Sen. Kamala Harris on Tuesday took Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to task for ordering federal prosecutors to crack down on drug offenders last week.
Harris (D-Calif.) was speaking at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference in Washington, one of a host of potential 2020 presidential candidates invited to address progressive thought leaders on what the next priorities should be for the Democratic Party.
Harris started her career in the Alameda County district attorney’s office at the height of the crack epidemic. She said there were so many nonviolent offenders being charged then that prosecutors might have only five minutes to review a case file before appearing in court.
“I saw the war on drugs up close, and let me tell you, the war on drugs was an abject failure,” Harris said. “It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment, it was bad for public safety, it was bad for budgets and our economy, and it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet.”
In a memo last week, Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in drug cases, even when that would trigger mandatory minimum sentencing.
Harris, who was also San Francisco district attorney before being elected California attorney general, said, “This administration and Jeff Sessions want to take us back to the dark ages.”
The Justice Department has also indicated that it may aggressively go after marijuana users again, even in states like California that have legalized it. Under the Obama administration, federal officials largely deferred to local policy.
California needs federal help dealing with international criminal organizations and human trafficking, “not going after Grandma’s medicinal marijuana,” she said.
Harris said the United States needs to stop treating marijuana use as a crime.
“We need to do the smart thing and the right thing and finally decriminalize marijuana,” she said.
Afterward, her staff emphasized that Harris wants marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule II drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which opens the door to approval for medical use.
Schedule II drugs have medicinal uses. Schedule I drugs, as marijuana is currently listed, have the highest criminal penalties for use and are considered as having no medical use.
Harris said criminal justice reform should be equitable and U.S. drug policy should treat addiction as a disease rather than as a crime.
“This is not a black and brown issue, this is not an urban and blue state issue. This has always been an American issue,” Harris said. “We need this administration to understand that if they care about the opioid crisis in rural America as they say they do, they have also got to care about the drug-addicted young man in Chicago or East L.A.”
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