Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) announced on May 2, 2019 that he is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and he dropped out of the race on February 11, 2020.
The second Coloradan to enter the race, Bennet opposed his state’s 2012 marijuana legalization initiative but has since supported several wide-ranging cannabis bills in the Senate following voters’ approval of the measure. NORML gives the senator an “A” grade.
This piece was last updated on February 11, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race. It will continue to be updated on a rolling basis.
Legislation And Policy Actions
The only piece of cannabis-related legislation Bennet has been the chief sponsor for is a 2017 bill to ensure that industrial hemp farmers are able to access federally controlled water.
“This bipartisan legislation provided needed clarity for farmers in Colorado who want to grow industrial hemp legally,” Bennet said in a press release. “This is a necessary measure to fix conflicting federal policies that are slowing the implementation of the Farm Bill pilot program and stifling new business opportunities in rural Colorado.”
He has also signed on to over a dozen marijuana bills as a cosponsor, including the Marijuana Justice Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis, penalize states that continue to enforce marijuana laws in a discriminatory way and reinvest funds into communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Bennet also cosponsored the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act during the 115th and 116th Congresses. That legislation would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to protect states that have legalized cannabis from federal enforcement action.
Joined @SenCoryGardner to introduce STATES Act to provide more certainty to patients, businesses, & consumers in CO. Congress needs to join 21st century on marijuana regulation. This bill even more important since AG Sessions upended the will of our state by rescinding Cole Memo.
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) June 7, 2018
A bill from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) that would deschedule marijuana also received Bennet’s cosponsorship. And he attached himself to legislation that would protect medical marijuana states from federal intervention during the 114th Congress.
On three occasions, Bennet cosponsored bipartisan legislation meant to shield banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses. The House version of the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was approved by the House Financial Services Committee in March. The senator also joined other lawmakers in offering a 2016 amendment to an addiction recovery bill that was also meant to safeguard marijuana banking access.
Right now, legal marijuana businesses must operate on a cash basis—raising significant public safety concerns. The #SAFEBankingAct will give these businesses access to much-needed banking services. Congratulations to @RepPerlmutter on passing this important bill out of committee.
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) March 28, 2019
He offered a separate amendment that year for the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, which would have called for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to approve at least three additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
The majority of states have some form of reduced restrictions on #marijuana. In light of AG Sessions rescinding critical guidance for federal-state regulations, we're urging Senate Approps to respect state laws & alleviate confusion for local govs & biz: https://t.co/WN4McIxlYb
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) February 13, 2018
“Scientists in Colorado are eager to study marijuana to help advance its medicinal use and to promote a broader understanding of it,” Bennet said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the status quo doesn’t meet the needs of researchers across the country. Our amendment would help advance legitimate research, while also protecting against abuse.”
He’s also been an original cosponsor of legislation that would amend Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code to make it so marijuana businesses are able to make deductions and access tax credits that are available to other legitimate businesses. He supported that bill during the 114th, 115th and 116th Congress.
He said in a press release that lifting restrictions on hemp and its derivatives like CBD, which “can significantly reduce the number of seizures for kids with epilepsy.”
The senator has put his name on a slew of letters calling for cannabis reform.
In 2014, he cosigned a letter asking the Obama administration to provide clarity and guidance on federal marijuana policy so that states like Colorado could continue to operate their cannabis programs unencumbered.
“We believe it is appropriate for the White House to assume a central and coordinating role for this government-wide approach,” Bennet and three other senators wrote. “We therefore believe it is incumbent upon the Administration to work with all federal departments and agencies setting forth a clear, consistent and uniform interpretation and application of the CSA and other federal laws that could affect the industry.”
Bennet sent a letter to the head of the IRS that same year urging the department to stop imposing a 10 percent tax on marijuana businesses just because they pay employee withholding taxes in cash, which is due to their lack of access to traditional banking services.
He was also one of four senators who sent a letter to the country’s top federal financial regulators in 2016, requesting guidance for banks interested in taking on cannabis business accounts. Clearer directives would mean that “financial institutions will be more likely to serve these legal businesses and allow them to access our banking system without fearing repercussion,” they wrote.
After then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made remarks indicating that the federal government could crack down on legal cannabis states, Bennet and 10 other senators sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressing concerns about the comments and imploring the Justice Department not to use its resources to go after cannabis businesses.
He wrote to Sessions again in 2017 to request his assurance that industrial hemp manufacturers may access federally authorized financial institutions.
Bennet also rebuked Sessions for rescinding Obama era guidance that laid out federal priorities for marijuana enforcement. In a letter to the attorney general, the senator said his decision to revoke the so-called Cole memorandum “completely disregards the steps the state of Colorado has taken to regulate legal marijuana dispensaries and retail stores.”
Attorney General Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole Memorandum completely disregards the steps Colorado has taken to regulate legal #marijuana dispensaries and retail stores.
Read my letter to the Attorney General: https://t.co/qx0DvobMUi
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) January 5, 2018
In another letter, he asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to include language acknowledging the rights of states to legalize and regulate cannabis in light of the Cole memo rescission.
The majority of states have some form of reduced restrictions on #marijuana. In light of AG Sessions rescinding critical guidance for federal-state regulations, we're urging Senate Approps to respect state laws & alleviate confusion for local govs & biz: https://t.co/WN4McIxlYb
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) February 13, 2018
The annulment of the memo also prompted him to send a letter to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, asking the agency to maintain its 2014 guidance on banking access for the cannabis industry.
Following a report from BuzzFeed News that the Trump administration had established a task force meant to shore up negative data on marijuana, Bennet sent a letter to the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) expressing strong concern about the “intentional effort to mislead the American people.”
The Trump admin should be investing in scientific research on marijuana, not intentionally misleading the American people. Sent a letter urging the WH to stop misusing data for political purposes & instead work with states like Colorado on this issue.https://t.co/hXXo8NsZRE
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) August 30, 2018
The ONDCP in turn pledged to “be completely objective and dispassionate” in its research gathering process.
The senator sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2019 requesting that the department update its policies to ensure that hemp farmers are able to access federally controlled water.
After legalizing #hemp in the Farm Bill, we should be expanding opportunities for growers. Instead, the #TrumpShutdown has halted implementation & increased uncertainty for the industry. With @SenatorTester, calling on @usbr to update its policies: https://t.co/wWHDWpEQbq
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) January 17, 2019
In June, Bennet sent a letter to federal financial regulators, urging them to issue updated guidance on access to banking services for hemp businesses.
“Hemp cultivation and processing is already working to support rural communities across the country,” he wrote. “It is my hope that your agencies can work expeditiously and in a coordinated manner to issue guidance describing how financial institutions can offer financial products and services to hemp farmers and processors. Access to the banking system will provide certainty and much needed clarity for our nation’s hemp farmers and related businesses.”
Those agencies responded in letters shared exclusively with Marijuana Moment two months later.
On The Campaign Trail
On the day that he announced he was running for the Democratic nomination, Bennet told CBS News that he supported legalizing cannabis nationwide and also said “we need to change” the fact the people remain incarcerated for marijuana offenses that are subsequently made legal.
On a less serious note, he joked that he didn’t bring any cannabis with him to the interview.
“I think we’ve had a good opportunity for states to experiment with things—to make it better, to learn from each other,” Bennet said. “We’ve got to have our banking laws catch up to that. We’ve got to have our criminal justice laws catch up to that.”
He said Colorado’s experience legalizing and regulating marijuana sales demonstrated the importance of deterring underage use, and he highlighted the need to improve access to banking services for cannabis services.
“There’s not a lot of evidence that we’ve had more emergency room visits or more traffic accidents or more crime,” he added.
“Hemp farmers and processors have made clear that the lack of access to the banking system is a significant hurdle to growing their business,” Bennet said after federal regulators responded to a letter he sent requesting clarification on the issue. “We’ll keep working to remove this major barrier facing the hemp industry.”
Hemp farmers and processors have made clear that the lack of access to the banking system is a significant hurdle to growing their business.
We'll keep working to remove this major barrier facing the hemp industry. https://t.co/BrxyTF8Azy
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) August 16, 2019
He also cheered subsequent guidance from financial regulators on banking options for hemp businesses, citing his earlier letter.
The hemp industry is booming in CO & nationwide, yet hemp-related businesses continue to face significant hurdles due to the lack of access to the banking system.
New guidelines from financial regulators are a welcome first step in removing this barrier. https://t.co/4LTizfJdKe
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) December 4, 2019
His campaign said in a statement last year that Bennet’s prior experience as a school superintendent is partly why he’s committed to ensuring that “young people do not have access” to marijuana.
He also said that during his time in that position, he was worried about kids consuming cannabis edibles, but it’s “something we’ve been able to fix over time.”
Bennet spoke at a cannabis investor event hosted by The Arcview Group in October 2019.
The senator appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers in May and was asked to weigh in on a voter-approved measure in Denver to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. He joked that residents must have been under the impression that the city was “out of marijuana all of a sudden.”
“And by the way, we’re not out of marijuana in Colorado,” he said.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
While Bennet has supported a fair share of marijuana bills, he hasn’t frequently talked about the issue—at least not compared to some of his Democratic presidential opponents. His Twitter and Facebook feeds mostly promote the many letters he’s signed regarding cannabis policy.
For example, it’s not clear why Bennet—who also served as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools as well as chief of staff to then-Denver Mayor (and now-presidential candidate) John Hickenlooper (D)—opposed Amendment 64, Colorado’s legalization initiative. Some media reports noted his opposition but not his reasoning. His name is listed on the archived homepage of the opposition campaign, and the senator appeared at a debate where the issue was being discussed ahead of the 2012 vote.
What the senator does like talking about, however, is hemp.
He pledged to fight for hemp legalization while touring a cultivation facility in March 2018.
Industrial #hemp is an important & legitimate agricultural crop in Colorado, which is why I’m working in Washington to make this true across the country. Grateful to State Sen. Don Coram for his leadership on this issue & for showing us his greenhouse in Montrose today. pic.twitter.com/9gjoal998F
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) March 30, 2018
In June 2018, he spoke on the Senate floor about the hemp legalization provision of the Farm Bill, emphasizing that “hemp was widely grown in the United States throughout the mid-1800s” and the crop was used “in fabrics, wine and paper” until it was listed as a controlled substance.
“In Colorado, as is true across the country—I have talked to a lot of colleagues about this—we see hemp as a great opportunity to diversity our farms and manufacture high-margin products for the American people,” he said. “This could help drive incomes in rural parts of my state like Montrose Country, Colorado.”
After the agriculture legislation was signed into law, Bennet penned an editorial for The Colorado Sun discussing what it means for the state.
“Now that we’ve passed the Farm Bill and the president has signed it into law, hemp cultivation is fully legal for the first time in 50 years,” he wrote. “That means less uncertainty and more opportunity for our hemp farmers, small businesses, and manufacturers.”
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) December 12, 2018
This bipartisan #FarmBill will legalize hemp, conserve land and water, combat climate change & bolster economic security in rural communities. The finish line is in sight. Now Congress needs to do what’s right for Colorado & send this bill to @POTUS' desk by the end of the year. https://t.co/3fzUs1nEwb
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) December 11, 2018
Learning more about hemp has “given me the opportunity to see more of our state’s boundless creativity, determination, and entrepreneurship,” he said.
Bennet also discussed the Senate passage of the legislation in a December 2018 floor speech.
“We see hemp as an opportunity to diversify our farms and manufacture high-margin products for the American people,” he said. “Now Coloradans will be able to grow and manufacture hemp without a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them.”
During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in February, Bennet told the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that he looked forward to working with him on the development and implementation of hemp regulations.
Heading into the Senate Ag Hearing to question @SecretarySonny on implementing the #FarmBill. From legalizing #hemp to funding drought resilience, we have our work cut out for us. We must ensure the Trump administration stands ready to help Colorado implement the bill.
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) February 28, 2019
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that Bennet has publicly commented about any personal experience related to marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Bennet Presidency
Bennet, like many of his fellow contenders, has evolved significantly on the issue of marijuana over recent years. While he was opposed to legalization in 2012, he’s at this point cosponsored some of the most far-reaching cannabis reform bills in Congress, and he’s had a consistent focus on issues like banking access for marijuana businesses and hemp development.
Passing federal marijuana legalization might not be a top priority under a Bennet administration, but his record indicates that legal cannabis states would likely be safe from interference while members of Congress move ahead with considering broader reform efforts.
USDA Explains Why It’s Denying Hemp Farmers Access To Coronavirus Relief Benefits
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has explained its reasoning for denying hemp growers access to federal coronavirus relief.
In a notice set to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, the department said it was only providing benefits under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) for producers of commodities that experienced a five percent price decline between January and April. Their analysis found that hemp did not meet that threshold.
“While the national price did decrease during the first quarter of 2020, it was only a 1 percent decrease, which did not meet the 5 percent or greater decrease in price for CFAP eligibility,” USDA said.
“The national price is represented by the average of 5 regional published hemp biomass benchmark midpoints,” the notice states. “USDA has determined hemp is not eligible for CFAP due to not meeting the 5 percent or greater price decline, nationally.”
USDA first announced that hemp and several other crops would not be eligible for the program in May. While the agency initially maintained it was not even open to reevaluating that decision when it comes to hemp—a determination for only that crop and tobacco—it changed course after Marijuana Moment reported on the blanket exclusion. The department then said that it would at least accept evidence of price declines to reconsider eligibility.
USDA’s latest comments on hemp in the new Federal Register notice are part of a compilation of responses from the department to public feedback requesting aid for a variety of crops that were initially left out of the program.
CFAP is a $19 billion immediate relief program that “includes direct support to agricultural producers.” It was established as part of the first approved COVID-19 package passed by Congress.
Hemp industry advocates have expressed disappointment over USDA’s action, arguing that like any other industry, the hemp market is experiencing unique challenges amid the pandemic and shouldn’t be written off from this program.
They say because hemp is a newly legal crop, it’s more difficult to assess price declines based on traditional benchmarks.
The hemp exclusion by from USDA seemed unusual given that the department has seemingly made a significant effort to demonstrate that it is supportive of the industry and is actively working to ensure that the market has the resources it needs to expand since the crop’s federal legalization in 2018.
In the meantime, USDA is facing pressure from the top Democrat in the Senate and industry stakeholders to delay issuing final regulations for hemp until 2022, citing concerns about the challenges of state compliance that have arisen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The minority leader isn’t alone in requesting an extension; state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA this week.
USDA has since approved numerous state, territory and tribal plans—most recently for Maryland and an Indian tribe last week.
Two senators representing Oregon recently expressed concerns that USDA appears positioned to reinstate two particular provisions of its interim final rule that stakeholders view as especially problematic. Those requirements, which the department temporarily suspended enforcement of, mandate that labs that test hemp be registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration and that law enforcement be involved in disposal of the crop if it contains excess THC.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Trump, Asked About Harris’s Marijuana Record, Says ‘She Lied’
President Trump weighed in on Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) prior comments on marijuana shortly after she was announced as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate on Tuesday.
While the president declined to explicitly discuss the senator’s cannabis policy positions after being pressed by New York Post reporter Steve Nelson, he said “she lied” and “said things that were untrue” when presented with details about an interview she gave last year in which she discussed smoking marijuana in college.
Harris, a former California prosecutor who has been widely criticized by advocates over he role in convicting people over marijuana and past dismissive comments about reform efforts, told The Breakfast Club that during her college days, she consumed cannabis and listened to rappers Tupac and Snoop Dogg. But as some quickly pointed out, the timeline didn’t match, as those artists hadn’t yet released their debut albums while she was in school.
President Trump, in his first remarks on Kamala Harris as Joe Biden's VP pick, tells me about her past remarks on marijuana:
'Well, she lied. I mean, she said things that were untrue. She is a person that's told many, many stories that weren't true.'https://t.co/VhKjB9G4yM
— Steven Nelson (@stevennelson10) August 11, 2020
Harris later conceded that she “definitely was not clear about what I was listening to” while consuming cannabis.
Nelson asked the president at a White House press briefing if he felt Harris’s “past on marijuana” is “a liability.”
“Well, she lied. I mean, she said things that were untrue. She is a person that’s told many, many stories that weren’t true,” Trump said before pivoting to criticism about her position on topics like taxes, fracking, military funding and health care.
The reporter followed up to ask whether “supporters of marijuana legalization should vote for you rather than her because she convicted so many people in the past.”
“I can’t tell you what she’s voting for. I don’t think she knows what. I think Joe knows even less than she does,” the president said without directly addressing the question.
It’s somewhat rare for Trump to comment on marijuana issues, but it’s notable that when presented with the opportunity to seize on Harris’s criminal justice record, he declined. It’s especially interesting given that his reelection campaign has been attacking Biden as an “architect” of the drug war who authored punitive laws during his time in the Senate and framing the incumbent president as the criminal justice reform candidate.
A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, which makes it all the more curious that neither Trump nor Biden have sought to embrace the issue. Harris, for her part, is now the lead sponsor of a bill to federally legalize cannabis.
In any case, Nelson, the New York Post reporter, has made a habit of pressing Trump on cannabis policy. Last year, he cited studies about reduced opioid overdoses in states with legalization on the books and the president replied that “right now we are allowing states to make that decision” with regard to cannabis policy.
And when the reporter previously asked about Sen. Cory Gardner’s (R-CO) legislation to allow states to set their own marijuana policies, the president voiced tentative support, saying “I really do” favor the proposal.
“I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it,” he said at the time. “But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”
Both Trump and Biden are in favor of medical cannabis. And Biden has put forward plans to decriminalize marijuana possession, modestly reschedule the plant and facilitate expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
It remains to be seen whether Harris will push the former vice president to adopt a pro-legalization stance.
Where Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris Stands On Marijuana
Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his vice presidential running mate, the campaign announced on Tuesday.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s choice to join him on the ticket has evolved significantly on marijuana policy over her career. Though she coauthored an official voter guide argument opposing a California cannabis legalization measure as a prosecutor in 2010 and laughed in the face of a reporter who asked her about the issue in 2014, she went on to sponsor legislation to federally deschedule marijuana in 2019.
It remains to be seen whether she will push Biden in the same direction, as the former vice president has maintained opposition to ending marijuana prohibition despite supermajority support among Democrats.
While Harris, a former attorney general of California, made marijuana reform a major component of her criminal justice platform when she unsuccessfully ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, she’s been less vocal about the issue since dropping out in December 2019.
Convincing Biden to come around seems like a steep task in any case. Some advocates suspect that the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee voted against an amendment to add legalization as a 2020 party plank specifically because it’s at odds with the presumptive nominee’s agenda. Biden has drawn the line at decriminalizing marijuana possession, expunging past convictions, modest federal rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization and letting states set their own policies.
But it remains the case that Harris is the chief Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—a comprehensive piece of legalization legislation that includes various social equity and restorative justice provisions. Advocates will be watching to see if she continues to advocate for the reform move as she’s on-boarded to the Biden campaign.
The senator indicated in July that she doesn’t plan to push the presumptive presidential nominee on the issue.
Here’s a deeper look at where Harris stands on marijuana:
Legislation And Policy Actions
As noted, Harris’s most notable contribution with respect to cannabis reform legislation is her sponsorship of the MORE Act.
“Times have changed—marijuana should not be a crime,” she said when introducing the bill. “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 different far-reaching bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The legislation, the Marijuana Justice Act, 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 sponsored bills aimed at repairing land in California that’s been impacted by illicit cannabis grows and another piece of legislation 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.
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.”
Most Recent Comments And Actions Post-Presidential Campaign
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June, Harris discussed how a black man incarcerated over a marijuana offense died after contracting coronavirus. She stated that the case illustrated how “we have two systems of justice in America” based on race.
She and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) made a similar point in a letter to Attorney General William Barr that month.
Harris and two other senators wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in June, criticizing Republicans in the chamber for putting forth a policing reform bill that they argue is inadequate, in part because it does not ban no-knock raids in drug cases as House Democrats did in that chamber’s legislation.
The senator and 43 other members of Congress urged the Justice Department to investigate the death of 26-year-old black woman Breonna Taylor in a botched drug raid.
In April, she signed onto a letter to Senate leadership, imploring them to include language in coronavirus relief legislation that would allow marijuana businesses to access federal relief dollars just as companies in other industries can.
Marijuana small businesses employ more than 240,000 workers and should be allowed to access coronavirus relief funds too. My colleagues and I are pushing to ensure they’re not left out of Congress’s next relief package.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) April 24, 2020
“Marijuana small businesses employ more than 240,000 workers and should be allowed to access coronavirus relief funds too,” she tweeted. “My colleagues and I are pushing to ensure they’re not left out of Congress’s next relief package.”
Also that month, Harris and 10 other senators sent a letter to leadership in a key committee asking that they add a provision allowing cannabis businesses to access federal loan services in spending legislation.
When the governor of Illinois issued pardons for more than 11,000 people with cannabis convictions the day before legal sales started, the senator said she applauded the decision.
I applaud Illinois’ leadership on this issue. Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do.
Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.https://t.co/7M4of9Aikg
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 4, 2020
“Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do,” she said. “Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.”
Harris joined a group of senators in December 2019 in pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
Also that month, she and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers sent a letter to the Justice Department, requesting a policy change allowing researchers to access marijuana from state-legal dispensaries to improve studies on the plant’s benefits and risks.
On the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20, Harris tweeted that the Senate “must pass my Marijuana Opportunity Act to legalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge non-violent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.”
The Senate must pass my Marijuana Opportunity Act to legalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge non-violent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 20, 2020
Using loaded war on drugs rhetoric, she called President Trump a “drug pusher” for promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19.
On The Campaign Trail
During her presidential run, Harris released a criminal justice plan 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 president.
“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.
Congratulations to Canada on moving forward with the legalization of marijuana. As the world moves forward, we can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes of the past — it’s time to legalize marijuana at the federal level.https://t.co/BnUKR2fErF
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 22, 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 successful 2016 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 Biden-Harris Administration
Both Harris and Biden have evolved their positions on cannabis over time. Harris, a former prosecutor who campaigned against legalization in her own state has become the lead sponsor of a bill to federally legalize marijuana. Biden, who authored punitive drug legislation during his time as a senator, now supports modest cannabis reforms such as decriminalization and rescheduling, though he continue to oppose legalization. If the Democratic ticket gets elected, it remains to be seen to what extent the new administration would prioritize drug policy reform efforts and whether Harris would seek to encourage Biden to get behind full legalization.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.