Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is running for the Democratic nomination for president. She's styling herself as a "progressive prosecutor," but her critics haven't forgotten about her record on drug policy.
In January, she announced her presidential candidacy. She joins a crowded field of Democratic candidates hoping to unseat President Trump in 2020.
Harris was the first black person, and the first woman, to serve as Attorney General of California. This is one of the most powerful law enforcement positions in the country. In 2016, she was elected to the U.S. Senate. Pundits have already labeled her as a front-runner in the field of Democratic presidential candidates for 2020. But polls show her popularity lagging behind Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not actually entered the race yet.
As a presidential candidate, her campaign is focusing on how she'll help raise incomes for working families. But critics – especially those on the left – aren't letting people forget about her record as a tough-on-crime, lock-em-up prosecutor.
Her policies hurt minorities and poor communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition. (Although white people use cannabis at the same rates as black and Latino people, people of color are nearly four times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession.) It wasn't just cannabis: Her policies on criminalizing truancy and sex workers disproportionately hurt marginalized groups as well.
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Kamala Harris on Legal Marijuana: A Mixed Record
For decades, Kamala Harris on legal marijuana was not a favorable topic. In 2010, she opposed Proposition 19, California's first attempt to legalize recreational cannabis. In 2014, when she was running for Attorney General of California, her Republican opponent actually supported legalizing marijuana. When Harris was asked about it, she literally laughed out loud.
"Well, he's entitled to his opinion," she chuckled, as if nothing could be more ridiculous than legalizing marijuana. That was in 2014.
Today however, over 60 percent of American voters support recreational legalization. So now, suddenly, Harris supports recreational legalization, too.
So when critics want to call her a political opportunist, they simply point to this: Kamala Harris on legal marijuana.
Harris recently spoke about marijuana on a radio show called the Breakfast Club, when the radio host asked about rumors that she opposes legalizing weed.
"That's not true," she said. "Look, I joke about it, I have joked about it. Half my family is from Jamaica, are you kidding me?" She laughed.
But that half of her family was likely living in Jamaica back in 2010, too, when she opposed legalizing marijuana in California. Harris told the New York Times that Proposition 19 (which would've legalized marijuana in California) would encourage "driving while high" and drug use in the workplace. She also refused to say whether she would uphold Prop 19, even if California voters passed it.
So that was all a big joke?
It probably wasn't very funny to the people who were locked up on marijuana charges during her tenure as California's Attorney General.
Kamala Harris on Legal Marijuana and Criminal Justice Reform: A Few Skeletons in Her Prosecutorial Closet
But she didn't just lock people up for non-violent offenses – she actually fought to *keep* them locked up. This may be the most damning part of Harris's record.
In 2014, the state of California was ordered to allow certain non-violent offenders to be eligible for parole. (Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that California's prison overcrowding problem constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled that California needed to reduce their prison population.)
But releasing these prisoners would pose a problem, according to then-Attorney General Harris' office. Not because the prisoners posed a threat to society (they were non-violent offenders, after all) – but because California needed the inmates for cheap forced labor. Lawyers working on Harris' behalf argued that if certain parolees were released from prison ahead of schedule, it would negatively affect the prison's labor programs. The cheap prison labor programs included one that "allowed" inmates to fight wildfires in the state. The state only had to pay these laborers about two dollars per day. And they didn't want their cheap labor pool drying up.
Other lawyers and law professors pointed out that this argument was cruel and inhumane. Then Harris herself claimed to be shocked, too. (She hadn't known about the argument, she says, although her staff was making it on her behalf.) Some observers found this hard to believe. Among many progressives, this apparent disregard for human life did not sit well. Some still accuse Kamala Harris of being a latecomer to the criminal justice reform movement.
"Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state's attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent," writes Lara Bazelon, a law professor and former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, who recently wrote a scathing New York Times piece titled "Kamala Harris Was Not a 'Progressive Prosecutor'."
As California's Attorney General, Harris also championed policies like criminalizing truancy (prosecuting parents as criminals, for letting their kids miss school.) She ignored concerns that these policies would disproportionately hurt minorities and low-income communities.
Kamala Harris Has Been Labeled a Political Opportunist
Today, there is broad, bipartisan acknowledgement of the need for criminal justice reform. And today, Kamala Harris is now all about criminal justice reform. (Criminal justice reform is so popular that President Trump signed the First Step Act last month, which takes preliminary measures to reform the criminal justice system.)
And today, there's also broad support for marijuana legalization. Kamala Harris is also on board with marijuana legalization. (A few years ago, she'd burst into laughter at the thought of such a preposterous policy.)
Today, she even says she smoked pot herself.
"And I inhaled," she told radio hosts on the Breakfast Club. "It was a long time ago, but yes. I just broke news."
Marijuana can give people joy, she explained.
"I think that it gives more people joy,” Harris said. “We need more joy.”
One of the co-hosts asked her what music she listened to "when you were high."
"Was it Snoop?" another DJ asked.
"Oh yeah, definitely Snoop," Harris said. "Tupac for sure."
Listeners immediately spotted a flaw in her answer.
Tupac's first album came out in 1991. Snoop's came out in 1993. Kamala Harris graduated college in 1986.
This could imply that Senator Harris was still smoking pot while serving as deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California. She held this position from 1990 to 1998. During these years, she prosecuted and sentenced people for nonviolent drug crimes – including marijuana-related crimes.
So, Was Kamala Harris Smoking Pot While Sending People to Jail for Smoking Pot?
Maybe. Or maybe she just wanted to drop some sweet hip-hop references, to distance herself from her image as a tough-on-crime prosecutor. (Or maybe she's a huge stoner, and she forgot which hip-hop records she was listening to in the nineties.) This mini-scandal has already been nicknamed "Snoopgate."
Whatever caused Harris' Snoopgate slip-up, she says she does support marijuana legalization, now. She also supports criminal justice reform. She's even campaigning on abolishing the cash bail system, which keeps poor and minority arrestees behind bars, while their white counterparts more commonly make bail and walk free.
But will her about-face on criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization be enough to fix her image?