WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic White House hopeful Kamala Harris introduced a Senate bill on Tuesday to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, erase past convictions and use funds from marijuana sales to invest in communities hit by the decades-long “war on drugs.”
Harris, a U.S. senator from California and the state’s former attorney general, was joined by Democratic U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, who introduced the bill in the House of Representatives. Both serve on the judiciary panels in their respective chambers.
Details of the Harris-Nadler legislation were provided to Reuters by Harris’ Senate office.
“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris said in a statement. “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.”
Harris’ marijuana stances have evolved. In May 2018, the former prosecutor signed on to a bill by now fellow White House contender Senator Cory Booker to fully legalize it after previously supporting legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing past convictions.
Nadler said in a statement that as U.S. states have legalized marijuana use, persons with past criminal convictions “still face second-class citizenship” and the “racially motivated enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionately impacted communities of color.”
Harris said their legislation, if passed, would be an “important step toward racial and economic justice.”
Former President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in the 1970s. The decades-long push to increase the scope of federal drug enforcement agencies and the implementation of policies such as drug-related mandatory minimum sentences led to disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates for minorities.
The introduction of the bill came one week before Harris will participate in the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit. At the first debate last month in Miami, Harris sparred with former Vice President Joe Biden over his record on racial issues.
Harris’ marijuana positions could offer another opportunity for her to contrast herself to Biden, the front-runner in a crowded Democratic field vying to face Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
A criminal justice plan Biden released on Tuesday would decriminalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and legalize it for medical purposes, but stopped short of legalizing recreational usage, which he has said should be left up to the states.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use.
In addition to decriminalizing marijuana by removing it from the list of controlled substances and enabling states to set their own policies, the Harris-Nadler “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act” would prohibit the denial of federal public benefits, including housing, due to marijuana use and mandate it would have no impact under immigration laws.
Additionally, the bill would authorize a 5% federal sales tax on marijuana products that are manufactured in or imported into the United States, which would fund three grant programs. Two would aid those most adversely affected by the war on drugs by providing job-training services within and outside the marijuana industry. The third would provide financial assistance to small businesses in the marijuana industry owned and operated by economically disadvantaged individuals.
Reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney and Matthew Lewis