Kamala Harris Pledged a Joe Biden Administration Would Decriminalize Marijuana


Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris said, if elected, she and presidential nominee Joe Biden would plan to decriminalize the use of marijuana. Harris outlined the proposal’s broad strokes during a virtual roundtable she hosted with ABC through Facebook Live on September 14.

“Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will decriminalize the use of marijuana and automatically expunge all marijuana-use convictions, and end incarceration for drug use alone,” Harris said. “This is no time … for half-steppin’, this is no time for incrementalism. We need to deal with the system, and there needs to be significant change in the design of the system.”

Over the course of her career as California’s former attorney general, and now senator, Harris’s own stance on cannabis has shifted considerably.

As reported by the Boston Globe in August, the former prosecutor was solidly against legalization in California as early as 2010, and as recently as 2014. Then, in 2019, she sponsored legislation that would federally deschedule cannabis, formally legalizing it at the federal level. (Individual states would still need to decriminalize or legalize following federal descheduling.)

Known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, the bill Harris introduced would not only deschedule cannabis, but also establish “a process to expunge convictions and conduct sentencing review hearings related to federal cannabis offenses,” in addition to calling for the establishment of a trust fund that would support initiatives for communities “impacted by the war on drugs” while prohibiting “the denial of federal public benefits to a person on the basis of certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions.”

Harris introduced the MORE Act to the Senate in July 2019, though it has yet to move forward in the Republican-controlled body. However, as reported by Politico in late August, the House will vote on its own version of the MORE Act before the end of this month.

While the MORE Act calls for legalization, Harris has yet to go so far as to publicly call for the same since joining Biden’s ticket. Since championing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Biden has softened toward the decriminalization of cannabis, though he is not in support of legalization.

The line between decriminalization and legalization is fine but important. As explained in Missouri Medicine, a journal of the Missouri State Medical Association, legalization of cannabis would allow and regulate it in ways similar to how alcohol and tobacco are sold and governed. To decriminalize cannabis would only remove criminal sanctions as punishment for an offense. Under decriminalization, cannabis could remain illegal, and possession above a specified amount could result in civil fines, drug education, or treatment, rather than criminal prosecution.

According to his campaign website, Biden supports decriminalization and would plan to automatically expunge all prior cannabis-use convictions. He supports the legalization of medical cannabis at the federal level but would leave decisions about adult recreational use up to the states.

Since joining his ticket, Harris has not called for anything beyond decriminalization or expungement of prior drug-related offenses, a noticeable distancing from the descheduling called for in the MORE Act she sponsored and introduced to the Senate last year. During her first joint interview with Biden following his announcement of Harris as his running mate, Harris told ABC News that part of her ticket’s platform around criminal justice reform would “be about decriminalizing marijuana,” a policy point she introduced within the larger context of the pair’s plans for criminal justice reform.

Biden’s support of decriminalizing cannabis is a marked result of his evolution on the drug, a stark contrast to his long-held anti-drug policies.

In an interview with Revolt TV, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said she thinks Harris will be effective in further pushing Biden toward federal legalization.

“She’s had experience,” Lee said in the interview, according to Marijuana Moment. “She’s from California. She knows this industry and she knows the laws very well and she supports legalization. Vice President Biden hasn’t quite got there yet.”

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