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By Bob Egelko San Francisco Chronicle
Dianne Feinstein, long one of the Senate’s foremost drug warriors, has shown signs recently of mellowing on the issue of medical marijuana. She’s voted to allow its use by military veterans, pressed for more federal research into the drug and expressed sympathy for marijuana patients.
But when push came to shove in the Senate Appropriations Committee, Feinstein voted no — the only Democrat to do so — on legislation to prevent federal interference with medical marijuana laws in states such as California, whose voters were the nation’s first to legalize pot as medicine 19 years ago. The measure, attached to a spending bill, cleared the committee on a 21-9 vote Thursday and appears likely to become law, extending by a year the restrictions Congress first enacted in December.
“There may very well be a place for medical marijuana,” California’s senior senator said in a statement before the vote. But “to take a federal position on this before the research is done ... is putting the cart before the horse.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, questions Anthony Foxx, U.S. transportation secretary, not pictured, during a Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. The Obama administration's six-year, $478 billion transportation reauthorization proposal, the GROW America Act, is a "Band-Aid approach" that fails to put forward a long-term solution for sustaining highway and mass transit programs and includes unrealistic funding levels, said Senator Susan Collins at the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Dianne Feinstein A surprising ‘yes’ vote from DiFi on medical marijuana use Bud Tender Nate Walton works at the Cannabis Corner, the nation's first government-owned and operated recreational marijuana store in the small southern Washington town of North Bonneville. Boxer joins effort to protect state medical pot programs In this Jan. 1, 2015, photo, Nicole Gross plays with her son Chase, who is autistic and epileptic, at their home in Colorado Springs, Colo. Chase was moved from Chicago to Colorado so he could legally access a medical marijuana oil known as Charlotte's Web. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) Feinstein linchpin in changes to U.S. marijuana laws
What’s more, she argued, allowing states to enforce their own laws without federal interference would probably discourage research, “because you won’t be able to go against a state that has implemented (its marijuana laws) and has its own rules.” And federal intervention is appropriate, Feinstein said, unless a state has “a strong regulatory system in place.”
After some of Feinstein’s recent statements, her vote was “pretty disappointing,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority. “She’s way behind the times, approximately 19 years behind California’s voters.”
Mike Liszewski, government affairs director for Americans for Safe Access, said: “Sen. Feinstein is in the middle of an evolution on medical marijuana, but she’s clearly closer to the beginning than the end.” Another advocate, Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance, said Feinstein “is still the worst senator on marijuana reform, and the fact that she claims to represent California on this is embarrassing.”
The flareup comes as California prepares for a likely revote in November 2016 on a ballot measure to legalize personal use of marijuana by adults. A similar initiative in 2010 fell short, with 46 percent support. Since then, marijuana use has been legalized in four other states.
Feinstein was a vocal opponent of the 2010 initiative, which she called “a jumbled legal nightmare that will make our highways, our workplaces and our communities less safe.” She also opposed the 1996 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana.
She told an interviewer last year that as a member of the state parole board for women in the 1960s, she saw many convicts who “began with marijuana and went on to hard drugs.” Similarly, at Thursday’s hearing, Feinstein described marijuana as a “gateway drug” with a “growing addiction factor,” a view the drug’s advocates say is unsupported by research.
Fending off challenges
It’s one of the diverse positions held by a centrist Democrat who has fended off political challenges left and right since 1992 — liberal on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control, conservative on criminal justice, hawkish on foreign policy, and sympathetic to both environmental and business concerns.
Congress itself appears to be in a state of flux on marijuana.
Thursday’s amendment, already approved by the House, would maintain a year-old prohibition on Justice Department expenditures that prevent California and 22 other states from “implementing their own laws” on marijuana.
Sponsors say the amendment was intended to halt federal prosecution of criminal cases and civil forfeiture suits against marijuana suppliers who are complying with state law. The civil cases include federal actions geared toward shutting down Harborside Health Center in Oakland, the nation’s largest licensed medical marijuana dispensary, and the Berkeley Patients Group.
The Justice Department disagrees with the sponsors’ interpretation and says its actions do not interfere with states’ implementation of their marijuana laws, and has continued prosecuting cases, while largely suspending federal raids on state-approved growers and dispensaries. Courts have yet to resolve the dispute.
Separate legislation, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 21 with Feinstein’s support, would allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states that allow its use, overriding a current prohibition by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But a more significant bill is stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. S. 683 — introduced by Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, with California Democrat Barbara Boxer among the co-sponsors — would strengthen the restrictions on Justice Department spending in medical marijuana states and remove the drug from the government’s list of dangerous substances with no approved medical use, allowing doctors to prescribe it.
California and other medical marijuana states allow doctors to “recommend” marijuana without actually prescribing it, which would be forbidden by federal law.
The committee chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has so far declined to allow a hearing on the bill. He and Feinstein, meanwhile, have written letters to government officials seeking research into a marijuana component called cannabidiol, which is said to have therapeutic properties without psychiatric effects. S. 683 would allow importing of cannabidiol to treat children’s seizure disorders.
‘Proceed with caution’
In a statement on the legislation, Feinstein said she “look(s) forward to its consideration in the Judiciary Committee.” At the same time, she said, “while I believe research should move forward, I also believe we should proceed with caution” because of marijuana’s potential dangers.
Angell, of the Marijuana Majority group, expressed frustration.
“We’re all for research,” he said. “In the meantime, patients need to have legal access.”