On night three of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) accepted her party’s nomination as the vice presidential candidate, becoming the first Black and Asian American woman on a major party ticket. She also became a beacon of cautious hope among cannabis advocates and industry insiders who hope she’ll push a more conservative former Vice President Joe Biden left on cannabis issues.
“We have some misgivings about her prosecutorial history and some of her past statements, but people do evolve on this issue and it’s clear that she has come a long way,” said Morgan Fox, spokesperson for cannabis industry trade group National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “If anything, her position on the ticket will help Biden evolve even further.”
Will she or won’t she advance cannabis legalization initiatives when push comes to shove?
It’s a question the industry has been asking itself ever since Harris positioned herself as a cannabis reform advocate during the run up to the 2020 primaries, and more so since Biden announced he’d selected the Junior Senator as his running mate for America’s highest office.
Biden was an outlier on the crowded field of candidates for Democratic nominee, as the only one, save Michael Bloomberg, who didn’t embrace full federal cannabis legalization. He even referred to cannabis as a “gateway drug” as recently as 2019, according to CNN. And it seems the Democratic National Committee took a page out of Biden’s book when it came to crafting the 2020 platform, even rejecting an amendment that would have added adult legalization to the platform, according to Marijuana Moment. Some 78 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents support legalization, according to Pew Research.
Like Biden’s platform, the Democratic party advocates for cannabis decriminalization, medical cannabis legalization, recognition of state-level cannabis programs, expungement for convictions related to cannabis use, and rescheduling — rather than descheduling — cannabis in the Controlled Substances Act.
“Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level. We will support legalization of medical marijuana, and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use,” a draft of the platform reads.
Some in the industry, like Nicholas Vita, CEO of cannabis multistate operator Columbia Care, view the platform as progress.
“I think any adoption by one of the major parties is a positive development,” he told Cheddar in an interview.
“There will always be people who disagree, there will always be people who wish things had moved faster, but as far as I'm concerned, when you have something that's positive, a win is a win is a win,” he added.
Others, however, consider the 2020 platform as backpedaling from the 2016 platform, which called on the federal government to remove cannabis from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, and provide “a reasoned pathway for future legalization.”
According to NCIA’s Fox, rescheduling instead of descheduling could jeopardize existing medical and adult-use industries without actually solving the state-federal divide. But overall, Fox said he felt the new platform, which has support from cannabis champions like Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), represented a closing of ranks by Democrats behind their comparatively more conservative candidate.
“It is not where we'd like to see it, but it is at least not an outwardly bad position,” Fox said. “I think that the DNC wanted to be in lockstep with their presidential candidate on pretty much every issue they possibly could be and present a unified front.”
The vice presidential nominee, on the other hand, has positioned herself as something of a cannabis social justice champion after she sponsored the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019. It’s the most progressive and comprehensive cannabis bill to ever make it through a Congressional committee after the House Judiciary Committee passed the standalone bill in November.
The MORE Act, which has been widely lauded by the cannabis industry, calls for cannabis descheduling, resentencing, and expungement of cannabis-related convictions, reducing barriers to the industry for lower-income and minority entrepreneurs and allocating funds for reinvestment in communities disproportionately harmed by cannabis criminalization and the drug war.
“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris said in a statement when she introduced the bill in July 2019. “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.”
In spite of her new, progressive take on cannabis, Harris herself has had a contradictory record on the issue in the past. Prior to her role in the Senate, Harris served as San Francisco’s district attorney for several years before becoming California's attorney general in 2011.
During her seven years as San Francisco DA, she oversaw 1,956 misdemeanor or felony cannabis-related convictions for everything from possession to cultivation, according to The Mercury News. Under her tenure, convictions occurred at a higher rate than under her predecessor, but lawyers who worked with and against her at the time told The Mercury News few low-level cannabis convictions ended in jail time. Of course, a conviction doesn’t have to end in prison to impact someone’s life.
In 2010, she was an outspoken opponent of Proposition 19, which sought to legalize adult-use cannabis in California. That measure ultimately failed. When Proposition 64 (which passed, legalizing adult-use cannabis in California) came around in 2016, Harris was working as attorney general and could not take a stance, but the Sacramento Bee described her as “generally supportive of legalization” at the time.
Harris’ rather mixed history with cannabis has given activists pause. NCIA’s Fox said the organization has misgivings about her history as a prosecutor but is generally optimistic.
“Everybody is going to be watching to make sure that some of those old inclinations don’t come back, but people can change their minds and change their perceptions of issues. As the entire country has done on this particular issue, I think Biden and Harris have done so as well,” he said.
Drug Policy Action, the advocacy and political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance nonprofit, released a letter to Harris Wednesday, congratulating her on the nomination and reminding her not to veer away from the very progressive position she embraced when introducing the MORE Act.
“We ask you now to not close the door on the promises you made to [low-income communities and communities of color]. While we know all too well that Biden does not share the same views as you on drug policy, and it perhaps would be more politically convenient to just champion other parts of his platform, we recognize this as an opportunity for you to really be that lifeline these communities expected...,” the letter reads.
But Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Action said that Harris’ background is actually an asset. Because of her history as a prosecutor and because she is a woman of color, she “gets social justice.”
“She understands the moment that we are in and she is trying to be more progressive on those issues for that reason — because she gets it. And [she] feels that, especially because of her background, she has to be bolder,” Perez said.
Biden may not be the cannabis warrior the industry was hoping for, but many are optimistic that if Biden takes office with Harris by his side, he will lean toward legalization.