Legalize marijuana

Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

What Biden and Harris are proposing:

During the primary, Biden used the issue of marijuana to put some extra ideological distance between himself and the candidates on his left. Rather than calling for an out-and-out end to pot prohibition, Biden supports legalizing marijuana for medical use nationwide. He also said that recreational use should be decriminalized — meaning fines, rather than jail time. And for states like California that have already fully legalized weed for adults, Biden has said the feds should respect that. 

But now that Harris is on the ticket, that ideological gap has tightened up. Despite her refusal to back legal cannabis as a prosecutor, as a California senator, Harris introduced a bill that would decriminalize cannabis use and tax and regulate the industry where states allow it. As presidential candidate, she was even more definitive, saying that she is “absolutely in favor of legalizing marijuana.” 

California progressives hope that Harris will have an edifying influence on her running mate. “Joe Biden is going to have to evolve around legalization and I think Senator Harris as vice president will push that,” said Oakland congressperson Barbara Lee in an interview in late August.

What California is doing:

California is one of 11 states that have sanctioned cannabis. Golden State voters made medical marijuana legal in 1996 and approved recreational use in 2016. The law allows adults age 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and grow up to six plants for personal use. Commercial growers and dispensaries must get a license from the state and pay taxes. Cities are allowed to ban the sale of cannabis, and smoking it in public remains illegal. The law also downgraded penalties for nearly every crime involving marijuana, allowing people with past convictions to petition the court to be resentenced or cleared.

How’s it going here?

Marijuana has become a major lobbying force in the statehouse, where Gov. Gavin Newsom is a champion for legalization. Still, creation of a legal marketplace has proved rocky. The black market remains huge — roughly three-quarters of California weed still is being sold illegally, according to an audit released by the United Cannabis Business Association, a trade group.  Most cities in the state have banned dispensaries, setting off a legal battle over how much local control the state law provides. Tax revenues from legal sales are coming in below expectations, and producers are pushing back against the state’s move to increase tax rates. Marijuana remains an all-cash enterprise because federal law prevents cannabis businesses from using banks. The criminal justice impact of legalization is also nascent: In the first year after legalization, only 10% of eligible people took steps to have their prior cannabis crimes downgraded or cleared. Some prosecutors are working with a nonprofit to identify and inform people who could have their records cleared.