California Shocker: Dianne Feinstein Drops Opposition to Cannabis Legalization

(Josh Edelson/AP)

In a major break from her long-held opposition to cannabis legalization, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said earlier today that she now believes the federal government should not interfere with California’s cannabis laws.

Feinstein's office said that the senator’s views changed after meetings with constituents, including parents of children who have benefitted from medical marijuana.

Feinstein’s remarks came in an interview with McClatchy DC bureau reporter Kate Irby.

“Federal law enforcement agents should not arrest Californians who are adhering to California law,” said Feinstein, who faces a rising challenge from fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon.

De Leon, a progressive state senator from Los Angeles, is peeling votes away from the longtime senator. In the past year Feinstein’s comments about Donald Trump, and her intransigent opposition to cannabis legalization, have made many traditional liberal voters rethink their support for another term.

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Feinstein’s office told the McClatchy reporter that the senator’s views changed after meetings with constituents, including parents of children who have benefitted from medical marijuana.

That reasoning left more than a few cannabis-friendly voters puzzled, though. California legalized medical marijuana nearly 22 years ago. Many of the first children to benefit from medical cannabis now have children of their own.

A more likely reason could be the pressure from the left that De Leon is bringing to bear on the 84-year-old senator.

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Feinstein’s continuing refusal to rethink her longstanding opposition to all forms of cannabis legalization—including for medical purposes—has been Exhibit A for opponents who believe time and the state’s voters have passed her by.

In her interview with Irby, Sen. Feinstein said she “strongly supports” the legalization of medical cannabis.

That’s a radical shift in her thinking. Here are a few benchmarks in her career-long opposition to drug reform:

  • In 1996, Feinstein loudly opposed Prop. 215, which legalized medical marijuana.
  • In 2010, she served as the chairwoman of the campaign to defeat Prop. 19, an attempt at adult-use legalization that failed at the polls.
  • In 2015, Feinstein was the only Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to vote against the Rohrabacher-Farr budget amendment, which protects medical patients in states that have legalized medical cannabis.
  • In 2016, she came out against Prop. 64, California’s successful legalization initiative, even though her protégé, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, led the campaign to pass the measure.

Last fall, Leafly contributor Peter Hecht examined Feinstein’s lifelong opposition to cannabis legal reform in a longform profile. He wrote:

Many national observers on cannabis policy remain perplexed by Feinstein’s unchangeable position. For decades, San Francisco’s iron lady has stood against her city and state’s famously tolerant views on marijuana.

To many of her constituents, though, Feinstein’s anti-reform position has long been accepted as an odd curiosity, a minor disagreement on a low-priority issue. But lately it’s become something more. With California’s adult-use cannabis industry set to open in three months, the 84-year-old politician’s intransigence is now seen as a potential vulnerability—a symbol of a Senator and her state moving in opposite directions.

Feinstein’s sudden change of heart may be a sign that she’s working hard to bring her own voice in tune with that of her constituents. Time—and the voters—will tell if it’s a savvy move or a desperate measure that’s seen as too little, too late.