Democratic vice presidential nominee and California Sen. Kamala Harris put marijuana policy on the agenda as an issue in the November presidential election, promising that she and former Vice President Joe Biden would decriminalize cannabis.

Harris announced the position at an ABC virtual town hall Monday. “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will decriminalize the use of marijuana and automatically expunge all marijuana-use convictions and end incarceration for drug use alone,” Harris stated. “This is no time for half-steppin’. This is no time for incrementalism. We need to deal with the system and there needs to be significant change in the design of the system.”

It’s the most progressive position taken by either of the leading parties in this election. It’s consistent with the Democratic Party platform and statements by Biden on the campaign trail. It also stops short of full marijuana legalization, a measure that Harris supports but Biden does not.

Steven Hawkins, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said the Biden-Harris position on decriminalization was “encouraging” and shows momentum for cannabis reform at the highest level of government. However, it is still a “first step,” he said.

“Legalizing and regulating cannabis for adults is no longer a contentious position to take,” Hawkins stated. “It is supported by a majority of Americans and it is the only policy that will truly end the war on cannabis.”

As a presidential campaign issue, marijuana legalization has evolved significantly in recent decades. In the Reagan-era, “Just say no” was the standard.

In 1992, President Bill Clinton was asked if he ever smoked marijuana. He admitted to it but claimed famously, “I did not inhale.”

Fast forward to the early days of President Barack Obama’s campaign when he was asked the same question and stated, “I inhaled, frequently. That was … the point.”

In this election year, neither candidate at the top of the ticket has admitted to using cannabis. Biden recently said he knows many marijuana smokers. President Donald Trump, whose administration has taken steps to reinstate marijuana restrictions, claimed in a secretly-recorded video that marijuana makes people “lose IQ points.”

Vice-presidential nominee Harris has been the most forthcoming about her history with cannabis. She acknowledged smoking in college and defended people using it, saying in a radio interview last year, “It gives a lot of people joy. We need more joy in the world.”

Harris is also the sponsor of a Senate bill that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. The MORE Act would not only legalize marijuana, it would allow states to set marijuana use policies, expunge marijuana conviction records and address the racial disparities of the War on Drugs.

There was a spotlight on Harris’ involvement in the marijuana legalization bill after Democratic congressional leaders indicated that the House would vote on its version of the MORE Act next week.

Reports emerged Thursday that the vote would likely be postponed until after the election. Moderate Democrats pushed back on the schedule, arguing Congress had more important priorities, such as coronavirus relief and approving continued funding for the federal government.

“The MORE Act is a terrible significant vote,” explained Erik Altieri, the executive director of NORML, the oldest and largest marijuana legalization group in the country. If the House does bring it up, the vote will be the first time in 50 years, since Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, that it has revisited the issue.

More than one-quarter of the House has co-sponsored the legislation, suggesting a strong chance of passing. Only one Republican, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, signed on as a co-sponsor. Two other Republicans have publicly committed to vote for it, according to Politico.

“We certainly hope the passage of the MORE Act by the Democratic-led House will encourage the Biden camp to, in the future, both prioritize this issue and move them to be more progressive on it.”

Despite Harris sponsoring the bill to legalize cannabis, with the backing of that is not the position of the Biden campaign or the Democratic Party platform.

The platform released last month states that Democrats will “reschedule” marijuana, which would allow scientists to study its medical benefits without making it fully legal. The platform voiced support for the legalization of medical marijuana and said that states should decide whether or not to allow recreational use without the risk of Justice Department prosecutions.

Biden has repeatedly urged for low-level drug convictions to be expunged from individuals’ criminal records, removing the stigma many people face when applying for jobs and other opportunities. The Democratic candidate has also called for the increased use of drug courts, requiring individuals to go into substance abuse programs instead of prison for drug use crimes. “No one should be going to jail for drug crime, period,” Biden said earlier this spring.

Marijuana advocates have argued that decriminalization, while it can clear existing criminal records, typically means people can still face fines or other civil penalties for marijuana possession and use. It also maintains federal limits on how states can regulate their cannabis markets.

Still, the Democrats’ marijuana reforms are significantly more progressive than those of the Trump administration. At the start of his administration, Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, moved to crack down on states that had legalized marijuana. The administration also recently directed the Pentagon to criminalize the use of CBD among service members. CBD is a non-psychoactive product derived from hemp that has been alleged to help manage pain and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and PTSD.

At the Republican National Convention, some speakers blasted local Democratic leaders for deeming cannabis dispensaries “essential” during the coronavirus shutdown.

Neither the Trump campaign nor the White House would comment on the president’s feelings about marijuana legalization or the MORE Act.

President Trump is known for doing the unexpected but there are strong doubts that he would move to legalize marijuana if he won a second term. For example, in the administration’s 2021 budget, the president removed medical cannabis protections that prevented the Justice Department from interfering with state cultivation and distribution.

“The Trump administration’s actions and commentary suggest that they do not support cannabis reform,” said Howard Lee, CEO of SoRSE Technology and a cannabis industry expert. “If the Trump administration can’t get behind medical cannabis use, I don’t see them supporting federal adult-use legalization, or federal decriminalization, any time soon.”

Lee speculated that if the public continues to voice support for legalization and state tax revenues continue to grow from legal markets, a Biden administration could oversee federal legalization “in 2021 or 2022.”

According to the latest Gallup Poll, two-thirds of Americans support legalizing marijuana for adult use. That is up from only one-third of Americans in 2005.

A recent survey of likely voters found broad bipartisan support for the issue with more than half of Republicans (54%) saying they supported legalization. The survey also found generally positive attitudes about the tax revenues created by the marijuana industry, which experts say could be as high as alcohol and tobacco taxes.

Most federal leaders lag behind their constituents on the issue of marijuana legalization and that continues to be a problem, according to Altieri. “We really have a disconnect here where the voters fall very strongly on one side and elected officials are simply not responding to the desire of their voters,” Altieri said.

Across the country, almost every state has approved measures to loosen restrictions on cannabis. More than half of states have created legal markets for the sale of cannabis and 11 states plus Washington, D.C. have legalized adult-use.

In the November election, four more states (Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota) will have ballot initiatives on the question of legalizing marijuana for adult use.

However, in politics, there is still a stigma associated with it. Many Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns that marijuana is a “gateway drug” and some have warned of health consequences. Federal laws have made it difficult for scientists to study cannabis and its health effects, leading to questionable claims from supporters and opponents of legalization.

President Trump has been mostly silent about marijuana policy. He has previously suggested that states should be allowed to set marijuana policy and last month warned that marijuana ballot initiatives could drive Democratic turnout in the next election and hurt GOP chances.


By Leandra Bernstein for