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Kamala Harris on Cannabis: Her Record Is Not as Bad as You Think

Senator Kamala Harris at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

This article was originally posted on July 31. It was updated on August 1.

U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris has come a long way since she laughed off a question about supporting marijuana legalization in 2014. Harris wants to be known for having been a progressive prosecutor when she was Attorney General of California from 2011-2016, though Politifact says her “record is mixed.” Is she as bad as some are trying to say?

For example, this headline ran in conservative website, Washington Free Beacon on February 14: “Kamala Harris Packed California Prisons With Pot Peddlers.” The subhead read: “At least 1,560 people were sent to state prisons for marijuana-related offenses between 2011 and 2016.”

The story itself doesn’t make the claim that Harris was in any way personally responsible for all those people being sent away, but only people who read past the subhead will realize that.

In actuality, most of those people are tried by city prosecutors or county district attorneys. For example, in 2017, there were 200,200 felony criminal filings in California courts. Deputy district attorneys in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted more than 70,000 of those.

California’s attorney general is the top law enforcement officer in the state. However, as the California District Attorneys Association points out: “By law, the district attorney is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. While a district attorney’s duties are not limited to criminal prosecution, California Government Code ß 26500 provides that the district attorney’s most essential duty is investigating and prosecuting criminal offenses on behalf of the people.”

The California AG has some supervisory authority over county district attorneys, yet DAs are their own people with their own mandates from their voters. As AG, Harris was able to advise and provide leadership on questions of policy.

Gabbard Uses Free Beacon’s Numbers to Attack Harris During Democratic Debate

In a surprising turn of events, Rep. Tulsa Gabbard went after Harris’ record as California’s top prosecutor during the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate on July 31 on CNN. During a discussion about criminal justice reform, the Congresswoman from Hawaii lobbed this grenade at Harris: «She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.»

It turns out the number Gabbard quoted from Free Beacon is incorrect and and is actually somewhat higher.

Seeking clarity on these numbers, Freedom Leaf requested public records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The request was approved on July 24.

Here’s what we discovered: The total number of people admitted to prison for felony marijuana offenses during Harris’ two terms as California’s attorney general from 2011-2016 was 1,876, not 1,560. Except for one year, the numbers the Free Beacon quoted are incorrect. The offenses include marijuana possession for sale, marijuana sales and other offenses such as cultivation and sales to minors.

The admission numbers from 2011-2016 are:

2011 – 817

2012 – 244

2013 – 210

2014 – 245

2015 – 183

2016 – 137

It’s important to note that, from the time Harris was elected AG to when she left office, admissions to prison for marijuana offenses in California declined by 83.2%.

Also, California further decriminalized its marijuana law in 2010, which may have contributed to this drop in prison admissions.

It’s true, as the Free Beacon pointed out, California was ordered by federal courts to reduce its prison population. But that didn’t happen in 2011, as the website claimed. The federal order to reduce California’s prison population was handed down in 2009, though it wasn’t until Prop 47 passed in 2014 that the state really started to make progress.

Harris’ Evolution from Bystander to Legalization Supporter

To better understand Harris’ evolution, let’s look at some historical context. She started as a prosecutor in Alameda County in 1990, fresh out of law school, at the height of the crack wars. By 1998, Harris was running the career criminal unit in the San Francisco DA’s office. In 2003, she was elected District Attorney in San Francisco, then in 2010 was elected to the office of the state’s Attorney General.

According to NORML, during her time as San Francisco DA, Harris was a solid supporter of patient access to medical cannabis. However, when she ran for state attorney general in 2010, Harris opposed the adult-use legalization initiative Prop 19, as did her opponent, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris gives a victory speech after winning the nomination for California Attorney General in 2010. (Photo by Steve Rhodes)

It’s important to note that, from the time Harris was elected Attorney General to when she left office, admissions to prison for marijuana offenses in California declined by 83.2%.

In 2014, during Harris’ AG reelection campaign against Ron Gold, who was for legalization, she laughed and said, “He’s entitled to his opinion,” when asked by a reporter for hers. According the Drug Policy Forum of California, “Harris waved off a question about legalization with a laugh, but later said she is ‘not opposed’ to it and even sees it as ‘inevitable.’”

Two years later, Harris ducked the question when Prop 64, another adult-use marijuana legalization initiative was on the ballot, because the attorney general’s office prepares ballot titles and summaries. That’s understandable: If she took a position one way or the other on the ballot measure, then the other side could’ve accused her of deliberately slanting the titles and summary. Still, she was generally supportive of the idea of legalization in her response to the Sacramento Bee on that question.

In 2016, Kamala Harris was elected to a U.S. Senate controlled by Republicans. The other senator from California, who has much more seniority, is the renowned drug warrior Dianne Feinstein.

Introducing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act 

Senator Harris is one of the co-sponsors of the Marijuana Justice Act, which was introduced by her opponent in the Democratic primaries, Senator Cory Booker.

On July 23, Senator Harris introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act along with House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the measure “goes further than previous bills” and would “end the federal war on marijuana and right the wrongs of prohibition.”

So, is Harris an opportunist jumping onto a bandwagon in order to raise funds and gain electoral support? Maybe, but she’s not likely to endear herself to the big money moving into the marijuana industry by calling for equity programs and social justice. Activists, on the other hand, may appreciate her call for social justice, though her background as a prosecutor leaves some people, primarily Californians, cold.

Has Harris really evolved from the career prosecutor who saw the world through a law enforcement lens to a political leader with more nuanced views? Some people do enter law enforcement because of a finely tuned sense of morality, only to be turned off by the endemic immorality within the criminal justice system and hence become crusaders for social justice. Or is she simply good at gauging the winds of public opinion and acknowledging the realpolitik?

What marijuana-centric voters will have to decide in the Democratic primaries is whether Kamala Harris should continue to evolve as a Senator, or as the President.

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