albany County district attorneys co-authored an op-ed calling leaders to “correct staggering inequities and promote public safety by passing” legalization.
DA Vance, @AlbanyCountyDA: "In the final days of session, Gov. Cuomo and state legislators must correct staggering inequities and promote public safety by passing the Marijuana Revenue and Taxation Act." #MarijuanaJustice ⚖️ @DrugPolicyOrg https://t.co/ESuMjAR03q
— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) June 14, 2019
The Buffalo News reported on Sunday afternoon that there were still a number of outstanding issues left to be settled between lawmakers, including whether or not home cultivation of cannabis would be allowed, how tax revenue would be allocated and whether localities would have to proactively opt in to allowing marijuana businesses or if there would instead be an opt out provision for those wanting to ban cannabis commerce.
Marijuana Update: Talks continue in Albany at this hour, with one insider describing it’s chances as “50/50.”
At issue is where the revenue from legalization would go.
Source says @NYGovCuomo and legislature disagree on who is most in need.
Others say Cuomo wants his bill only.
— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) June 17, 2019
The session ends on Wednesday, and so far no vote has been scheduled in either chamber.
Meanwhile, lawmakers early on Monday morning filed what appears to be backup legislation to expand the decriminalization of marijuana and to provide a process to expunge or vacate prior cannabis convictions. And others support putting legalization on the ballot through a referendum that voters can decide on.
The situation is very fluid, and over the next few days advocates will be stepping up the push for action in Albany. On Sunday, they held a rally outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office.
How many NY dads have been criminalized & separated from kids bc of broken pot laws?
— VOCAL-NY (@VOCALNewYork) June 16, 2019
This post has been updated to include the latest developments as well as comment from a number of elected officials.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program
The governor of Texas signed a bill into law on Friday that significantly expands the state’s medical cannabis program.
The legislation, which was overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers last month, adds multiple medical conditions to the list of disorders that qualify patients of low-THC marijuana. Currently only patients with intractable epilepsy qualify under the CBD-focused program.
New qualifying conditions include epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, autism, spasticity and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed the bill with little fanfare.
Reform advocates said the legislation is a big step in the right direction, even though it doesn’t go as far as they’d hoped. A 0.5 THC cap on marijuana products remained in the bill, for example, and a section that would have established a research program to study the therapeutic potential of cannabis was removed.
“Cannabis is effective medicine for many patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “HB 3703 represents a positive step toward a functional medical cannabis program, but sadly, it still leaves behind millions of Texas families that could benefit from legal access.”
Also this legislative session, the House of Representatives approved bills to more comprehensively expand the medical cannabis program and to decriminalize marijuana possession, but they died in the Senate.
Abbott signed a hemp legalization bill earlier this week.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.