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Kamala Harris Is Being Taken to Task for Her Role in the Drug War

Kamala Harris says she’s pro-cannabis legalization. As was made apparent during the debate last night, her record says otherwise

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31:  Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (L)  speaks while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) listens during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.  20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris does not have a history of supporting marijuana legalization.

(Harris)Scott Olson/Getty Images, Shutterstock, 2

In many respects, the final night of the second round of Democratic debates was a lot like the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones: somehow, it managed to be bloody and impossibly boring at the same time. The target of most of the candidates’ ire was former Vice President Joe Biden, currently the leading Democratic candidate in the polls, who took half-hearted hit after half-hearted hit with the unwavering, rictus-grinned composure of a crash test dummy.

But Biden wasn’t the only candidate to take a beating. In one particularly brutal moment, Sen. Tulsi Gabbard took aim at Sen. Kamala Harris, a former California attorney general who is also widely considered one of the leading candidates in the race, attacking Harris for her prosecutorial record and accusing her of blocking evidence that could have potentially freed a man from death row. Gabbard particularly zeroed in on Harris’s record on drug-related offenses: “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said, referring to an interview Harris gave to The Breakfast Club in which she joked about smoking pot in college.

The attack on Harris was a major win for the Gabbard campaign: the audience erupted into applause after her remarks, and the hashtag #KamalaHarrisDestroyed started trending the morning after the debate (though more than one person on social media suggested that the hashtag was flooded by bots and MAGA supporters, a nod to the support Gabbard enjoys among some right-wing 4chan trolls). Perhaps more importantly, Gabbard’s remarks seemed to have, as CNN’s Chris Cilizza put it, “gotten under [Harris’s] skin.” She has since retaliated by referring to Gabbard as an “apologist” for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and doubled down on her defense of her actions while serving as state attorney general. “This is the work I’ve done. Am I going to take hits? Of course, incoming, there are going to be hits on a debate stage when people are trying to, you know, make a name for themselves,” Harris said, a not-so subtle drag on Gabbard, who is trailing behind her in the polls.

The moment highlighted an uncomfortable truth about Harris’s record on drug reform, one that she is desperately trying to atone for by adopting a more relaxed stance than she’s adopted historically. In a crowded field of candidates, most of whom support marijuana legalization in some form, Harris has tried to position herself as an advocate for drug law reform. Just last week, she cosponsored the MORE Act, a sweeping piece of federal legislation that calls for not just nationwide legalization, but also the allocation of federal funds for cannabis entrepreneurs of color and the expungement of marijuana possession charges from offenders’ records.

But as Gabbard’s remarks reveal, Harris has historically adopted a much more rigorous stance against legalization, to the degree that as recently as five years ago, she laughed when an interviewer brought up the subject. As NORML executive director Erik Altieri puts it to Rolling Stone, her history on drug reform has been “problematic,” and her “record is not one anyone would qualify as progressive, particularly when it comes to marijuana.” Here’s exactly what that record has been, and whether her current, much more tolerant stance should be trusted.

What has been Sen. Harris’s stance on legalization?
As the state attorney general, Harris adopted what could probably be summarized as a pretty standard law enforcement stance on drugs: That they’re illegal, and the government is entitled to prosecute anyone charged with drug-related crimes, including low-level offenders. In 2010, she opposed Proposition 19, a state initiative to legalize and tax marijuana for adults over 21, calling it a “flawed public policy.”

To be fair, Harris was not alone in her belief that Proposition 19 was flawed, and was far from the only critic of the bill. But that year, Harris’s campaign manager later clarified her general stance on legalization, saying Harris “supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that” and that she “believes that drug selling harms communities.”

In a 2011 statement responding to federal authorities’ crackdown on California medical marijuana dispensaries, Harris doubled down on this view, saying: “Californians overwhelmingly support the compassionate use of medical marijuana for the ill. We should all be troubled, however, by the proliferation of gangs and criminal enterprises that seek to exploit this law by illegally cultivating and trafficking marijuana.” During her tenure as attorney general, she also opted not to join other states’ efforts in removing marijuana from the DEA’s list of dangerous controlled substances.

When seeking reelection in 2014, Harris’s stance on marijuana policy did not evolve, even though her opponent, Republican Rick Gold, was a proponent of legalization. In response to an interviewer bringing up Gold’s stance, Harris literally laughed, saying Gold was “entitled to his opinion” about legalization. (Understandably, this led to her losing a great deal of support from members of the state cannabis lobby, who ended up throwing their weight behind the Republican.)

Perhaps most damningly, in 2019 a Washington Free Beacon investigation found that between 2011 and 2016, while Harris was attorney general, at least 1,560 people were sent to California state prisons on marijuana-related offenses. Although the number of low-level marijuana offenders sent to state prison significantly declined after 2011, that was attributed to a state-wide initiative to curb state prison overcrowding and divert lower-level offenders to county jails.

When did Sen. Harris’ stance on marijuana begin to change?
Harris started to take baby steps toward advocating for decriminalization around 2017. In a speech at the Center for American Progress, Harris directly addressed Jeff Sessions, who had recently rolled out draconian anti-drug policies. “Let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions. We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations and dealing with human trafficking, not in going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana,” she said. “While I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs — as a career prosecutor, I just don’t — we need to do the smart thing, the right thing, and finally decriminalize marijuana.”

In 2018, Harris came out in earnest as a proponent for federal legalization, adding her name to Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act; that same year, she also partnered with Sen. Orrin Hatch to lobby Sessions to fix roadblocks that are currently in the way of marijuana research. In her book The Truths We Tell, which was released earlier this year, she advocated for federal legalization and expungement, writing, “We need to legalize marijuana and regulate it. And we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.”

It was also during this time that she gave the interview to the Breakfast Club saying that she supported legalization, jokingly referring to her Jamaican ancestry and wisecracking that she “did inhale” while she was a student at Howard University, adding that she may have done that while listening to Tupac and Snoop Dogg. In a somewhat bizarre turn of events, cannabis activists and conservatives teamed up to try to poke holes in Harris’s narrative, pointing to discrepancies in the timeline of the release of Tupac’s and Snoop Dogg’s first albums — 1991 and 1993, respectively — and Harris’s graduation from Howard in 1986. But Harris’s sponsorship of the sweeping federal legalization bill the MORE Act may have done a fairly good job at squashing critiques of her record on drugs — that is, until Gabbard’s recent remarks.

While it’s unclear precisely what motivated Harris’s change in heart with respect to drug policy, it’s worth noting a few key points. Harris’s Center for American Progress speech, in which she first alluded to her support for decriminalization, was in the spring of 2017, a few months after the election of President Donald Trump — and right around the time her name started to be floated among leading Democrats as a viable candidate for the 2020 race. Further, public approval of marijuana legalization has also increased dramatically between the time Harris began her political career as San Francisco District Attorney in 2004, and her stint in the Senate: according to Pew research polls, while only 31% of Americans supported legalization in 2000, that number doubled to 62% as of 2018. Further, drug reform is not the only social issue rapidly gaining popularity on which Harris has done a complete 180: although she now claims to be in favor of sex work decriminalization, she has previously dismissed sex work legalization as “completely ridiculous,” and was one of the primary architects of the shutdown of Backpage, an online sexual services database, which advocates say sex workers heavily relied on as a network to vet clients and keep them safe.

Advocates for cannabis legalization who have partnered with Harris on key legislation say it’s worth noting Harris’s record, while problematic, certainly isn’t as bad as that of Biden, one of the primary architects of the Drug War (and who also was taken to task during the debate for his record on mandatory minimum sentencing by Cory Booker, who has a far more substantial record than either candidate of supporting marijuana reform). Some also point out it shouldn’t matter why Harris changed her mind on marijuana, only that she did. “From our perspective working to change federal law, the when and the why she came around isn’t as relevant as accomplishing our mission of descheduling marijuana,” says Altieri. “That said, running for president is very different than being in the legislature and primary voters will have to evaluate for themselves if the timeline represents an earnest, late life conversion or political expediency.”

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