Kamala Harris came to the latest Democratic Party presidential debates on Wednesday prepared to do what she’d done so well last time around: Challenge Joe Biden and reveal potential weaknesses in the former vice president’s record on criminal justice and drug policy.
The problem — for her — was that other candidates appeared to have prepared for the same fight, and they didn’t just stick to picking on Biden, they turned their attention to the career prosecutor’s record as well.
During his 40 years in the U.S. Senate, many characterized by “tough on crime” rhetoric, Biden often led the push for punitive measures against nonviolent drug offenders. And today, unlike his fellow frontrunners Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Biden does not support marijuana legalization. He is okay with decriminalization — like the kind of consolation prize Gov. Andrew Cuomo, himself briefly a presidential contender, just gave to the people of New York state.
However, he’s also pushing a criminal justice plan that would see cannabis re-classified as a Schedule II controlled substance along cocaine, prescription opiates and methamphetamine. That’s better than Schedule I, but still scientifically unsound, as it would require cannabis causing “severe psychological or physical dependence.” Thus, Biden’s plan is a sort of half-measure for cannabis. And this left him vulnerable to challenges from his fellow candidates.
“There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, told Biden.
“I agree with Senator Booker,” chimed in former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. “I agree with Senator Booker that a lot of what the vice president helped author in ’94 [citing the Bill Clinton-era crime bill, which helped create the mass incarceration crisis] was a mistake. And he has flip-flopped on these things.”
Biden became so flustered he fell over his words when trying to remember his campaign website’s URL. (It is not “joe30330.”)
But then U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard turned the attention over to Harris’s record.
“Now Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president,” Gabbard said. “But I’m deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite but 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 and her campaign team appear to have lifted that figure straight from an item in the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website that in turn pulled that figure from the California Department of Justice, which noted 1,500 people sentenced to California state prisons for marijuana-related offenses between 2011 and 2016, when Harris was attorney general. Writing in FreedomLeaf, drug war facts editor Doug McVay offered some nuance: The AG doesn’t try nor bring charges at the county level, where these individuals were sentenced.
Here is where ideology comes into play. It’s an ideological position that nobody should be punished for marijuana-related crimes. Without knowing the full details of each individual case, it’s impossible to know if other drugs, other violent crimes, or possession of weapons were involved — and it’s also a hard case to make that, say, someone growing weed on public lands or abusing their hired labor shouldn’t face some sort of penalty. At any rate, having a couple hundred people a year go to prison for weed in a state with nearly 40 million people isn’t exactly a Nancy Reagan-level record.
But Harris does have a flip-flop on her support for legal cannabis to account for, and to date, she really hasn’t. Harris went from laughing off a question about marijuana legalization during her 2014 re-election campaign to admitting to smoking weed and listening to hip-hop music during a February 2019 radio interview. She hasn’t given an explanation yet about what changed her mind.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the debate, Harris also avoided giving an explanation for why her stance on cannabis has changed.
Did Gabbard do Harris any lasting damage? Probably not, but conservative Twitter got excited on Thursday morning and got the hashtag “#KamalaHarrisDestroyed” to trend. Will Harris ever say something substantive about her past record or explain more fully how she came to become a cannabis legalization supporter? Considering there’s almost a year left of campaigning before the Democratic convention, the answer is almost certainly yes.
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