Four decades ago, activists gathered once a year in front of San Francisco City Hall to agitate for their cause. The highlight of the “Day on the Grass” was a ritual smoke-in, with some of the cannabis that one of them also happened to sell out of a Castro District restaurant. Without fail, and in stark contrast to today's elected officials, a sitting San Francisco supervisor would join them.
Harvey Milk was a pioneer not just for gay rights, but also cannabis legalization. He frequently fraternized with self-described dope dealer Dennis Peron, who by 1978 had been busted by San Francisco police multiple times for dealing marijuana. With Milk's support, the grass-sitters had their day: 63 percent of San Francisco voters that fall approved Proposition W, a nonbinding policy statement that “demand[ed] that the District Attorney, along with the Chief of Police, cease the arrest and prosecution of individuals involved in the cultivation, transfer, or possession of marijuana.” According to Peron, Milk encouraged the lawbreaking. “They can't bust us all,” Milk said.
Any hope of Prop. W becoming policy ended with Milk's martyrdom on Nov. 27, 1978. Dianne Feinstein, then president of the Board of Supervisors, replaced Mayor George Moscone, also slain that day. One of her first acts as mayor was to install a new police chief, under whom misdemeanor marijuana arrests nearly tripled.
As California's senior U.S. senator, Feinstein has for more than 20 years reliably voted for tougher controls on drugs and against any end to cannabis prohibition. When the state had the opportunity to be the first in the country to re-legalize cannabis for adults in 2010, Feinstein served as the prohibitionist campaign's chairwoman.
This hard-line stance puts Feinstein at odds not only with her constituents but also her colleagues, many of whom represent more conservative places. When a U.S. Senate committee in mid-June considered a spending amendment to de-funded federal Justice Department efforts to interfere in state-legal cannabis, Feinstein was the sole Democrat to vote against it.
It is a strange thing for a San Francisco lawmaker to be more conservative on an issue than right-wing heroes like Sen. Rand Paul. As a Drug Policy Alliance advocate for marijuana reform fumed to the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein is “is still the worst senator on marijuana reform, and the fact that she claims to represent California on this is embarrassing.”
The DPA and other advocates will hand-deliver petitions to Feinstein's offices later this month, but the die may be cast: A former Feinstein staffer told one advocate the best hope for progress is to wait until the senator leaves office — and, at 82, she does not appear in any rush to quit.
Feinstein has evolved on the issue — somewhat. On May 21, she voted in favor of allowing Veterans Administration clients to access medical cannabis if allowed in their state — meaning, in true centrist-Democrat fashion, that she voted for progress on cannabis policy before voting against it, as California NORML recently pointed out. After three hourlong CNN specials made the issue unavoidable, Feinstein this year has pushed for more research into cannabidiol, CBD, the “less-psychoactive” cannabinoid that has been touted as a tonic for childhood epilepsy and autism. She and Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, co-signed a letter to federal health and law enforcement officials asking if barriers to research can be removed.
“I do believe we have a responsibility to determine if cannabidiol and other marijuana derived medicines — medicines — could have a positive longterm medical benefit,” Feinstein said at a committee hearing last month. Yet at the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee — chaired by Grassley, with whom Feinstein leads the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control — is blocking legislation that would eliminate almost every barrier to research. A bill in the Senate, the CARERS Act, would move cannabis to Schedule II, allowing for prescriptions and research, and drop CBD oil from the Controlled Substances Act entirely. That bill appears destined to die in committee, as Grassley seems disinclined to call it for a hearing. If Feinstein is pushing her colleague to at least hear the bill out, she is doing so privately.
Local politicians appear to be following Feinstein's lead (rather than, say, fellow San Franciscan House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has voted in support of cannabis several times). Unlike Milk, members of today's Board of Supervisors have been either unwilling to engage on the topic of marijuana, or outright hostile to it. There has been no meaningful advancement on the issue in 10 years. Pleas from the Planning Commission to revisit how the city zones cannabis dispensaries have been ignored. Instead, the board passed (and Mayor Ed Lee signed) “emergency” legislation to effectively ban pot clubs on San Francisco's west side. When the federal Justice Department rolled through the Bay Area in 2011, shutting down dispensaries, both Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and then-Oakland Mayor Jean Quan spoke out. Lee did next to nothing, issuing a tepid statement only after cannabis activists parked themselves outside his office.
It's true that drug policy reform is often the last issue on a politician's to-do list. Most voters are more concerned about potholes than pot. And Feinstein is no enemy to the left or to progress. Her strong stance on gun control and the political capital she expended to get last December's report on the CIA's use of torture public should be applauded. But on cannabis, Feinstein's intractability is worse than puzzling. It's a problem.