Kamala Harris vowed the Biden Administration would decriminalize cannabis and expunge criminal records. That’s encouraging.

By Bridget Hennessey, Vice President at Weedmaps

“The debate about the debates.” That’s what I call the water cooler conversations (now held over Zoom) when my colleagues suggest how they might pose a cannabis legalization question during one of the three presidential debates.

But naturally, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris were the focus of conversations recently, days before last night’s matchup. Should cannabis be on the list of topics to debate? One conversation among my remote colleagues went something like this:

Pence won’t have much to say,” an associate suggested, as we waited for a conference call to start. “It would make for boring television,” he opined. “Well Harris doesn’t want a legalization question, that’s for sure,” another said. “She and Biden are too far apart on cannabis. She doesn’t want to go there.”

I was ambivalent. With legalization on the ballot in several states next month, and record level public support from both Democrats and Republicans, legalization certainly is an appropriate and provocative topic for President Trump and Vice President Biden to hash out. But as far as the contenders for Vice President were concerned, I concurred: not much of a record from Pence, and Harris probably “didn’t want to go there.”

Well, she went there.

In response to a question about race and social justice, Harris concluded her answer with: “We will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

It was totally unexpected and very exciting. My phone rarely stopped buzzing the entire evening. According to the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank, Harris’ statement is “the strongest any major-party candidate for president or vice president has taken to date on the issue in such a prominent venue.”

From a debate strategy perspective, it was a risky move. Debate is like chess, you’ve got to anticipate your opponent’s next move. In August, Pence — commenting on Covid-19 legislation — said during a television interview: “In the House of Representatives, I heard the other day that the bill that they passed actually mentions marijuana more than it mentions jobs.” (NOTE: This is false.) He could have easily made a similar play after Harris’ debate response, raising questions about her priorities, distracting from the topic at hand, and running up the clock by discussing irrelevant issues. To his credit, Pence didn’t bite.

Among all four candidates, Harris is really the only one who can speak with authority and experience on the topic. She’s the only one with law enforcement experience, and the only person of color.

And while disappointing to many legalization advocates, Harris — a strong supporter of “legalization” — instead used the word “decriminalization,” reflecting Joe Biden’s position. There’s a big difference between the two. As much as I would have preferred the Biden campaign to support full legalization, this is an excellent start. To me, it is an indication that if elected, they have an open door and open mind for further conversation and consideration.

Besides decriminalization, Harris also mentioned expungement of criminal records for those “who have been convicted of marijuana crimes.” Expungement is basically wiping clean a criminal conviction from a state or federal record. At both the state and federal levels, very specific circumstances qualify an individual for expungement. The Biden campaign has proposed federal funding to help states do this.

Right now cannabis is listed with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance. This means that it has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Other examples of Schedule I drugs are: heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Vice President Biden has repeatedly said that he’d like to see more research done on cannabis. That research could happen more quickly and easily if cannabis was off of the Schedule 1 category. Would he support the removal?

Perhaps that question could be asked next Tuesday, during the second presidential debate in Miami. There is sure to be a wide variety of topics, as questions will be posed to President Trump and Vice President Biden from undecided voters.

That is, if there is one. Yesterday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the Miami debate will have a virtual format due to Covid-19 public safety concerns. Trump and Biden would participate from separate locations.

But President Trump said this morning he would not participate.

A new debate about the debates begins.

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