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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.
 
 
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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?

Feinstein's Weak Allies

Feinstein is lined up against Proposition 19 with a bong-load of compromised political animals. That includes Republican candidate for governor Meg Whitman, whose latest disgrace is getting caught railing against illegal immigration, even though she employed an undocumented housekeeper for years. Feinstein's No on 19 ally and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Carly Fiorina is similarly flawed: She was named one of the 20 worst American CEOs off all time, after her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard ended with a forced resignation and a 50 percent devaluation of the company's stock. But Feinstein's most compromised No on 19 ally probably has to be outgoing California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose cannabis hypocrisies range from smoking a joint (while eating fried chicken and birthday cake) in the weight-training film Pumping Iron to actually helping kick-start the state's decriminalization process.

"I think it's time for a debate," Schwarzenegger argued in 2009. "And I think that we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs, what effect it had on those countries, and are they happy with that decision."

More recently, Schwarzenegger signed a new California law that demotes possession of up to an ounce of cannabis to no worse than a speeding ticket. And you could hear his creaky rationale all the way to Washington.

“Notwithstanding my opposition to Proposition 19," Schwarzenegger hedged, "I am signing this measure because possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is an infraction in everything but name. In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket.”

Schwarzenegger's bald-faced political equivocation has a strong ally in Feinstein. She similarly hedged in a 2009 letter on legalization, decrying in one paragraph cannabis' community harm and in the next praising its broad possibilities.

"I do recognize that marijuana may have medicinal properties that could alleviate conditions such as AIDS-related wasting and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting," Feinstein said. "I do not oppose further research on the potential medical efficacy of marijuana and support compassionate use in medical situations when prescribed by a physician in writing for serious and/or catastrophic illnesses."

Feinstein Standing In the Way of History

Contrary to Feinstein's confidently dystopian prophecies, cannabis and hemp have been around for centuries and we're all still here. Evidence of its usage dates back to the third century B.C.E., although its real record probably stretches back further. Its criminalization as we know it didn't start until the UK and America started banning it in the early 20th century. By the time this century is over, it is certain to be decriminalized, meaning this last century or so of criminalization is a vanishing coordinate in the temporal stream. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that 65 percent of respondents believe that cannabis will be legal within a decade.

"It is worth remembering that our last three presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, would have been stigmatized for life and never would have become presidents if they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and been busted for pot during their reckless youthful days," former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara wrote in defense of legalization. "Countless other Americans weren't so lucky."

She Won't Go Green

Apart from being a historical inevitability, decriminalization of pot also makes serious environmental sense. Which ought to sit with Feinstein just fine, given how worried she is about global warming.

"I am working on a comprehensive package of legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – the leading cause of global warming – from all sectors of the economy," Feinstein's mission statement on the global climate crisis explained. "Every business, home, and industry will have to do its part."

One would hope that would mean ramping up local industrial hemp production, currently illegal, which made obvious sense to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both grew it. California's lumber industry had its worst year ever in 2009, which would smart less if hemp, one of the fastest-growing and environmentally friendly biomasses on Earth, was grown and forested locally rather than expensively imported from Canada and China. Hemp should also make Feinstein smile, since her environmental mission mandates that America increase its supply of biofuels.

"The fact that hemp does not need to have land cleared to grow it, grows faster than any of the crops currently used and leaves the ground in a better state when it is harvested should surely be enough for it to be considered a perfect crop to offset the carbon currently produced by fossil fuels and by the less efficient biofuels," argued Giulio Sica in the Guardian. "Surely if it was mass-produced," he added, its drawbacks "could be overcome and its many benefits as an efficient biofuel could be harnessed."

But in spite of convincing economic, political, cultural and environmental arguments, to say nothing of history itself, Senator Feinstein has added her clout to an opposition running on empty. Whether this is because she doesn't feel like staving off critics -- although even anachronistic whiners like Glenn Beck and so-called tea partiers are leaning towards decriminalization --  or because she honestly believes her astounding claim that "California will not see a single positive result if Proposition 19 passes" is besides the point. In California, we like to get ahead of history when possible, and Proposition 19 is an obvious example of our revolutionary political spirit. Feinstein is standing in the way. Let's hope she moves out the way before she's steamrolled by history.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
 
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