Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s announcement of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his vice presidential running mate fueled speculation as to whether the former California attorney general could convince the former vice president to back marijuana legalization.
After all, Sen. Harris introduced a bill last year to deschedule and legalize cannabis, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which is rumored to be heading for a floor vote in the House when lawmakers reconvene on September 14.
But the hopes of marijuana reform advocates were quickly laid to rest during the Biden-Harris ticket’s first joint interview (below). ABC News presenter Robin Roberts asked Harris about her record as California’s “top cop,” specifically a passage she wrote in a book ten years ago arguing for more police officers in the streets. Harris began by crediting the Black Lives Matter movement for changing the conversation around policing and criminal justice reform before saying that a Biden-Harris administration will pursue a “policy that is going to be about decriminalizing marijuana.”
The exchange indicates Harris will fall in line with Biden’s stance on marijuana reform, which is to decriminalize possession, legalize medical cannabis, allow states to determine their own cannabis policies and expunge marijuana-related convictions.
Both politicians have evolved on the issue considerably in recent years. On Harris’s watch as California’s attorney general, a reported 1,560 people were sent to state prisons for cannabis-related offenses. She also opposed a 2010 state initiative to legalize marijuana and regulate sales for adults 21 and older. Only five years before co-sponsoring the MORE Act, when on the campaign trail and asked about her opponent’s support of marijuana legalization, Harris laughed at the idea.
Biden has also softened with age. In the 1990s he led the charge in the Senate for punitive drug laws. This culminated in the 1994 Crime Bill which disproportionately targeted people of color and vastly expanded the US’s mass carceral system. In recent years, now that majority public opinion is increasingly supportive of marijuana legalization, Biden has shifted to his current position favoring decriminalization.
Biden talks drug policy reform from around 1:15. Harris talks police reform and decriminalization from around 4:21.
Outlining his vision of criminal justice reform to ABC News’ Roberts, Biden said “we’re going to make sure that we change the entire system in the way in which we deal with, with criminal justice from punishment to rehabilitate, no one should be going to jail because they have a drug addiction.”
Instead, Biden contends such individuals “should be going into mandatory drug treatment, that’s why I set up drug courts.”
Drug policy reform advocates largely disagree that diverting marijuana users from criminal courts to drug courts and jails to mandatory drug treatment centers counts as meaningful criminal justice reform. The rehabilitation of a supposedly problematic marijuana user will still fall under the purview of the criminal justice system and the enforcement of this approach will still be subject to systemic racial biases. In short, increased use of drug courts will prolong the war on drugs, not end it.
But in spite of a supermajority of Democrats in favor of marijuana legalization and members of a Biden-Sanders criminal justice taskforce saying decriminalization doesn’t go far enough, Biden hasn’t budged. Some Democratic party members speculate Biden’s consistent opposition to legalization is the reason Democratic National Committee delegates recently voted against a measure to include support for marijuana legalization in the party’s 2020 policy platform.
With Harris on his ticket now, it seems the only way Biden will be put in an awkward position regarding marijuana legalization is for Congress to pass the MORE Act. While the Democrat-controlled House is likely to do so, it would probably require the Democrats to also take control of the Senate in January for the measure to stand a chance. If that were the case, and with Biden as president, it would be up to him to pass the MORE Act into law. Would he stick to his long-standing convictions on drug policy and risk a veto or cede to his vice president’s bill and finally embrace marijuana legalization?