Can Kamala Harris Change Joe Biden's Mind on Federal Cannabis Legalization?

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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) will sit down with ABC’s David Muir for their first joint television interview on Sunday evening.

Cannabis industry professionals will no doubt be tuning in to see whether Biden and Harris are questioned about the possibility of legalizing marijuana at the federal level, should Biden go on to defeat current President Donald Trump in November.

To understand how Biden and Harris might jointly respond to questions regarding cannabis legalization, it’s helpful to understand where they both stand on the issue.

For his part, Biden is on record saying that he supports federal decriminalization and the nationwide legalization of medical marijuana. However, when it comes to adult-use cannabis, the former Vice President believes individual states should continue to establish their own legalization policies and has maintained that more research should be conducted before the drug is removed from the Controlled Substances Act.

“I think anyone who has a record should be let out of jail and have their records expunged,” he said during the fifth democratic primary debate last year. “But I do think it makes sense, based on data, that we should study what the long-term effects [are] for the use of marijuana."

It’s unclear if Biden’s stance has changed, or if Harris can push him to support federal legalization over the next 74 days.

As of last month, Biden appeared unwilling to waiver from his position after rejecting proposals made by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ camp during “Unity Task Force” meetings. Here’s Politico with the explanation in a recent article headlined “The left gets rolled on legalizing pot — and legal protections for cops.”

“Another flashpoint over marijuana ended similarly: Sanders’ team argued in private meetings that they should legalize cannabis, but that idea was rejected. One task force member described the disagreements over qualified immunity and pot as ‘huge battles,’ and multiple people involved said the criminal justice panel presented some of the biggest challenges for compromise.”

While the democratic party recommendations related to marijuana that came as a result of those meetings were decidedly more centrist, those within the cannabis community hope that Harris will have greater influence over Biden’s viewpoints. Harris — who sponsored the senate version of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act — is undoubtedly more progressive on the issue of cannabis legalization.

However, that hasn’t always been the case, and her own stance on cannabis has evolved over the years. As a San Francisco district attorney, Harris oversaw 1,900 cannabis-related convictions, a fact that opponents have used against her in the past, criticizing her as a hypocrite.

Also in 2010, she co-authored a rebuttal argument in favor of Prop 19 in California, which would have legalized recreational marijuana years before a second ballot initiative finally passed in 2016.

It wasn’t until mid-2018, when Harris co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act, that she finally pivoted on federal legalization.

“Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do,” she said at the time. “I know this as a former prosecutor, and I know it as a senator.”

Now, cannabis advocates and insiders believe Harris’s own about-face could prompt Biden to do the same.

National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) spokesman Morgan Fox told THCnet that while the organization has concerns about Harris’s “historical stances and behavior,” they believe her support of the MORE Act and more recent statements about legalization indicate that “she clearly understands the needs to repair the harms caused by prohibition and the necessity to stop our current disastrous policies.”

“It seems likely that she would nudge Biden even farther in the right direction with a greater focus on descheduling,” Fox wrote to THCnet in an email.

“Beyond being a positive influence on Biden when it comes to cannabis policy, I think that her inclusion on the ticket is likely to at least raise the profile of the issue between now and November, and beyond,” he added.

For his part, Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF) strategic advisor Steve Fox believes the Trump campaign will continue to question Harris’s pivot and potentially push a narrative that she allegedly lied about her own marijuana use.

In a note sent to CTF members last week, Fox posed several questions about the issue of cannabis legalization in the upcoming election and said the organization would be “monitoring the situation closely,” while simultaneously “looking for opportunities to influence the discussion.”

“Will these marijuana-related attacks continue? Will they eventually come from President Donald Trump directly? And how do they jibe with the Trump administration’s recent embrace of congressional Republican talking points, criticizing the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the most recent House coronavirus relief package and mocking the focus on cannabis generally?”

Meanwhile, during a recent conversation with Canopy Growth Corporation’s vice president of government and stakeholder relations David Culver, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who is also the chairman of the congressional cannabis caucus, discussed the role marijuana could play in the upcoming election. He also suggested that Biden’s stance on legalization could be shifting.

“I think the vice president’s position is evolving, I think the campaign needs to embrace it,” he said. “It is demanded by the American public. It’s no longer controversial. For the campaign to talk about decriminalization, is essentially meaningless. Your grandmother is for decriminalization.”

Indeed, roughly two-thirds of American now support federal legalization, according to several polls, and the possibility of federal reform has never felt closer.

Blumenauer also said he is “optimistic” that Biden will provide a “better statement” on his cannabis stance before the election.

“But ultimately, what is going to matter is what we do in Congress and we are poised — maybe even this Congress — to fully legalize, but certainly in the next Congress," he added.

Regardless of how the conversation with Muir unfolds on Sunday night, it’s clear that cannabis will play a role in the upcoming election and that federal legalization is on the horizon.


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