Kamala Harris

Better Late Than Never on Weed, Kamala

Plus: A judge may recognize a poly romance, the Nobel Prize goes to economists "for research on banks and financial crises," and more...


In the wake of President Joe Biden's drug policy announcement last week, Kamala Harris crowed that the Biden administration is "changing the federal government's approach to marijuana." According to Harris, "The bottom line there is nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed."

Her statement was met by ample applause. I wonder how many of the people cheering know about Harris' history on this issue.

During Harris' tenure as California attorney general from 2011 through 2016, nearly 2,000 people went to state prison for having drugs that Harris now scoffs at locking people up for. And as a prosecutor in San Francisco, Harris helped ensure that people who may previously have been eligible for drug diversion programs were instead imprisoned.

It's great that Harris has come around about locking people up for smoking weed. But it would be nice if she occasionally acknowledged and grappled with her drug-warrior past.

On Harris' watch as attorney general, 1,974 people were admitted to state prisons for marijuana or hashish possession, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Harris also opposed California's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in 2010 and, as recently as 2014, laughed when asked if marijuana should be legal.

And while Harris' record on this issue as San Francisco's district attorney is complicated, it's definitely not as progressive as she's implied.

While running for the office, Harris promised to use treatment and diversion programs rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses. But once elected, Harris was much tougher on drugs than her predecessor had been, as I noted in this 2019 Harris profile:

By 2005, Harris was also turning against the city's decade-old Drug Court, which allowed some people arrested on nonviolent possession and small-time sales charges to go to a city-run addiction treatment program as an alternative to incarceration. Successful completion could lead to the charges being dropped. In an op-ed that year in the San Francisco Examiner, Harris complained that people had "learned how to manipulate the system—by simply claiming to be addicts." She proposed barring anyone who had previously sold any quantity of any drug from the Drug Court, and the chance it offered for lesser sentencing, even if the current arrest was for mere possession….

Harris got her way, and then she got more. By 2006, defendants were "ineligible if they do not have a drug addiction" and excluded, even if they were wrestling with addiction, if they were carrying a gun when arrested. "The approach of my administration vs. the prior administration is I don't think drug crime is a victimless crime," she told the Examiner's editorial board in 2006.

During Harris' time as District Attorney, her office "won 1,956 misdemeanor and felony convictions for marijuana possession, cultivation, or sale, according to data from the DA's office," according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Local lawyers remember Harris' time as D.A. in conflicting ways, the paper reports. Some suggest she really did try to avoid sending people to jail or prison for low-level drug offenses. Others recall things differently:

Despite the substantial number of convictions, many of the people who were arrested for marijuana during Harris' tenure were never locked up or never even charged with a crime, according to attorneys who worked on both sides of the courtroom.

"Our policy was that no one with a marijuana conviction for mere possession could do any (jail time) at all," said Paul Henderson, who led narcotics prosecutions for several years under Harris. Defendants arrested for the lowest-level possession would typically be referred to drug treatment programs instead of being charged, and weightier charges for marijuana sales would routinely be pleaded down to less serious ones, he said….

Not all defense attorneys agree. J. David Nick, who represented several dozen marijuana defendants during Hallinan and Harris' tenures, said he remembered Harris as more aggressive in charging marijuana sales cases than her predecessor, who was already declining to prosecute many of those arrested.

"Some of the cases that [her predecessor] Terence Hallinan would have just declined to prosecute, (Harris) said no, we're going to prosecute these as felonies," he said, attributing the change to a desire by police to crack down on dealers.

Other activists point out that marijuana convictions still impact defendants' lives even if they aren't incarcerated.

"Just because you didn't rot your life away in prison doesn't mean it wasn't a big deal to get a conviction," said Dale Sky Jones, a Bay Area marijuana activist. "Your ability to keep your job, get another job or get housing with that conviction on your record is all hurt by that."


A judge may recognize a polyamorous relationship. A New York City judge in an eviction case has ruled "that it's possible for two men to both claim partnerships with a third man," The Advocate reports. The case involves a now-deceased man named Markyus O'Neill who lived in an apartment with Scott Anderson.

Anderson claims that he was in a "familial" relationship with O'Neill, which would allow him to stay in the rent-controlled apartment. But a third man, Robert Romano, claims that he and Anderson had been together for 25 years.

"Based on the affidavits presented by each man, Housing Court Judge Karen May Bacdayan wrote that it appears Anderson 'loved both of them in different ways,'" reports The Advocate. The judge granted a full hearing on the case, citing the 1989 New York Court of Appeals decision Braschi v. Stahl Associates Company. Braschi was "the first appellate decision in the United States to recognize that a same-sex couple living together could be considered a family, as it was later formalized in new regulations by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal and the legislature," notes Gay City News.

"What was 'normal' or 'nontraditional' in 1989 is not a barometer for what is normal or nontraditional now," wrote the judge. "Should a person who would not meet the requirements for succession to a rent-stabilized apartment after Braschi was decided in 1989, now, 33 years later, be evicted when they may qualify, as was concluded in Braschi, under a more inclusive interpretation of a family?"


This year's Nobel Prize in economics has been announced. It's going to Ben S. Bernanke, Douglas W. Diamond, and Philip H. Dybvig "for research on banks and financial crises." Bernanke, of course, has some hands-on experience with such matters, having chaired the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2014.


Read Reason's 2009 profile of Bernanke's philosophy here.


Amsterdam, a star-studded film about a real fascist plot to take over American government in the 1930s, "is a tedious, tendentious, borderline-unwatchable warning about the rise of fascism in the United States," writes Reason's Peter Suderman.

• The New York Times looks at the failure of California's bullet train.

• America's biggest political division isn't left versus right but highly political people versus everyone else, suggest Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan in The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics.

• No, state legislators can't ban interstate abortion travel, explains Reason's Damon Root.

• "Germany is importing coal from South Africa, which is ironic because, just one year ago, Germany gave South Africa $810 million in exchange for an agreement that South Africa not use coal," tweets Michael Shellenberger.