How Kamala Harris learned to love marijuana

One joke prevalent in the cannabis industry concerns the speed with which things are always changing. Be it taxes, laws, or the tune of elected officials, it’s common knowledge in the legal marijuana trade that the cement of regulation and public opinion rarely has time to dry before it’s once more up-ended.

In a sense, the career of Kamala Harris is a perfect example of what her team would likely label an “evolution.”

Following news on Tuesday that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden had selected Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate, a tsunami of cannabis-related analysis poured in. The reason for such a swift and sizable response is due largely to the fact that Harris is the chief senator sponsor of a 2019 piece of legislation that would deschedule cannabis as a federally controlled substance.

Known as the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, the bill also includes provisions related to social equity and restorative justice. While the MORE Act is but one of several bills with a similar goal currently working its way through Congress, it will now undoubtedly enjoy greater prominence in light of Harris’ VP nomination.

The most pressing question, of course, is whether Harris will push Biden – who thus far has declined to support federal cannabis legalization – on the issue.

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Polling data suggest that such a move on Harris’ part would likely yield positive outcomes. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., for one, recently pointed to polling numbers that continually show a larger and larger percentage of the American public voicing approval for cannabis.

“The latest year’s statistics were available,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment, “over 700,000 people were arrested or cited for something that now more than two-thirds of the American public thinks should be fully legal.”

Unlike Blumenauer, who has been vocal in supporting cannabis reform since he co-sponsored the seminal Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment in 2010, Harris has a most uneven track record.

If one looks at the fact that Harris sponsored the MORE Act, it might be appealing to assume that the Oakland native’s position on the matter is clear. However, in fully assessing whether Harris truly sees cannabis reform as a priority, it is necessary to revisit her past record in office.

For example, during her tenure as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011, Harris actually increased drug enforcement actions. Her website for one DA re-election campaign, according to Marijuana Moment, touted how she’d “closed legal loopholes that were allowing drug dealers to escape prosecution” and “increased convictions of drug dealers from 56% in 2003 to 74% in 2006.”

In 2010, Harris “co-authored a voter guide argument against Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana in California,” notes the French Toast. At the time, Harris described Prop. 19 as “flawed public policy.” The legislation would go on to suffer a fairly narrow defeat, with 53.5% of Californians voting against it.

Six years later, Harris also chose not to endorse 2016’s Proposition 64, which did ultimately legalize recreational cannabis in the state. Two years prior, during a re-election campaign for attorney general, she outright laughed in the face of a reporter who asked her about her opponent’s support for legalizing cannabis in California.

These days, Harris resembles an entirely different person when it comes to her positions on cannabis.

In a more misguided attempt to knock Harris for her track record on cannabis, much was made of a 2019 interview she did on the popular morning radio show “The Breakfast Club.”

At the time, some conservative pundits seized on what appeared to be a quote from Harris in which she claimed to have listened to rappers Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doog while in college and consuming cannabis. A social media post pointing out that Harris had already graduated college before either artist released an album subsequently went viral, prompting Harris’ national press secretary, Ian Sams, to term the debacle “Reefergate.”

It was subsequently reported by the New York Times that cross-chatter between Harris and host Charlamagne tha God likely led to her mishearing the question. In any case, it also served as a firm reminder that cannabis is easily weaponized against Black women in positions of power.

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In addition to her support of the MORE Act, Harris sponsored the 2019 version of Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act. Similar in scope to the MORE Act, the news that Harris was in favor of the bill in its 2018 form marked her first shift toward a new attitude on legal marijuana.

Since then, she’s been quite active in talking a big game, be it stumping for the SAFE Banking Act or sending a letter to the Justice Department demanding they stop blocking federal research on medical cannabis. During her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, her proposed criminal justice plan included descheduling cannabis.

In a post to Twitter the day her plan was published, Harris noted that “legalizing marijuana” was one of the necessary steps toward her goal of ending mass incarceration.

If Harris is ready to translate her words into actions, the legalized cannabis industry appears ready to welcome her with open arms. Yet, in surveying Harris’ record as a public official, the facts have yet to prove her newfound passion for the subject is more than smoke.

What is real are criminal records from Harris’ time as attorney general. Those records – brought to light in a 2019 investigation from Washington Free Beacon – reveal that 1,560 people were sent to state prisons for cannabis-related offenses during a five-year period during her AG tenure.

In short, the only clues available in ascertaining Harris’ true feelings for cannabis lie in old actions and new speeches. What’s known with certainty, however, is that all with a vested interest in the future (or failure) of legalized cannabis will be watching intently to see what Harris does next.

Zack Ruskin is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Email: | Twitter: @zackruskin

Zack Ruskin