When Harris was attorney general of the state of California, by reputation one of the most lawless, offender-friendly, drug-loving places in America, drug arrests actually increased. This increase was despite a law signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that made petty marijuana busts punishable only by fine. And when she was asked in 2014 if marijuana legalization was a good idea, Harris’s non-answer was a volley of laughter.
But now, Harris claims to be a proponent of federal legalization. What changed?
Kamala Harris, Drug War General
When Harris was the district attorney in San Francisco, by reputation (if not quite by reality) one of the country’s most liberal places, her office wrote a brief, filed in court cases for years afterwards, that argued that the law forbid all marijuana sales. In essence, Harris’s people went before judges to declare the day-to-day activities of legal medical marijuana dispensaries in her then-adopted hometown were all criminal.
Early in her tenure as AG, when the Justice Department run by her personal friend President Barack Obama shut down and attempted to prosecute dispensaries and other medical cannabis California had awarded business licenses to and continued to collect taxes from, Attorney General Harris stood by and did — well, pretty much nothing.
Compare Harris’s practiced centrism in 2011 to 2012 to the swift and immediate reaction from her successor, Xavier Becerra, when Jeff Sessions made a similar but ultimately empty gesture. (Becerra immediately released a statement saying his office would stand behind the state’s legal cannabis industry.)
During the early 2010s, Harris’s affronts, failures and non-actions so incensed the cannabis industry and the marijuana legalization movement — both of which supported Harris during her razor-thin victory in the 2010 attorney general election — that in 2014, some campaigned in support of her long-shot Republican challenger.
This is to say that Harris’s record shows her to be both a participant and an observer of the War on Drugs. When she was in a position to do so, she did nothing to change the status quo. In fact, she did things to preserve it.
Kamala Harris, Progressive Candidate?
But now that Harris is a junior U.S. senator from California and will almost certainly run for president of the United States, she has discovered she doesn’t actually like or support any of the above.
That is, Kamala Harris (or her advisers) found that it’s good to disavow the record she has spent much of her career amassing — the record she used to become a senator — and to love and support marijuana legalization and hate the drug war, even if she can’t stop trying to laugh the issue away when convenient.
It’s past time America legalized marijuana and regulated it. But when doing so, we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 10, 2019
At the time of this writing, Harris is widely expected to announce her candidacy for president of the United States on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Oakland, California. That would follow nearly to the letter the blueprint laid down by Obama, who declared his candidacy in 2007 back at the Illinois State House, where he had made his bones.
Harris has for most of her career successfully had it both ways, as Jacobin observed back in 2017. She posed as progressive on gun control, but delayed taking action on seizing guns from violent Californians breaking state gun control law. She secured a massive settlement from banks and mortgage companies whose malfeasance led to one of the greatest transfers of wealth in modern history, but failed to prosecute any of the individuals or companies involved.
There is reason to believe that Harris will behave similarly on marijuana, and that drug policy reform is merely another thing she’s calculated to be a political boon. We know this because it’s in her record.
Harris may yet surprise and astound. And a President Harris would surely be preferable to the status quo when it comes to cannabis reform. But Candidate Harris so far has shown her support for marijuana to be almost entirely a calculated marriage of convenience. She needs to work harder and do more to demonstrate her sincerity — on this, and on much else.
TELL US, which candidates do you trust when it comes to drug policy?