Harris holds marijuana reform roundtable with Fat Joe: ‘Nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed’

During the White House meeting, the vice president acknowledged that Black and Latino men are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

U.S. musician Fat Joe speaks with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris during a roundtable conversation about marijuana reform and criminal justice reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 15, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by KENT NISHIMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

Vice President Kamala Harris convened a roundtable discussion on marijuana reform at the White House on Friday, declaring, “Nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed.”

Sitting at the table inside the Roosevelt Room alongside rapper Fat Joe, White House officials, and those who’ve received pardons from the Biden-Harris administration, America’s first Black vice president acknowledged the historical and present racial disparities impacting Blacks and Latinos. 

“Black Americans and Latinos are four times more likely … to be arrested for marijuana possession, and the disparity is even larger when you talk about the subset of Black men and Latino men,” said Harris during the roundtable’s opening remarks. 

Harris, a former top prosecutor in California, said that to date, the administration has pardoned “tens of thousands of people with federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.” The vice president noted that those invited to Friday’s roundtable who received pardons would get the opportunity to share with the White House how the administration’s reforms impacted their lives.

“Their stories, I will tell you, are proof of the importance of pardons and what it means in the life of an individual in terms of allowing them a second chance and then an ability to reenter their community in a productive way,” said Harris.

In October 2022, President Joe Biden issued pardons for simple possession of marijuana under federal law, which was seen as a major step toward decriminalizing the drug that is now at least partially legal on the state level in nearly 40 states. In December 2023, Biden issued a second round of pardons and commuted sentences for 11 nonviolent drug offenders. The president also directed the federal government to review the rescheduling of marijuana.

At the roundtable, Harris acknowledged that the drug’s current Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act puts it in the same category as heroin and more harmful than fentanyl. The vice president called it “absurd” and “patently unfair.”

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (center) speaks during a roundtable conversation about marijuana reform and criminal justice reform, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 15, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kent Nishimura /AFP via Getty Images)

Though drug policy advocates have generally welcomed the Biden-Harris White House efforts to bring more justice to Black and brown communities as it relates to the criminalization of marijuana, they say actions taken so far are insufficient.

“Those records do, in fact, exist, and they still can be used against individuals,” said Cat Packer, director of drug markets and legal regulation at Drug Policy Alliance. “There is potential for these types of actions to reduce barriers to housing, education, and employment. But until that record is gone, private individuals can still search those records.”

Packer said despite Biden and Harris promising to decriminalize marijuana and expunge records while campaigning in 2020, “they have done neither.” Additionally, despite tens of thousands of Americans being eligible for pardons, she noted that fewer than 200 individuals have actually applied and received a certificate of pardon, according to the Office of Pardon Attorney under the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The administration’s ongoing efforts to have marijuana rescheduled from Schedule I to Schedule III is also not sufficient, said Packer. 

“Under a rescheduling scenario, cannabis activity is still criminalized at the federal level,” she told theGrio. “It’s not protecting patients. It’s not protecting adult U.S. consumers who are …  engaging in activity that’s legal under state law.”

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Packer continued: “While Biden and Harris can continue to say that no one should be in jail for marijuana, the fact that they have to continue to give these pardons year after year is actual proof that people are still being arrested, even for the very minor offense of simple possession.”

Packer noted that as vice president-elect, Harris said of decriminalizing marijuana: “This no time for half-stepping. This is no time for incrementalism.” The drug policy expert said that while the “rhetoric is right,” the “follow through” has fallen short.

“Where is the systemic change? Is it coming? Maybe it’s around the corner … we just don’t know,” said Packer. “In the absence of an articulated plan or commitment to further reform or even acknowledgment that further reform is necessary on the issue, it’s leaving many communities feeling like there’s a lot of lip service heading into an election season.”

At the conclusion of her remarks on Friday, Vice President Harris appeared to acknowledge the concerns about what has yet to be achieved in terms of racial equity and marijuana reform. 

“The work that we have achieved thus far is important, but there is much more to do,” she said.

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.