Kamala Harris and Jerry Nadler team up on proposal to decriminalize marijuana, expunge convictions

Posted at 7:47 AM, Jul 23, 2019

Sen. Kamala Harris will introduce legislation Tuesday that decriminalizes marijuana on the federal level, marking her boldest legislative step on the issue.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, enabling states to set their own policies. The bill calls for the resentencing and expungement of past and pending convictions and aims to rebuild communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, will introduce companion legislation in his respective chamber.

Public sentiment in favor of decriminalizing the drug has sharply increased. A recent Gallup poll released last month found that 64% of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana; that's up from 44% just a decade ago.

In statement, Harris decried that marijuana possession is still a federal crime, saying, "Times have changed."

"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," the California Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate said.

Both Harris and Nadler said people of color were more likely to be convicted of or arrested for marijuana-related crimes.

She added: "As marijuana becomes legal across the country, we must make sure everyone -- especially communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs -- has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry."

A longtime advocate for decriminalizing marijuana, Nadler said that despite the legalization in several states, those with convictions still face "second-class citizenship."

"Their vote, access to education, employment, and housing are all negatively impacted," Nadler said in a statement "Racially motivated enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionally impacted communities of color. It's past time to right this wrong nationwide and work to view marijuana use as an issue of personal choice and public health, not criminal behavior."

As a former prosecutor, Harris' views on marijuana have evolved over the years. In 2010, when Harris was the San Francisco district attorney and running for California attorney general, she opposed Proposition 19. The state ballot initiative would have made California the first state to legalize marijuana, but voters rejected it.

In 2015, Harris called to "end the federal ban on medical marijuana" during California's Democratic State Convention but stopped short of full legalization.

This February, less than a month after announcing her presidential bid, Harris admitted in an interview to having smoked weed.

"I have. And I did inhale," she said, adding, "It gives a lot of people joy and we need more joy."

The Harris-Nadler bill is similar in tone to one introduced earlier this year by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, another 2020 Democratic candidate. Harris is a co-sponsor of Booker's Marijuana Justice Act of 2019, which also seeks to decriminalize pot and reinvest in communities affected by the war on drugs.

The legislation would turn the drug into an economic driver by engaging them in the burgeoning cannabis industry. The bill authorizes Congress to use half of the annual tax revenue generated by the marijuana industry to invest in job training, reentry services and youth recreation in communities most adversely affected by the war on drugs. The bill determines those in need as persons with incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level for at least five of the last 10 years who have been arrested or convicted of some cannabis offense.

The tax revenue would also fund grants to help those communities access marijuana licensing and employment and build small businesses in the marijuana industry.

Maritza Perez, a senior policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, said it's the most "far-reaching marijuana bill" to be introduced in Congress.

"We've always said that any marijuana reform needs to start with social justice," Perez said in an interview with CNN. "Now we are in a situation where folks are making a lot of money from marijuana activity, that sent people of color to prison, depleting families and communities of breadwinners and workers."

Perez says that when working on the bill, the Marijuana Justice Coalition -- a collection of drug policy, criminal justice and civil rights groups -- advised Nadler's staff and looked to Booker's and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's marijuana bills and other policies as inspiration. The group pushed the bill to go further in providing grants that incentivize licensing in communities of color.

"It's so expensive to get into the industry. You have to have a lot of capital, and if you are a low-income person you probably don't have that capital. If you're a person from a disenfranchised community, you probably don't even have the network that you need to build that capital up to support a business. And oftentimes this inaccessibility is a direct consequence of the war on drugs," said Perez.

The Harris-Nadler bill prohibits the denial of any federal public benefits, like housing, on the basis of marijuana use. Additionally, it states that use or possession of marijuana would have no adverse impact under immigration laws.

Wanda James, who 10 years ago became the first black woman to own a marijuana dispensary in Denver, said every marijuana overhaul bill or rule that's been passed around the country has left people of color farther and farther behind.

"This bill is addressing a lot of those issues," she said in an interview with CNN.

James, an alum of former President Barack Obama's campaign who supports Harris' bid for president, heralded the reduction of sentences and expunging of record as game-changers.

She described marijuana growers in the 1970s and 1980s as the early developers of the modern cannabis age.

James said the Harris-Nadler bill could change "the entire market of people who are willing to take jobs" on every level in the cannabis industry.

"I need black entrepreneurs to be in the C suite. We need black vendors to be on the board of directors. We need young black people coming out of college and over the age of 21 that want to work in the industry," she said.

And James commended the bill for talking about cannabis "in a way that is about healing instead of getting stoned or getting high."