President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is a strong backer of marijuana legalization—the latest example of a nominee holding cannabis policy reform views that go further than the incoming president’s.
If confirmed by party leaders on Thursday, as is expected, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison will be responsible for coordinating Democrats’ national political activities. To that end, a push from the chair to emphasize marijuana reform, which is overwhelmingly supported by Democratic voters, could be broadly influential.
Harrison made a 2020 run for a Senate seat held by outgoing Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) but didn’t prevail. During his campaign, he stressed the need to legalize marijuana as a means to promote racial justice.
“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” he said in July. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”
“We know that marijuana arrests, including those for simple possession, account for a large number of drug arrests,” he said. “The racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—black men and white men smoke marijuana the same rates, but black men are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—is just unacceptable.”
“Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue,” Harrison added.
He also criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he rescinded an Obama-era Justice Department policy that provided guidance to prosecutors on federal cannabis enforcement.
In 2019, the incoming top Democratic Party official tweeted in support of a drug war clemency plan proposed by Sen Cory Booker (D-NJ), who was then running for president.
“The War on Drugs has been a war on people—disproportionately people of color and the poor,” he said.
“I believe we need to regulate marijuana just like we do tobacco. I think we need to tax it and make sure that it’s safe. I just think if you look at the science right now—the criminalization—it’s been more harmful to us as a society than not,” Harrison said in an interview last year. “I think we will do much better to just simply regulate and tax it just like we do alcohol and tobacco. So I’ve been very plain and outspoken on that. I think we have to decriminalize it at this point in time.”
But the likely DNC chair’s support for broad cannabis reform is at odds with Biden’s position.
Despite supermajority support for the policy change among Democrats, the president-elect has maintained an opposition to legalization. Instead, he backs decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, modest rescheduling, expunging past records and allowing states to set their own policies free of federal intervention.
If formally elected, Harrison would be replacing Tom Perez, whose views on marijuana policy are less clear. That said, the current DNC chair did reveal a cannabis blindspot in 2019 when he attempted to joke about President Trump getting high from smoking hemp (which is non-intoxicating) and suggested that it makes people dumb.
Before Perez, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) served as DNC chair. She had long opposed cannabis reform but seems to have evolved, voting in favor of a spending bill amendment for the first time last year that called for protecting all state marijuana programs from federal intervention.
The DNC hasn’t historically warmed to marijuana reform at the pace of the party’s voters. And as recently as last year, the organization’s platform committee rejected an amendment that would have made legalization an official 2020 party plank.
Instead, the committee adopted a position calling for decriminalization, rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization, expungements and allowing state-level reform—much like Biden.
For her part, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who was recently reelected for another term, said last year when asked about medical marijuana that the issue is “left up to the states and there’s going to be variances between states.”
“But that’s not something that the RNC puts forward as policy,” she said. “That’s a legislative issue.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s choice of Harrison to lead the Democrats’ political operation represents yet another pick whose position on legalization breaks with his own.
The president-elect announced earlier this month that he wants Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) to run the Commerce Department. The governor came out in support of legalization in 2019, and she released a budget proposal last year that called for a state-run regulatory model for cannabis.
Biden also recently selected a nominee lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D)—who is amenable to reform. And in his role, he could help facilitate federal cannabis rescheduling.
For attorney general, Biden is nominating Judge Merrick Garland, who has not been especially outspoken about his views on marijuana policy. While advocates expressed concern about his commentary in a 2012 federal appeals case on marijuana scheduling, he doesn’t appear to have been publicly hostile to a policy change.
In positive news for advocates, the president-elect is also set to nominate former prosecutor and civil rights activist Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. She favors cannabis legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.