What Does a Biden-Harris Presidency Mean for Marijuana?

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The presidential election is over. While the central concern of the election was to reclaim America from the clutches of Donald Trump, addressing the pandemic that killed more than 230,000 Americans, passing some version of the COVID-19 relief bill that Senate Republicans have been holding hostage, protecting abortion and LGBTQ rights from the now-stacked Republican Supreme Court, as well as a host of other urgent issues, the legal status of marijuana is also at stake. While the Democratic platform calls for the federal descheduling and decriminalization of marijuana, the Republican platform called for more of the same—which means more mass incarcerations and a “tough on crime” stance for petty drug possession charges.

What Joe Biden Promises

During the primary race, the Shepherd Express repeatedly pointed out that Joe Biden was the only Democratic candidate who refused to consider the full legalization of marijuana, a stance that has now been adopted by the entire party since Biden became the nominee. However, despite being one of the more conservative candidates on the roster, Joe Biden made one key promise: “Nobody should be in jail simply for smoking or possessing marijuana.”

During the last presidential debate, President Donald Trump didn’t hesitate to point out Joe Biden’s record as a Senator, accusing him of partially causing America’s mass incarceration problem. Surprisingly, given that it came from the mouth of the president who told a record-breaking 20,000 recorded lies before the end of his first term, this is actually true—somewhat. While Trump simply repeated the words “your Crime Bill” in-between some drivel about being better than any president since Abraham Lincoln, there is a nugget of truth here. Joe Biden is credited with writing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly known as the 1994 Crime Bill, a core component of the War on Drugs to this day, which led to the incarceration of countless innocent people for possession of recreational drugs.

What matters now, a quarter-century later, is that Joe Biden publicly denounced his own record. “It was a mistake,” he said of his Crime Bill during the debate, on live television in front of 63 million Americans. “We passed 100%. All 100 senators voted for it. It was a mistake. I have been trying to change it since then, particularly the portion on cocaine,” he added. “I’ve been arguing that, in fact, we should not send anyone to jail for a pure drug offense, they should be going into treatment. [...] It was a mistake to pass those laws relating to drugs.”

Beyond recognizing the error of his past actions, which made him the only man to do such a thing on the debate stage, Joe Biden also put forth ideas for a solution: “There should be no minimum mandatory [sentences] in the law. I am offering $20 billion to states to change their state laws to eliminate minimum mandatories and set up drug courts. No one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem. They should be going to rehabilitation, not to jail. We should fundamentally change the system, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

The Key Role of Kamala Harris

Democratic vice president nominee Kamala Harris has a long and complicated history with cannabis. As the former District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California, she oversaw thousands of convictions for small marijuana offenses, a record that Democrats now defend by pointing out that very few of those convictions led to incarcerations. Her own presidential campaign faltered in part due to her self-proclaimed status as California’s “top cop,” which did not endear her to the communities that suffered from the unjust laws that she upheld.

Like Joe Biden, however, Kamala Harris has turned around on the topic of criminal justice and marijuana in particular. During the primary, she came out in support of the full legalization of marijuana. “Times have changed—marijuana should not be a crime,” she famously said.

“Right now, in this country, people are being arrested, being prosecuted and end up spending time in jail or prison all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal,” Kamala Harris said in 2018. “Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor and I know it as a senator.”

When faced with claims that she opposes legalization, she replied, “That’s not true. [...] Half of my family is from Jamaica, are you kidding me?” and added that she personally smoked marijuana (and inhaled, she insists) while listening to Snoop Dogg.

What Kamala Harris brings to the table is more than promises and nice-sounding plans. She came out in support of reform when she co-sponsored legislation introduced by others, such as Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s SAFE Banking Act, which opens access to banking to legal marijuana businesses. As senator, she became the chief Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which made history as the first marijuana reform bill ever approved by a congressional vote last year. The MORE Act is currently sitting in the House and awaiting a floor vote this Fall, most likely to ensure its success if and when the Democrats reclaim the seats of power currently held by Republicans.

Kamala Harris has since gotten increasingly militant in favor of marijuana reform. When state-legal cannabis businesses were excluded from COVID relief, she was first in line to defend them: “Marijuana small businesses employ more than 240,000 workers and should be allowed to access coronavirus relief funds, too. My colleagues and I are pushing to ensure they’re not left out of Congress’s next relief package.” When Illinois legalized marijuana and expunged the records of thousands of people arrested for possession, she applauded: “Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do. Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.”

Kamala Harris’s dedication to marijuana reform is now undisputable, and she has walked back her previous record as a “top cop.” While Joe Biden might draw the line at marijuana decriminalization and refuse to consider legalization, Harris has stated in a recent 60 Minutes interview that she will “bring [her] progressive policies into a Biden administration,” including her support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and marijuana legalization. Her and Biden have “a deal,” she explains: “I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront. And I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”

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