On Tuesday, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris announced that she is teaming up with House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler to co-sponsor the MORE Act of 2019, a bill that would decriminalize marijuana on the federal level and expunge low-level marijuana possession convictions. If enacted, the bill would also provide grants to members of communities of color, in an attempt to reverse decades of damage that cannabis criminalization has done to those communities.
“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Sen. Harris said in a statement sent to Rolling Stone. “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. 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.”
Currently, 33 states have legalized medicinal marijuana, while 11 states plus D.C. have made it legal for people over the age of 18 to buy marijuana for recreational purposes. The MORE Act would not only decriminalize marijuana on the federal level, it would also authorize a 5% federal sales tax on marijuana to create a trust fund for three grant programs, which would provide services to the “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” as well as loans for small businesses in the cannabis industry owned by people of color.
The bill is unique in part because of the sales tax to support the trust fund, thus taking the onus off American taxpayers and increasing the likelihood for bipartisan support when it’s introduced into the house, says Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, calling it “the most comprehensive and workable legislation that has ever been introduced.” While it’s unique for being the first bill introduced by a House Judiciary chair in support of marijuana reform, Nadler has a record of supporting such legislation: one of the first votes he ever cast as a freshman member of the state Assembly in New York in 1977 was a state decriminalization bill. “He has made marijuana policy one of his priorities,” says Strekal, who adds that given Nadler’s support, the legislation could “move swiftly” after Congress returns from its August recess.
The bill is also notable for the fact that it is explicitly designed to benefit communities of color, which have been adversely impacted by stringent drug laws requiring the incarceration of low-level offenders. Not only does the bill call for expungement of low-level marijuana-related offenses, but it also helps to ensure that entrepreneurs of color will be represented in the emerging cannabis industry.
Harris’s stance on marijuana reform has significantly evolved since she first took the California attorney general office in 2010. Although she supported medical marijuana use, she voted against a bill that would have regulated and tax recreational marijuana in California. “Spending two decades in court rooms, Harris believes that drug selling harms communities,” Harris’ campaign manager Brian Brokaw said at the time. While campaigning for reelection in 2014, when asked by a local news reporter whether she supported her opponent’s stance on legalizing marijuana in California, she laughed and said, “He’s entitled to his opinion.”
Yet her position has since changed, with Harris adding her name in 2018 to Senator Corey Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which would make marijuana legal on the federal level. In her new book, The Truths We Hold, she cemented that stance, writing, “We need to legalize marijuana and regulate it,” and advocating for the expungement of non-violent offenders’ marijuana-related offenses so “they can get on with their lives.” When asked about the evolution of her views, Strekal says, “We welcome the evolving stance of policy makers of all ideologies into supporting reform efforts.”
We must not only legalize and regulate marijuana, but we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions who have been arrested or incarcerated.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 16, 2019
Harris is not the only 2020 Democratic candidate to advocate for marijuana decriminalization: Nearly all of the other major candidates, with the exception of Joe Biden, have adopted a similar stance toward marijuana decriminalization. In a crowded presidential race, her support of marijuana reform could be viewed simply as a result of political savvy, but Strekal says her staff and team were “genuinely receptive” to suggestions made by the drug policy community and the criminal justice reform community at large. Her support of this legislation, says Strekal, “underscores that good policy is analogous to good politics.”