Freshman U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has recently become one of Congress’s most vocal critics of the war on drugs. But her consistent use of the past tense when describing harsh drug policies and her failure to cosponsor any of the pending marijuana law reform bills in the Senate has left some advocates wondering when she will match the rhetoric with action in Congress.
The War on Drugs was bad for public safety, bad for our economy, and bad for those struggling to make ends meet. https://t.co/H93xxAM4ou
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 21, 2017
The war on drugs was an abject failure which affects all of our communities, especially those struggling. We can’t turn the clock back. https://t.co/5b2fH4aBap
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
The war on drugs was a failure. It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 21, 2017
The war on drugs was a failure. AG Sessions' policies continue to ignore bipartisan efforts for criminal justice reform. We must fight this. https://t.co/kodKsbkYdb
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 12, 2017
The fact is, the War on Drugs did not work.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
Harris gave a speech last week at the Center for American Progress’s Ideas Conference in which she discussed the failed drug war at length and endorsed marijuana decriminalization.
The speech was well received and covered fairly uncritically in publications like Rolling Stone, which didn’t mention her curious characterization of the drug war as a thing of the past.
Harris has been especially critical of a memo that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued this month directing federal prosecutors to seek the harshest charges possible in many drug cases, a move than undoes an earlier Justice Department memo from the Obama administration.
“Let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said at the Ideas Conference. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, dealing with issues like human trafficking. Not going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana. Leave her alone.”
But even while the Obama administration made some moves to reform drug prosecution policies, the war on drugs is very much a current concern for millions of families, and not a thing of the past.
There were nearly 1.5 million drug arrests in the U.S. in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Of that, more than 640,000 arrests were for marijuana alone.
“While we appreciate Senator Harris’s continued criticism of our nation’s failed war on drugs, it is important to note that these disastrous policies are not some relic of the past,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told MassRoots in an email. “Every day these arrests continue to criminalize otherwise law abiding citizens, waste already limited legal and judicial resources, rip apart families, make it harder for individuals to find gainful employment, and overwhelmingly impact communities of color and other marginalized groups.”
Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy Project called Harris’s use of the past tense to describe the drug war “curious” but said he’s “thankful for her continued call for reform.”
As California’s attorney general, Harris once literally laughed at a reporter who asked her about marijuana legalization.
Since her state’s voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to end cannabis prohibition in November, however, she seems to be taking the issue more seriously.
“While I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs, as a career prosecutor — I just don’t — but I will tell you this, we need to do the smart thing and the right thing and finally decriminalize marijuana,” she said in the speech last week.
Harris has also called for cannabis to be rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act.
She hasn’t, however, added her name to any of several cannabis bills currently pending before the Senate.
“We’d encourage Senator Harris to join us in our fight to truly relegate marijuana prohibition to the history books by signing on as a co-sponsor of legislation currently pending in Congress that would begin to take our country in a more sensible direction when it comes to marijuana policy,” NORML’s Altieri said.
Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance told MassRoots that it is “normal for a new office that is still hiring staff to not be leading the charge when it comes to legislation.”
MPP’s Capecchi agreed, saying he would be “cautious about reading too much into her lack, to-date, of cosponsorship” for cannabis legislation. “There are just a couple of marijuana policy related bills introduced on the Senate side, they were introduced somewhat recently, and the Senate has been kind of preoccupied thus far.”
But fellow Democratic freshman Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, whose state also voted to legalize marijuana in November, has already signed on to a bill that would expand cannabis businesses’ access to banks.
“I am confident that as the Senator fills out her team, we will see more action to match her words on moving away from the failed drug war,” Collins said, referring to Harris.
Capecchi said that a little encouragement from constituents could help convince Harris to match her words with action in Congress sooner rather than later.
“I would encourage all Californians to make the phone ring in both her district and D.C. offices and urge her to sign on to legislation that ends federal marijuana prohibition,” he said. “She has a great opportunity to join colleagues from both sides of the aisle and lead on this issue that over 70% of Americans support.”