Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called for nationwide legalization of marijuana, as well as policies to rectify racial disparities in the criminal justice system, during a Wednesday forum for presidential candidates.
At the forum in Houston organized by She The People, a national network of women of color in politics, Harris spoke of the marijuana industry following the drug’s legalization in several states, including California, as “one of the fastest-growing, money-making industries in this country.”
“Now young men trying to make money doing the same thing and were criminalized … are excluded from the opportunities,” Harris said, calling out how people who were previously jailed under marijuana charges ― who are disproportionately people of color ― could now face barriers to work in the industry because of their criminal record.
“Some of those young men should be first in line to get the jobs that are available, and their felony convictions should not be a barrier for employment in an industry they were a part of before it was an industry,” Harris said. “They were ahead of the curve!”
Black people across the nation were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, according to a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union ― this despite data that suggested the groups use the drug at about the same rate.
Even in states where recreational weed became legal, such as Colorado and Washington, black people were still twice as likely as people of other races to be arrested for breaking the states’ pot laws in 2014, per an analysis in The Washington Post from researchers at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
On Wednesday, Harris reiterated her support of marijuana legalization at the federal level, calling drug abuse a “public health issue” rather than a criminal justice issue.
Harris noted that some people had “evolved” their views on substance abuse as a public health issue amid the recent opioid epidemic.
“Where were they when we had the so-called crack epidemic?” Harris asked.
Harris was one of eight 2020 candidates who spoke at the event, billed as the nation’s first-ever presidential forum focused on voters who are women of color.
Other Democratic presidential contenders who spoke included: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), as well as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
The forum was held at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. Its organizers said about 1,700 people, largely women of color, attended.
Harris added that the “real issue” with substance use was often “self-medication because of a lack of mental health resources,” and added that as president she would have “mental health care on demand and drug treatment on demand.”
“There are a lot of folks who have been incarcerated who should not be in prison,” Harris said.