Marijuana and drug enforcement was a topic of contention during Wednesday’s vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and incumbent Vice President Mike Pence (R).

During a segment on race and the criminal justice system, Harris said that if elected, she and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

She also pledged that their administration would take steps to track police who abuse their positions and to ban private prisons and cash bail.

Later, while he didn’t directly weigh in on the issue of marijuana reform, Pence attacked Harris’s drug enforcement record as a prosecutor.

“When you were when you were [district attorney] in San Francisco, when you left office, African Americans were 19 times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics,” he said. “When you were attorney general of California, you increased report the disproportionate incarceration of blacks in California. You did nothing on criminal justice reform in California.”

The vice president also claimed his Democratic opponent “didn’t lift a finger to pass” criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Harris is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally legalize marijuana and fund programs to repair the harms of the war on drugs, but didn’t publicly endorse ending cannabis prohibition until 2018. She previously campaigned against a ballot measure to enact legalization in California in 2010 and as a prosecutor enforced marijuana and drug criminalization laws.

Pence, as a member of the House, voted consistently against floor amendments to protect state medical cannabis programs from federal interference. In August, he criticized Democrats for including language to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banking services in coronavirus relief legislation.

“In the House of Representatives, I heard the other day that the bill that they passed actually mentions marijuana more than it mentions jobs,”he said. “The American people don’t want some pork barrel bill coming out of the Congress when we’ve got real needs from working families.”

President Trump, when asked, has voiced support for letting states enact their own marijuana policies without federal interference, though his administration has taken a number of hostile anti-cannabis actions that stop short of a full-scale crackdown.

Biden differs with Harris in that he opposes legalizing marijuana but backs decriminalizing possession, expunging past records, modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own laws and legalizing medical cannabis.

Since becoming Biden’s running mate, however, Harris has focused her public marijuana comments on the narrower issue of decriminalization and expunging records, and has not gone further by discussing full legalization or her own legislation that would enact the more far-reaching change.

On Wednesday, Harris appeared uneasy about her prosecutorial record being called out, similar to her performance during a Democratic primary debate last year when Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) went after her cannabis enforcement history and the senator declined to substantively respond.

During the Wednesday exchange, she demanded time to respond to Pence’s comments but seemed to only reiterate points she had already made, which moderator Susan Page of USA Today noted before moving on to the next question.


By Tom Angell for