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OPINION

One Cheer for Kamala's Cannabis Candor: The Presidential Contender Is a Johnny-Come-Lately on Legalization, but She Is Right About the Importance of Fun

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Tony Avelar

How much credit should a politician get in 2019 for admitting that she smoked pot in college? Not much, especially if she only recently came around to the view that people should not be arrested for doing what she did.

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But Kamala Harris did say something noteworthy when she was asked about marijuana during a radio interview on Monday. She acknowledged the importance of fun, a point that should be made more often in discussions of drug policy.

"Have you ever smoked?" Charlamagne tha God, co-host of syndicated radio show "The Breakfast Club" asked Harris, a California senator who last month announced that she is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. "I have," Harris replied. "And I inhaled."

Charlamagne was impressed by this revelation: "See, I like stuff like that. That's a real honest answer." Harris also seemed to think it was a big deal. "I just broke loose!" she exclaimed.

Please. The behavior that Harris admitted is normal for people of her generation. Harris is 54. Survey data indicate that 52 percent of Americans her age have tried marijuana; allowing for an estimated underreporting rate of 20 percent, the true figure is probably more like 62 percent.

Nor was Harris breaking ground by being honest about her cannabis consumption. Fifteen years ago, several Democratic presidential contenders, including both of the men who ended up on the 2004 ticket, readily admitted they had used marijuana.

Even the senator's reference to Bill Clinton's weaselly 1992 response to the question is old hat. "When I was a kid," Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator, told an interviewer in 2006, "I inhaled -- frequently. That was the point."

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Congratulating Harris for her cannabis candor seems especially inappropriate given her evasive response to a question about legalization during the same interview. "They say you oppose legalizing weed," Charlamagne said. "That's not true," Harris replied. "Half of my family is from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?"

Based on that exchange, listeners might be surprised to learn that Harris did not come out in favor of legalization until a year ago and did not sign a bill that would repeal the federal ban until last May. By that point, two-thirds of Americans (and three-quarters of Democrats) had turned against pot prohibition.

Harris opposed a California legalization initiative in 2010, when she was San Francisco's district attorney; laughed at a question about legalization in 2014, when she was running for attorney general against a Republican who favored it; and declined, as California's attorney general, to take a position on the 2016 initiative that finally legalized recreational use in her state. She embraced legalization around the same time that John Boehner, the former Republican speaker of the House, became a cannabis industry lobbyist.

The senator's reticence on this issue is one reason (but by no means the only reason) that many progressives and criminal justice reformers are leery of her. After all, police in the United States are still arresting more than half a million people every year just for pot possession, and blacks are much more likely to be busted than whites, even though they are only slightly more likely to be cannabis users.

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Harris did distinguish herself from other politicians with presidential aspirations in one significant way. When Charlamagne asked her whether she might use marijuana again "when it is legalized throughout the country," she replied that "it gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy."

That simple observation marks a departure from candidates like George W. Bush and Marco Rubio, who declined to discuss their own experiences with marijuana lest they set a bad example for the youth of America, and from candidates like Obama and Ted Cruz, who admitted smoking pot but portrayed it as a terrible mistake. People like marijuana because marijuana is fun, and fun is important -- too important to be ignored by legislators who presume to tell us which kinds are acceptable.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum. 

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