Grading the Democratic Presidential Candidates on Marijuana: Kamala Harris

kamala harris marijuana cannabis

Every Saturday, we have been running a series of blog posts that take a close look at each of the Democratic Party candidates for President in 2020. We examine each candidate’s historic approach to marijuana law and policy, and we also canvas their current respective stances on marijuana.

Over the past two weeks, we covered Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Today, we turn to Kamala Harris, the Senator from California and former state Attorney General.

Grade: B

Stance on marijuana: Senator Kamala Harris wants to legalize marijuana as part of her criminal justice reform platform. As stated on her website:

Kamala will take action to legalize marijuana, further reform federal sentencing laws, end private prisons and the profiting off of people in prison, and push states to prioritize treatment and rehabilitation for drug offenses.”

On social media, Harris has not only called for legalizing marijuana, but also for expunging marijuana offenses from criminal records.

History with marijuana legislation: Harris’ website gives the impression that she has for a long time tirelessly advocated for criminal justice reform, first as an attorney, in her roles as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California, and then as a Senator. Now as a presidential candidate, Harris has openly advocated for legalizing marijuana as a criminal justice reform issue. Specifically, she cites the disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color facing marijuana-related charges.

Harris’ pro-legalization stance, however, is actually a recent development and we have criticized Harris on this blog in the past. In 2010, Harris opposed a measure in California that would have legalized marijuana. At that time, she only supported legalization of medical marijuana because she believed “that drug selling harms communities.” Even in 2014, Harris opposed legalization. In 2015, however, Harris’ position seemed to have shifted as she advocated for federal decriminalization of marijuana at the DNC. This change in rhetoric coincided with her announcement that she would run for Senate earlier that year.

As a Senator, Harris’ rhetoric has become increasingly pro-legalization. Most recently, in 2018 Harris co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act which would legalize marijuana if passed. Her apparent pro-legalization stance, however, hasn’t always translated into legislative action. Her recent co-sponsorship of the Marijuana Justice Act comes only after she passed up many opportunities to co-sponsor or sign bills which would have legalized or rescheduled marijuana. The timing of her co-sponsorship of the bill — just over half a year before her official announcement of her presidential candidacy — suggests her sponsorship was a political move. Harris knows she must visibly adopt the pro-legalization platform to have a shot at the presidency as the majority of Americans support legalization.  But we wonder how much priority she would actually give the issue if elected into office.

Conclusion: Harris receives a “B” grade. As a presidential candidate, Harris is now outspoken in her support of legalizing marijuana as part of her criminal justice reform platform. Additionally, her recent sponsorship of the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 demonstrates her willingness to take legislative action. However, Harris’ less than stellar history on cannabis should make people wonder whether she really believes in legalization and how deeply. To put it bluntly, she may be fine on cannabis right now, but her history is cause for concern. Her past opposition to legalization as an attorney followed by inaction during the early part of her career as Senator does not and should not inspire confidence in Harris as an advocate for legalization.