All Pot Is Political: California's Next Senator and Governor Must Reckon with Marijuana Legalization

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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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