The presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, announced his running mate on Aug. 11 – first-term California senator and former state attorney general Kamala Harris.
For cannabis advocates, this can only represent progress. While Biden has come to support decriminalization in recent years, Harris is today an advocate of full legalization at the federal level.
However, Harris has also taken criticism for her perceived compromises and even embracing prohibitionism in the past. What’s the real story?
Evolution in the Right Direction
Where cannabis and drug enforcement are concerned, Harris has a decidedly mixed record, but she has been evolving in the right direction.
This question burst into the public eye last July, at the Democratic candidates’ debate in Detroit. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (who just got primaried out in her Hawaii district) charged that as California’s top prosecutor, Harris had “put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations.”
Well, not exactly. A fact-check by the San Jose Mercury News called this a “highly misleading statistic.” The Mercury News noted that “the attorney general’s office doesn’t directly prosecute the vast majority of drug cases in the state. That’s up to the individual district attorneys in each county, and it’s wrong to say Harris put those people in jail.”
Not that Harris is above criticism here. In her time as San Francisco district attorney – the first public office she held, elected in 2003 – Harris oversaw more than 1,900 cannabis convictions. She convicted on marijuana charges at a higher rate than her very progressive predecessor, Terence Hallinan.
It was also during her time as San Francisco DA that 1,000 drug cases had to be dismissed due to a scandal at the city’s police crime lab, although Harris denied knowing about it until the issue became public. The city’s longtime Public Defender Jeff Adachi criticized Harris’ handling of the lab situation, which involved personnel diverting and even consuming the samples.
2010, the year Harris first ran for attorney general, also saw the Proposition 19 cannabis legalization initiative. Harris opposed it, saying she would limit her support to medical marijuana. When asked in the debate that October if she would defend Prop 19 in court were it to pass, Harris punted, offering: “I believe that if it were to pass, it would be incumbent on the attorney general to convene her top lawyers and the experts on constitutional law to do a full analysis of the constitutionality of that measure…and what action, if any, should follow.”
However, her Republican opponent Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles district attorney, was staunchly anti-cannabis and took a hard line even on medical users – so the California cannabis community mobilized for his defeat. Their “Anybody But Cooley” campaign may have made the difference – Harris squeaked to victory by the proverbial hair. So, the cannabis question arguably made her attorney general, despite her own timid and equivocal stance at the time.
Prop 19 was defeated, so Harris was spared this dilemma. She did, however, cooperate in the expansion and institutionalization of the state’s medical marijuana program, which had been approved by voters in 1996.
It was at Attorney General Harris’ instigation in 2012 that the state Assembly passed the Medical Marijuana Regulate, Control & Tax Act, the first significant effort to put a legal framework in place for cannabis dispensaries. It failed to win approval in the Senate, but a new version of the bill cleared both houses and became law in 2015 – the Medical Marijuana Regulation & Safety Act (MMRSA, a year later renamed the MCRSA with the word “marijuana” exchanged for the more fashionable “cannabis”). This would be expanded in 2017 to the Medicinal & Adult-Use Cannabis Regulatory Safety Act (MAUCRSA), the enabling legislation for Prop 64, the successful 2016 legalization initiative.
Surrendering to the Hardline
On the other hand, Harris used her office to rein in medical marijuana too. In People v. Colvin, a case concerning a Los Angeles dispensary, her office argued that an unidentified percentage of cannabis collective members must actually be involved in cultivation – a move seemingly aimed at bottlenecking the emergence of a commercial industry. In what advocates hailed as a victory, the California Supreme Court in May 2012 let stand a lower court ruling for the dispensary. The high court rejected calls from Harris and law enforcement to review the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling.
Harris has also been harshly criticized by progressives over other perceived capitulations to the police establishment as California attorney general. For instance, she opposed a bill that would have required her office to investigate shootings involving officers. When asked about this by a reporter while she was running for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, Harris denied opposing the bill, saying she “did not weigh in.”
And while she made a pledge never to seek the death penalty a centerpiece of her first campaign for San Francisco DA in 2003, Harris actually defended her right to seek the death penalty as attorney general – without ever using it. When a federal judge in Orange County ruled that California’s enforcement of the death penalty was unconstitutional in 2014, Harris appealed. The decision was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals the following year. California hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006, and current Gov. Gavin Newsom last year declared a moratorium on use of the death penalty.
Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016, the same year Prop 64 passed in her home state. And while she took no position on Prop 64, it must be said that as senator, she has been an unswerving friend of cannabis.
Sen. Harris signed on to Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act in 2018, which aimed to de-schedule cannabis. She also supported its re-introduction last year.
“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,” Harris said in a press release upon introduction of the Marijuana Justice Act. “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.”
More recently, she co-sponsored the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment & Expungement (MORE) Act with New York’s Rep. Jerrold Nadler. Advocacy group NORML calls the MORE Act “arguably the most revolutionary and socially conscious federal marijuana reform bill introduced to date.” In addition to descheduling and expunging prior convictions, the MORE Act would establish social equity programs for cannabis entrepreneurs, with a focus on those communities that have been most adversely impacted by cannabis prohibition.
Harris also supported another Booker-sponsored bill that sought to eliminate drug convictions as a bar to student financial aid.
And she’s also been moving in an increasingly progressive direction on other issues.
As the Washington Post reports, Harris just joined with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to introduce the Climate Equity Act, legislation aimed at protecting those disadvantaged communities most at risk from the ravages of global climate change.
Scrutiny from Both Sides
Of course, it is perfectly predictable in the current climate that as Harris is assailed for her leniency to the right by progressives, she is demonized as an extreme leftist by the right.
The Republican National Committee reacted to her selection as Biden’s running mate, despite having blasted him for accommodating racism during the debates, by saying, “It’s not surprising that Harris was able to put her feelings aside about Biden, as the two of them are in lockstep when it comes to their radical left-wing agenda.” The comment was aggressively plugged by Fox News.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) reacted more amusingly by charging that “she wants to turn America into San Francisco.”
Harris’s mere ethnic identity inevitably ensnares her in America’s culture wars. The Oakland native is of mixed parentage, so she is both the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket and also the first Asian American. As CNN puts it: “Harris’ rise as the daughter of immigrants – one from Jamaica, one from India – serves a powerful counter-narrative to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.”
But Will She Survive Snoopgate?
Harris has also been hounded by what’s been called her “authenticity problem” – the notion that she isn’t Black enough, due to her hardline tendencies and her mixed ethnic background.
In February 2019, Harris appeared on the Black-oriented and hip-hop-themed nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club.” Asked if she supported cannabis legalization, she said, “Half my family’s from Jamaica, are you kidding me?” She was next asked if she had ever smoked cannabis. She happily replied, “I have,” adding with a chuckle, “And I did inhale.” She quickly emphasized, “It was a long time ago.” A host asked if it was when she was in college, and she nodded, “Uh-huh.”
But the next question was what music she listened to when she was high. She responded, again laughing, “Oh my goodness… definitely Snoop, Tupac for sure.”
The problem is that Harris graduated from Washington DC’s Howard University in 1986—years before either Snoop Dogg or Tupac Shakur were recording. Her critics on either side pounced on this faux pas mercilessly, with the Observer (owned by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) calling it Harris’s “2pacalypse.”
Despite all the controversies and criticisms, the Biden-Harris ticket will certainly be aided by the same principle that served Harris so well in her 2010 attorney general race against Cooley – this time updated to “Anybody But Trump.”
TELL US, what do you think of Kamala Harris as VP?