Tonight’s vice presidential debate yielded little clarity, with Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) and Vice President Mike Pence skirting question after question. One exception: Harris’s promise that a Biden-Harris administration would decriminalize marijuana.
“We will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana,” she said.
The position is the strongest any major-party candidate for president or vice president has taken to date on the issue in such a prominent venue.
Though former Vice President Biden has historically resisted calls to ease up on drug enforcement, he seems to have turned on the issue this election cycle, telling supporters in May 2019 that “nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana.” Most recently, Harris reiterated the position in a virtual town hall on September 14, assuring viewers that a Biden-Harris administration would “end incarceration for drug use alone.” Campaign aide Symone Sanders said the same in an August 29 interview on MSNBC.
It’s a rather recent pivot for Harris as well. While attempting to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, the senator campaigned on legalizing cannabis, telling radio host Charlamagne tha God that the drug “brings a lot of people joy.”
As Reason‘s Nick Gillespie points out, however, it wasn’t always that way: “When Harris was running for reelection as San Francisco’s district attorney, she boasted that she ‘closed legal loopholes that were allowing drug dealers to escape prosecution’ and bragged that she ‘increased convictions of drug dealers from 56% in 2003 to 74% in 2006,'” he writes. “But in the Senate, Harris has been an outspoken proponent of marijuana reform and rarely misses an opportunity to highlight her desire to legalize weed (and, on occasion, her past experience smoking it).”
And as Elizabeth Nolan Brown has reported, Harris “has a long record of pushing illiberal policies,” including shuttering Backpage.com, threatening to prosecute parents with truant children, and harshly enforcing drug laws. “In an op-ed [in 2005] in the San Francisco Examiner, Harris complained that people had ‘learned how to manipulate the system—by simply claiming to be addicts,'” writes Brown. “She proposed barring anyone who had previously sold any quantity of any drug from the Drug Court, and the chance it offered for lesser sentencing, even if the current arrest was for mere possession.”
What we heard on the stage tonight appears to be a reconciliation with Biden’s position: Harris dropped legalize and moved to decriminalize. Very little detail is available about the proposed reforms, but this would presumably mean selling marijuana will remain illegal, though users would avoid prosecution if caught with the drug—an important step in the right direction.