Pubdate: Wed, 21 Jan 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

California's Next Senator and Governor Must Reckon With Marijuana Legalization


The world is changing around Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is proving as 
immovable as a glacier. On Jan. 6, California's senior U.S. senator 
sent official letters to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary 
of State John Kerry issuing a warning and demanding answers. 
America's standing in the world is being eroded, she wrote, and the 
culprit is marijuana legalization.

A no-show in the international consensus on climate change, the U.S. 
is a proud leader on the global War on Drugs. And every time a U.S. 
state legalizes recreational cannabis, Feinstein wrote, America is in 
further violation of United Nations drug control treaties. Since the 
Justice Department is choosing not to interfere with the states and 
the State Department is suggesting that the U.N. anti-drug treaties 
are subject to "flexible interpretation," Holder and Kerry are 
leading the Obama administration in making the mockery worse, the letters say.

Feinstein and her co-signer on the letters, Iowa Republican Chuck 
Grassley, gave Holder and Kerry until February to explain themselves. 
She would be better off confronting herself about the reasons why she 
is clinging to a failed crusade.

It could be argued that Feinstein, who serves as chairperson of the 
Senate's Caucus on International Narcotics Control, is merely doing 
her job. But she's also clearly following her deep-seated 
convictions. Feinstein, 81, has always opposed marijuana 
legalization. And now, in prohibition's twilight, she is "emerging as 
one of Washington's toughest critics" on drug reform, the Los Angeles 
Times noted. Weed legalization's most powerful political opponent 
lives right here in San Francisco, the birthplace of legal weed in America.

The problem for Feinstein is that she is indeed a glacier - and the 
climate is rapidly and irreversibly changing. Her hard line puts her 
at odds with at least two-thirds of her fellow San Franciscans, of 
whom 63.6 percent voted to legalize marijuana in 2010. Now, 58 
percent of Americans want weed to be legal. If California goes to the 
polls in 2016 with a legalization initiative, as many expect, 
Feinstein will find herself at the head of an even smaller vocal minority.

The question is how much her fellow big-time Democrats will listen.

She's already lost Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's support. Newsom, who last 
week signaled his intention to run for governor in 2018, has been the 
state's highest-placed cheerleader for legal cannabis. He's 
championed the cause ever since voters in Washington and Colorado - 
where legalization won more votes than Barack Obama did in 2012 - 
made it clear that weed is a political winner. The weed question 
would not be Feinstein's first disagreement with Newsom; Feinstein 
blamed Newsom for Kerry's loss to George W. Bush in 2004, after the 
then-mayor made a national name for himself by legalizing gay 
marriage in San Francisco that year. And a flip-flop on the issue of 
marijuana is seemingly impossible. Newsom's early adoption means the 
country's richest state could have a pro-legalization governor as 
soon as 2019. Industry insiders say he's counting on being able to 
use Big Marijuana as an ATM when he makes a bid for the White House 
in 10 years. Sounds far-fetched - but so did legalized cannabis once 
upon a time.

What's more important in the short term is how Attorney General 
Kamala Harris, the early frontrunner for the junior senator seat soon 
to be vacated by Barbara Boxer, will answer the legalization question 
on the campaign trail.

Because there will be no avoiding it.

Harris' evolution on the issue has been swift. Last August, Harris 
laughed off questions from reporters about her stance on marijuana. A 
few months later, with a second term as AG, she admitted to a 
Buzzfeed reporter that legalization is probably inevitable - and just 
so that voters were clear, she has no "moral opposition" to adults 
using cannabis.

Harris might be forced to talk about legalization, but she will by no 
means stride onto the Senate floor wearing a hemp suit. Legalization 
is no longer a political liability, but it's not an issue that can 
make a candidate, either, top Democratic strategists say.

Conventional political wisdom is that drug reform doesn't even crack 
the top 10 of voters' most pressing issues. In another 
only-in-California twist, the likeliest source for a rabidly pro-pot 
candidate to counter the San Francisco prohibitionist is the 
Republican Party. California's open primary system means all comers 
square off against each other in the June election. A fringe 
candidate could easily decide that the only way to get to the 
November general election is to become the cannabis candidate, pin 
hopes on a youthful, active turnout, and hope for the best.

In any event, the most important politician in 2016 will still be 
Feinstein. If legalization's opponents have the money, they will put 
California's neo-Nancy Reagan on every television screen and 
billboard from San Diego to Crescent City as the poster child for 
prohibition. It will not be enough to convince California voters that 
marijuana prohibition is a good idea, but it could make the issue 
thorny enough to rob it of an enthusiastic supporter on his or her 
way to a powerful job.

Either way, Feinstein is fighting a losing battle. Harris and 
legalization opponents have had their last laugh at pot's expense. 
This joke is at last over.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom