With her prosecutorial record under fire, Kamala Harris changes her tune on weed
With a presidential bid underway, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is pivoting on weed, saying Monday morning that she supports legalizing marijuana and smoked weed in college.
Asked during an interview on morning radio show The Breakfast Club about whether she supports legalization, Harris said, “Look, I joke about it, half joking — half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”
As is customary for presidential candidates, Harris was also asked on Monday whether she’s ever smoked weed. She said she had, in college, adding, “I did inhale. It was a long time ago, but yes.”
“Listen,” she said, laughing, “I think [marijuana] gives a lot of people joy and we need more joy in the world.”
— The Breakfast Club (@breakfastclubam) February 11, 2019
The Harris who was cracking jokes during the Monday morning interview is basically unrecognizable compared with the Harris of just a few years ago.
In 2010, while Harris was San Fransisco district attorney and running for state attorney general, she came out in opposition to Proposition 19. The measure would have legalized marijuana in California, and in a statement shared with The New York Times, Harris said Prop 19 would encourage “driving while high” and drug use in the workplace.
As CBS reported at the time, both Harris and her Republican opponent, then-Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, refused to give a straight answer during a debate when they were asked whether they’d defend Prop 19 if it passed.
Prop 19 ultimately did not pass, with 53.5 percent of California voters voting no on the measure. California voters put Harris in the Attorney General’s office that year, as well.
Four years later, Harris was up for re-election, and her Republican opponent Ron Gold made legalizing recreational marijuana part of his platform. When a local news reporter asked Harris what she thought of Gold’s position, Harris said, “He’s entitled to his opinion,” before bursting into laughter.
Harris first announced her support for legalizing marijuana just last year, long after her home state and several others around the country legalized its use. In a book released last month, she called for legalizing and regulating the drug, as well as expunging nonviolent marijuana-related offenses “from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.”
Harris’s pivot comes amidst increased scrutiny of her prosecutorial record. In addition to her earlier comments about weed, Harris has a complicated prosecutorial history with sex work, school truancy, and wrongful convictions.
During her time as California’s attorney general, Harris fought against a movement to legalize sex work in the state, arguing, as LA Weekly reported in 2015, that anti-sex work laws protect people from human trafficking, something many advocates and sex workers have repeatedly refuted.
As ThinkProgress has previously reported, sex workers and their allies say that criminalization only further endangers them.
“We know what best practices around addressing exploitation in labor are, and it’s not making people more isolated and more vulnerable,” Kate D’Adamo of Reframe Health and Justice told ThinkProgress last year.
A truancy program Harris instituted while she worked as San Fransisco’s district attorney has also come under fire in recent weeks. The program began in 2008, and, in an effort to to get chronically truant kids to school, Harris’s office threatened to prosecute their parents.
Harris’s office argues that the program is actually a progressive policy, as a spokesperson for Harris told Vox, “A critical way to keep kids out of the criminal justice system when they’re older or prevent them from becoming victims of crime is to keep them in school when they’re young.”
But progressive criminal justice advocates say the program was dangerously misguided.
“You’re essentially threatening people with prison when there’s underlying poverty issues that are potentially preventing them from having their kids show up to school on time,” Jyoti Nanda, who runs runs a youth and justice clinic at UCLA, also told Vox. “It’s using a crime lens to address what’s really a public health issue.”
Perhaps the most disturbing detail of Harris’s record, however, hasn’t gotten as much attention. As The New York Times outlined in January, California’s former top lawyer has a history of defending wrongful convictions.
In 2015, according to the Times report, Harris’s prosecutors likely could have freed George Gage, a man who was charged with sexually abusing his stepdaughter. Gage was convicted largely on the basis of his stepdaughter’s testimony, despite the fact that his stepdaughter’s mother described her child as a “pathological liar,” and the fact that Gage was forced to act as his own lawyer. Harris sent the case to mediation and refused dismiss it. Gage remains in prison.
Similarly, as the Times reported, Harris worked to keep another man, Daniel Larsen, in prison for possession of a concealed weapon even though there was compelling evidence of his innocence, arguing that he failed to raise his arguments in a timely fashion.
Harris also defended Johnny Baca’s murder conviction, even though a judge found that a prosecutor presented false testimony during the trial. Harris later “fought tooth and nail,” as Ninth Circuit Judge William Fletcher put it to The Press-Enterprise, to keep the transcript that proved the false testimony out of the court’s hands.
“It looks terrible,” Fletcher told the paper.