Kamala Harris legislation would decriminalize marijuana nationally, clear convictions

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Kamala Harris introduced a sweeping marijuana reform bill Tuesday that would decriminalize the drug at the federal level and seek to reverse decades of unequal enforcement.

The California Democrat has partnered on the bill with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which could improve its chances of passing the Democratic-controlled chamber. Approval in the GOP-held Senate is likely to be more difficult.

The legislation’s goal, its authors say, is to correct decades of disproportionate impacts of marijuana enforcement on communities of color. White and black Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but blacks are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for it, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Harris’ bill would bring the federal government in line with 10 states, including California, and the District of Columbia in legalizing possession of at least small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

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The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act would remove marijuana from the schedule of drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, making it no longer a federal crime to possess or use the drug. That would still leave states free to regulate marijuana individually.

The change would apply retroactively, meaning people now facing any federal marijuana charges could have their cases dropped, and those convicted in the past could be resentenced or have their records cleared.

According to government statistics, thousands of people have been prosecuted for federal cannabis charges each year going back decades.

The bill also would prevent federal agencies from counting marijuana use or possession against people who apply for benefits such as public housing. And it would block the government from citing marijuana use or possession to deny any protections or legal benefits for immigrants.

It would create three funds from revenue generated by the marijuana industry, using a 5% tax on cannabis products made in the U.S. or imported into it. One pot of money, administered by a new Cannabis Justice Office in the Justice Department, would go toward services including job training, legal aid and youth, literacy and substance abuse programs for people most affected by years of marijuana enforcement. The bill defines such people as those with an income below 2½ times the federal poverty level for five of the last 10 years who have been arrested or prosecuted for marijuana crimes other than distributing to a minor, or have a relative who was.

The Small Business Administration would run another program that would fund small business loans for outfits run by socially and economically disadvantaged people in the cannabis industry. Another effort in the same agency would provide money for state or local programs that promote marijuana licenses for economically struggling people or those with past cannabis-related criminal records.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics would track cannabis industry participation by people of color and economically disadvantaged people to ensure the bill is working as intended.

Harris, a former prosecutor running for president in 2020, has endorsed legalizing marijuana nationally. But she also has been slower than Californians overall to accept legalization.

Harris first embraced the idea of allowing recreational marijuana use last year, two years after Californians approved it by passing Proposition 64. When she was running for state attorney general in 2010, she opposed a statewide legalization ballot measure. And as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011, her office pursued marijuana convictions. A spokesman for the office did not have statistics Monday on how many people were prosecuted during her district attorney years.

Harris’ successor as district attorney, George Gascón, has partnered with a nonprofit to identify people convicted of cannabis crimes in the city who are now eligible to be removed or resentenced under Prop. 64. The city identified more than 9,000 cases dating back to 1975.

Asked whether Harris regrets any of her past actions or views on cannabis, her spokesman Chris Harris said only that she has been “fighting to change the law” because she does not believe marijuana should be illegal.

“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Sen. Harris said in a statement. “As marijuana becomes legal across the country, we must make sure everyone — especially communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs — has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry.”

Harris is partnering on the legislation with New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Nadler will have authority to call the legislation before his panel and could get it to the floor, if House leadership agrees.

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Harris and Nadler are not alone on cannabis reform legislation. Oakland Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee has long worked on the issue and recently became chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — like Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate — has partnered with Lee to introduce marijuana reform bills.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has supported the hemp industry in the U.S., he and key panel-chairing Republicans in the Senate have opposed marijuana legalization.

Harris and Nadler’s bill has been endorsed by several pro-marijuana reform organizations, including the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch and Center for American Progress.

Tal Kopan is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: Twitter: @talkopan