Harris introduces federal legislation to legalize marijuana
WASHINGTON – Sen. Kamala Harris, a top-tier contender in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary field, introduced legislation Tuesday that would decriminalize and tax marijuana — a move that is at odds with the California Democrat’s record.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which was written by Harris and co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, implement re-sentencing or expungement for prior marijuana-based convictions, and tax revenue generated by the marijuana industry, with 50% of it used to create three trust funds.
The trust funds include the Community Reinvestment Grant, which would provide funding for services such as job training, re-entry services and legal aid; the Cannabis Opportunity Grant, which would provides funds to assist small businesses in the pot industry; and the Equitable Licensing Grant, which minimizes barriers to gain access to marijuana licensing and employment for those most impacted by the so-called war on drugs.
Part of the impetus for legalizing marijuana is a concern that people of color, mostly black Americans, are disproportionately targeted and charged for marijuana-related offenses. African Americans are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for pot, according to the ACLU.
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Harris’ legislation would also prohibit denial of federal public benefits due to marijuana use and possession. In addition, the legislation dictates that possession or use of marijuana would also have no adverse impact under the immigration laws. The Bureau of Labor Statistics would also collect data on the demographics of those in the marijuana industry to “ensure people of color and those who are economically disadvantaged are participating in the industry,” the legislation says.
The California Democrat, however, hasn’t always supported fully legalizing marijuana.
Nine years ago, Harris opposed legislation that would have legalized marijuana in California, according to the Los Angeles Times. Harris, who was the San Francisco district attorney at the time, supported the legal use of medical marijuana but was against 2010 legislation that would have legalized pot in California.
“Spending two decades in court rooms, Harris believes that drug selling harms communities,” a Harris spokesman at the time told the Capitol Weekly.
While California attorney general, Harris declined to comment in an August 2014 interview with a local Sacramento TV station about her then-opponent’s stance on legalizing recreational marijuana.
“Your opponent, Ron Gold, has said that he is for the legalization of marijuana recreationally. Your thoughts on that?” KCRA-TV asked Harris, who was seeking reelection.
“Um, I — that he is entitled to his opinion,” she replied.
The next year, Harris called to “end the federal ban on medical marijuana” during the 2015 Democratic State Convention.
Since announcing her presidential bid in late January, Harris has been criticized by some progressives for her record on criminal justice issues.
Just weeks after announcing, Harris said in an interview on “the Breakfast Club” — an urban radio show well-known in the black community that nearly every 2020 Democrat has visited — that she smoked a joint while in college.
“I did inhale. It was a long time ago. But, yes,” she said. She added in the interview that she was in favor of legalizing marijuana, noting that in the past she “had concerns.”
A number of Democratic presidential candidates have also expressed their support for legalizing marijuana.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey in February reintroduced his 2017 legislation that would legalize weed across the nation. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Harris all co-sponsored the bill this year.
Booker’s legislation, the Marijuana Justice Act, would also expunge federal convictions and allow those who have been prosecuted to petition for shorter sentences.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the Democratic 2020 field, has not supported legalizing marijuana.
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There are currently 33 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana in some form. Eleven of those states, Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, and DC have made recreational marijuana legal.
In a statement about the legislation unveiled Tuesday, Harris said that everyone, especially communities of color, should have an opportunity to participate in the growing industry as it becomes legal in states across the country.
“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris said. “We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives.”
Contributing: Aamer Madhani
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