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Dianne Feinstein Tries to Play the Big Villain in the Fight for Legal Pot

Feinstein is the poster figure against Prop 19, trotting out lame-duck allies and hackneyed, incorrect arguments.

Last month, Senator Dianne Feinstein signed the dotted line on California's Proposition 19, which would responsibly decriminalize cannabis for personal use after ballot results this November. But she signed the wrong side, becoming co-chair of the No on 19 Campaign -- the latest in a long line of out-of-touch positions by Feinstein in California politics.

There are so many reasons for Feinstein to support legal pot in California: Legalizing cannabis for recreational use would generate over a billion dollars for the state's parched coffers, during a time its deficit has fully dwarfed that of other American states and its hyper-inflated housing market has run out of air. In any sane world, that alone would be reason to vote yes on 19. But once you add all in the ancillary benefits -- whether it's the millions of dollars saved from not having to imprison and process weed patsies, or the millions of sick and elderly who would have access to cannabis, which would in turn become more culturally accepted as the millennia-old medicine that it is -- it's pretty much a no-brainer.

Feinstein's Priorities

But while Feinstein has opposed Prop 19, it's clear she hasn't quite figured out whether marijuana is a priority. A cursory glance at the venerable California senator's official Web site reveals her public positions on many issues. Feinstein's press release page has a menu bar featuring over 30 issues that have consumed her legislative time and concern. But not one of them is dedicated to cannabis legalization or even criminalization proper, even though her own state is about to vote on it in November. Feinstein's inability to side with her state on what the polls have consistently shown is a local winner is instructive: Recent polls show there is more local support for Prop. 19 than for many of the state's major politicians, including Feinstein herself.

Her Math Sucks

Despite her official site's deafening silence on decriminalization, Feinstein is nevertheless determined to kill Prop. 19. But when she summons the courage to criticize it publicly, she's lacking in sense and cents.

“California will not see a single positive result if Proposition 19 passes,” Senator Feinstein claimed, in a statement announcing her co-chairmanship of the No on 19 campaign with L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. “It is a poorly constructed initiative that will cause harm to Californians on our roadways, and in our schools, workplaces and communities."

Look past the loaded rhetoric, and Feinstein's data doesn't work. Although she offered up multiple scary political and economic certainties in defense of her co-chairmanship, Feinstein cited a RAND Corporation study concluding that the only certainty from Proposition 19's passage would be lowered cannabis prices and increased consumption. "Tax revenues could be dramatically lower or higher than the $1.4 billion estimate provided by the California Board of Equalization (BOE)," RAND's report Altered State? Assessing How Marijuana Legalization in California Could Influence Marijuana Consumption and Public Budgets explained.

Meanwhile, California's State Board of Equalization -- which unlike RAND is actually tasked with collecting sales and use taxes from alcohol, tobacco and fuel -- has crunched the numbers on Proposition 19 ( PDF) and found that excise and purchase fees could bring in $1.4 billion to cash-strapped California, which is about 10 percent of the $14 billion the plant pulls in annually. And the BOE is standing by its math.

"The BOE's revenue estimate was a sound analysis based on a specific proposal with specified revenue measures applicable to a defined commercial market, where supply, demand, and price could reasonably be estimated," BOE chairwoman Betty Yee ( PDF) explained in late September. But even she admitted that how much revenue the proposition will ultimately generate depends on how much local governments choose to tax it. In other words, parsing the RAND nerdspeak, Proposition 19 could generate way less than $1.4 billion if local governments decided to tax it hardly at all, or way more if local governments decided to tax it heavily. Which do you think they'll pick?

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