Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is teaming up with a powerful House Democrat on legislation to decriminalize marijuana and wipe away past marijuana-related convictions.
The bill by the presidential candidate and Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would bar the denial of federal public benefits for marijuana use and provide that immigrants could not be deported or have their citizenship denied solely for a marijuana infraction.
It also includes targeted grants for certain marijuana businesses.
Harris’ push to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, effectively allowing states to establish their own policies, comes amid a broader movement to unwind decades of drug-war crusading and tough-on-crime governing by members of her own party that disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos.
Earlier this year, another presidential candidate, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), reintroduced his bill to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, expunge records and make reinvestments — drawing Harris, along with 2020 hopefuls Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, as co-sponsors.
Harris, a career prosecutor, for years resisted backing cannabis legalization. During her Senate run in 2016, she said she had “no moral objection” to it and allowed that legalization was inevitable, while calling for rescheduling the drug. Now, citing the changing times, she says she believes that “marijuana should not be a crime.”
“We need to start regulating marijuana and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives,” Harris said in a prepared 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’ evolution on marijuana is many years in the making. As district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, she opposed and then repeatedly refused to take a position on later state efforts to legitimize the drug for recreational purposes, including the successful Proposition 64 in 2016. The law, which was championed by then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is now California’s governor, did many of the same things that Harris is proposing in her own bill.
Harris at the time pointed to her custom of not weighing in on statewide ballot initiatives and measures because it fell to the attorney general’s office to prepare their titles and summaries. While she argued that it helped her stay neutral in the ballot fights, Harris’ critics long viewed it as another way for her to dodge tough issues.
In her book, released in January ahead of her formal presidential announcement, Harris in no uncertain terms wrote that she supports full legalization and clearing old marijuana crimes from people’s records by way of expungement.
Appearing in February on the “The Breakfast Club,” a popular radio show, Harris again called for marijuana legalization at the federal level — adding that half of her family is from Jamaica. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, joking with the hosts.
But Harris said legalization should come with caveats, emphasizing a need for research on the effects of marijuana on the developing brain and a means for regulating use of the drug while driving.