Many in the cannabis world are disappointed with Joe Biden as the Democratic Party’s presumptive Presidential nominee. But his selection of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as a running mate has sparked hope of long-awaited reforms.
Industry insiders expressed cautious optimism that Harris could sway Biden on cannabis policy. In the Democratic primary, the former vice president was one of the few candidates who did not call for full legalization, though he has endorsed more modest reforms. For instance, he supports rescheduling cannabis to accelerate MED research.
Vincent Sliwoski, a managing partner at law firm Harris Bricken, says Harris is more progressive on cannabis reform—now, at least—than Biden ever was. Last year in the Senate, Harris co-sponsored the MORE Act, a bill that would deschedule cannabis. She has also prioritized legalization as a component of criminal justice reform. If the Democratic ticket wins, she would likely have the most progressive views on cannabis of anyone ever in the presidential cabinet.
“It’s all encouraging,” Sliwoski said. “I hope she’ll push him pretty hard” on criminal justice reform, the war on drugs and social justice issues. But he warned against expecting a Biden-Harris victory to immediately lead to removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Sliwoski, who has written in-depth posts on Harris’ cannabis record at the firm’s Canna Law Blog, doubts any big federal-level changes on cannabis would occur quickly. Such steps take time and he points out that the MORE Act has not gained strong support in the Democrat-controlled House.
He’s also watching what states do, as more legalize and create cannabis-related jobs and economies. Those advances add more pressure to reform federal policy. “After a while, it’s like everybody is ignoring federal law,” he said. “Why do we even have these laws? No one’s ever going to enforce them.”
A brilliant pick?
Brian Vicente, founding partner of Denver cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, expressed more optimism. “I think this was a brilliant pick by the Biden team for a number of reasons,” including to shore up the cannabis vote. Biden’s not there on cannabis policy, “but Kamala Harris is there,” he said.
Vicente said his clients and colleagues are happy with Harris as the choice. She didn’t always support legalization, but “I do think she’s made a genuine public turnaround” on the issue, he said. “I think she will be a champion.”
Vicente also noted that she recognizes cannabis’ role in criminal justice reform. “She understands the social, the racial and the economic” reasons for legalization, Vicente said.
Biden’s the one who would be setting the policy agenda, including on cannabis-related issues, Krane noted. “His track record is pretty terrible on this issue.”
Although the top of the ticket concerns Krane, and despite Harris’ “checkered history” on the issue and her past as a prosecutor, the nomination offers “some reason for optimism,” he said.
“There’s a chance she’ll help push Biden in the right direction,” Krane said. He compared it to Vice President Biden’s accelerating President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage.
Krane doesn’t expect a Biden Administration to push for any cannabis-related legislation. But if the Democrats control Congress after the election and pass legislation, Harris could influence Biden to sign it. And the MORE Act could have a better shot at being the vehicle for cannabis reform if its lead sponsor is in the White House.
Krane also suggested Harris could prompt Biden to take some executive or administrative action on cannabis, “if she’s genuine in her support of the issue.” That could include instructing the Department of Treasury to limit the use of tax rule 280E or instructing the Department of Justice not to pursue certain cannabis-related charges.
Drug advocacy organizations also expressed hope that Harris’ selection would lead to advances for ongoing cannabis reform efforts.
NORML touted Harris’ MORE Act as an attractive vehicle for federal reform. The organization points out that among other provisions, it would facilitate federal expungements for minor charges, incentivize state and local governments to do the same, and remove the threat of deportation for immigrants involved in minor marijuana violations.
In a press release, NORML’s Political Director Justin Strekal called passing the MORE Act “essential” to “truly right the wrongs of federal marijuana criminalization.”
In a statement, Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at Drug Policy Action—an arm of Drug Policy Alliance—noted that the group had worked with Harris on the MORE Act. Perez stated the group is hopeful that Harris will “deliver on the promises she has made to communities of color and low-income communities to end federal criminalization of marijuana and begin dismantling the racist drug war that has ripped apart their communities over the last 50 years.”
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