Kamala Harris Says ‘We Need To Legalize Marijuana’ For First Time Since Joining Biden Ticket, Signaling Potential Shift Ahead Of Election

Kamala Harris Says ‘We Need To Legalize Marijuana’ For First Time Since Joining Biden Ticket, Signaling Potential Shift Ahead Of Election

For the first time since joining the ticket as President Joe Biden’s running mate in 2020, Vice President Kamala Harris has called for the legalization of marijuana—signaling a possible shift in the administration’s platform heading into the November elections. Harris told a room of cannabis pardon recipients at the White House on Friday that “we need to legalize marijuana,” a participant in the meeting has revealed.

Harris had already made news earlier in the day, calling on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reschedule cannabis “as quickly as possible” in public opening remarks before the closed-door roundtable with the clemency beneficiaries. But sitting below a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt after the media was cleared out of the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room, the vice president raised her hands in the air and called for an end to federal cannabis prohibition, a longtime activist and pardon recipient who attended the event tells Marijuana Moment.

“Saying those words out loud—saying it in the Roosevelt Room—it did feel very meaningful,” said New Jersey-based advocate Chris Goldstein, who recently received a pardon certificate from DOJ after being formally forgiven for a 2014 cannabis possession case stemming from a protest advocating for federal marijuana policy reform. “It wasn’t lost on anyone there.”

Harris sponsored a marijuana legalization bill while serving as a U.S. senator and ran on the issue during her unsuccessful 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign, but she has not publicly called for the broad reform since signing on as Biden’s running mate later that year.

Instead, during that general election campaign and while servicing as vice president she has embraced Biden’s more limited platform that focuses on ending the incarceration of people for using marijuana and providing pardons for certain cannabis offenses.

Goldstein was one of three pardon recipients who joined the vice president—in addition to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), rapper Fat Joe and others—for Friday’s White House roundtable discussion on the Biden administration’s cannabis clemency efforts.

“The greatest thing about the meeting today was it did not feel like a one-time event. Everything about today—and there were some words expressed about doing more things like this—the White House wants to engage on this policy consistently. That’s clemency, criminal justice, marijuana legalization,” Goldstein told Marijuana Moment on Friday after the meeting. “They want to be right in it, and right now the White House has an important role to play and they’re doing it.”

The vice president’s call for legalization—albeit only behind closed doors and out of earshot of the press, for now—represents a meaningful development for the administration. Harris didn’t speak on behalf of the president, but throughout their first term, neither Harris nor Biden has embraced the increasingly bipartisan policy of ending federal cannabis prohibition. In fact, the White House has said at points that the president’s position against federal legalization hasn’t changed and he was only willing to associate himself with yet-unfulfilled campaign pledges to decriminalize marijuana, allow medical cannabis and release people currently incarcerated over the plant.

None of that has happened to date. But as was highlighted at the White House event, the president has pardoned thousands of people who’ve committed federal cannabis possession offenses. And he additionally directed federal agencies to carry out a review into marijuana scheduling.

In the public-facing portion of Friday’s meeting, Harris said strongly that DEA must reschedule marijuana “as quickly as possible,” calling it “absurd” and “patently unfair” that cannabis is still classified in the same category as heroin. She said she looked forward to the completion of the review, which has involved the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommending to DEA that it move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

“We need to have a resolution based on their findings and their assessment,” she said. “This issue is stark when one considers the fact that on the schedule currently, marijuana is considered as dangerous as heroin. Marijuana is considered as dangerous as heroin and more dangerous than fentanyl—which is absurd, not to mention patently unfair.”

Moving marijuana to Schedule III would not federally legalize marijuana, however. And the vice president recognized that reality in remarks to the group of invited guests.

The White House’s internal media team recorded the closed-door portions of the roundtable meeting, Goldstein said, but it has not yet released any materials, including Harris’s remarks on legalization. Marijuana Moment reached out to vice president’s office for comment, but a representative was not immediately available.

“We’ve seen the vice president really taking a lot of good, strong positions lately—and and I think that’s a good one to take. It’s not a new one for her,” Goldstein said, referencing Harris’s vocal support for legalization during her time in the Senate, where she sponsored a comprehensive reform bill, as well as on the campaign trail competing for the 2020 Democratic nomination against the current president.

A look at Harris’s career shows she has a complex cannabis legacy. Before embracing legalization, she enforced criminalization and proactively opposed a 2010 cannabis legalization ballot initiative as a San Francisco prosecutor and later as California’s attorney general. But her position has shifted dramatically over the years.

While the purpose of Friday’s meeting was focused on the president’s clemency action—which he historically touted in his State of the Union address last week—the event seems to be the latest signal that the administration is hoping to appeal to voters ahead of the November election by promoting an issue with bipartisan popularity, especially among critical young voters.

The president’s mention of his marijuana pardons and administrative scheduling review directive during last week’s speech before a joint session of Congress was a key acknowledgement to that end. And it was well-received, evidenced in part by the massive social media response it elicited.

That said, the president did again misstate the scope of his administrative actions on marijuana, falsely asserting that he expunged thousands of records when, in fact, a pardon does not clear a person’s record. His mistaken belief could end up causing legal issues for recipients, too, as he not only continues to insist that those cases are sealed but also claimed this week that those who received clemency no longer need to disclose their arrests or convictions on official forms, contrary to the law.

In any case, it appears that the vice president is being cast as the messenger on the administration’s marijuana policy heading into the election, which could serve both top executives well.

For example, a recent poll that showed how Biden’s marijuana moves stand to benefit him in November. The survey found the president’s favorability spiked after people were made aware of the possibility that cannabis could be rescheduled under the Biden-initiated review.

Harris, for her part, also faced criticism last month after sharing a video where she claimed the administration had “changed federal marijuana policy.” Again, while Biden has issued thousands of simple possession pardons and directed the ongoing review into federal cannabis scheduling, the law itself has not changed at this point, and campaign pledges to decriminalize marijuana have yet gone unfulfilled.

The vice president’s video also showed a map with incorrect information on which states have legalized cannabis to date.

Whether DEA accepts the HHS recommendation is yet to be seen. And while many expect an announcement will happen before the election, the timeline is uncertain. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra defended his agency’s rescheduling recommendation during a Senate committee hearing on Thursday and later told cannabis lobbyist Don Murphy that he should pay DEA a visit and “knock on their door” for answers about the timing of their decision.

Certain DEA officials are reportedly resisting the Biden administration’s rescheduling push, disputing the HHS findings on marijuana’s safety profile and medical potential, according to unnamed sources who spoke with The Wall Street Journal.

The Biden administration was recently pressed to reschedule marijuana by two coalitions representing military veterans and law enforcement—including a group that counts DEA Administrator Anne Milgram among its members.

On the president’s pardon action, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment last month that the clemency should be “extended all the way out, and any unintended or intended consequences of the war on drugs should be dealt with to repair the damage.”

Former Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), however, told Marijuana Moment that he’s been “very pleased” with Biden’s clemency actions, arguing that the president has “taken some pretty, in my opinion, bold steps.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army recently clarified in a branch-wide notice that marijuana possession violations under the military drug code weren’t eligible under the president’s pardons. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) called it a “mistake” to exclude military from the relief.

Also, the governor of Massachusetts announced on Wednesday that she is moving to pardon “hundreds of thousands” of people with misdemeanor marijuana convictions on their records, in line with Biden’s push for state-level clemency.

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Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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