Op-Ed

California politicians in Washington need to defend the state's pot laws from federal attack

California officials released regulations on Thursday laying the groundwork for how the cannabis legalization initiative will work. Even as businesses focus on preparing license applications, however, the state's new marijuana regime unavoidably clashes with ongoing federal prohibition.

The Obama administration took a largely hands-off approach to cannabis after Colorado and Washington legalized it for recreational purposes in 2012. But while President Trump campaigned on respecting state laws, his pick of longtime legalization foe Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general instilled fear and uncertainty in the industry. Last year, Sessions said that "good people don't smoke marijuana." If the Department of Justice moves against California's cannabis industry, can members of the state's congressional delegation be counted on to stand up for their constituents?

Maybe. Maybe not.

In the U.S. Senate, Dianne Feinstein has long been one of the most vocal opponents of efforts to modernize cannabis laws. Although in recent years she has introduced legislation to ease research on medicinal benefits, she campaigned vigorously against state legalization efforts. She also voted against amendments to prevent the federal government from interfering with medical cannabis laws in California and other states.

Kamala Harris, while friendlier to marijuana reform than Feinstein (low bar), isn't exactly a champion. In 2014, as state attorney general, she laughed at a reporter's question about marijuana policy. After taking her seat in Congress this year, the junior senator endorsed decriminalization and called for changing the drug’s classification under federal law. But she hasn't signed her name to any of the pending bills that would protect California cannabis consumers and companies from federal attacks.

Also worrisome is that she consistently describes the drug war in the past tense. For example: "The war on drugs was a failure. It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything."

It’s still a present-tense issue, though. There are more than 1.5 million drug arrests in the United States every year, including 600,000 for marijuana alone. The drug war did not end during the Obama administration; it isn't a relic of the past that we merely need to stop the Trump administration from reinstating. Senators — especially ones representing places where voters have chosen to make marijuana legal — should be actively working to end federal prohibition.

A common refrain among Capitol Hill insiders is that drug policy is a dangerous third rail of politics best avoided by ambitious pols who don't want to be tarred as "soft on crime.” But while that conventional wisdom may have been true when Feinstein arrived in Washington in 1992, it's no longer the case.

California's cannabis legalization measure got nearly half a million more votes than Harris did when it appeared on the same ballot as her name. Gallup reported last month that 64% of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Among Democrats, more than seven out of 10 are on board. And even a majority of Republicans now want to end prohibition.

Several members of the state's U.S. House delegation, from both parties, seem to understand that embracing cannabis reform is smart politics as well as good policy.

Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) has pushed for more than a decade to protect state medical marijuana laws from federal interference. Though Feinstein voted against a Senate version, the Orange County representative's budget rider is now federal law.

Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) sponsored an amendment shielding broader recreational legalization from the feds that lost by just nine votes in 2015.

Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) has long stood up for the cannabis businesses she represents in the Bay Area, pushing back against federal prosecutors' attacks during the Obama administration.

Newer members seem to understand the changing politics of marijuana, too.

Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) sponsored a successful House floor amendment to slash the Drug Enforcement Administration's marijuana-eradication budget and use the savings to help the victims of child abuse. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) is pressing for military veterans' access to medical marijuana. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) tweets about cannabis regularly.

Not everyone in the delegation gets it, though. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) consistently opposes measures to protect California marijuana laws from federal attacks. And while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has voted the right way on cannabis amendments, she never made it a priority while speaker and only backed the state's legalization measure days before election day — when polls showed it poised to win big.

A survey of California politicians’ views on any issue will inevitably generate mixed results. But those seeking reelection should think seriously about whether they can afford to be seen as soft on the drug war.

Marijuana legalization is, after all, way more popular with voters than lawmakers are.

Tom Angell has worked in cannabis policy for more than 15 years and publishes the news site Marijuana Moment.

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