Big, big update: CNN is reporting that Leahy has passed up the Appropriations Committee chair position, and will stay with Judiciary.
Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) bolstered the hopes of marijuana policy reformers last week when he sent a letter to President Obama's drug czar discouraging federal raids in Colorado and Washington and promising to hold committee hearings on the conflicts between state and federal drug laws.
A week later, Leahy's letter might as well have been a dream. He's leaving the Senate Judiciary Committee to take over Sen. Daniel Inouye's seat at Appropriations, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a committed drug warrior, is set to take over Judiciary.
"It took a moment or two for my fingers and toes to uncurl" after hearing the news, wrote Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in an email.
Despite the fact that "cannabis is more socio-politically accepted [in Feinstein's base of San Francisco] than any where else in the nation…[Feinstein] is one of the most anti-cannabis politicos in the modern era," St. Pierre said. "Looks like most of the reform action will continue at the state level for the next few years, notably if Feinstein bottles up any federal legislation that may have a chance of rising out of committee hearings."
St. Pierre has good cause for concern. In 2009, Feinstein wrote a letter to a constituent saying that while she "recognizes marijuana may have medicinal properties" and doesn't "oppose further research on the potential medical efficacy of marijuana," she is opposed to "the legalization of any narcotic drugs, including marijuana." In 2010, Feinstein spoke out against Prop 19, the California ballot measure that sought to legalize recreational marijuana, calling it "a jumbled legal nightmare that will make our highways, our workplaces and our communities less safe."
Whether she still feels this way is yet to be seen. As incoming head of the Judiciary Committee, Feinstein has already said her first priority in 2013 will be gun control.
Still, some marijuana reformers are hopeful that Feinstein, in light of the success of ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, will be better on marijuana than her record suggests.
"We look forward to working with Sen. Feinstein to develop a federal marijuana policy that respects the will of the voters in those states that have chosen to replace the underground marijuana market with a system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol," the Marijuana Policy Project's Steve Fox said in a statement.
"President Obama recently highlighted the need for a conversation about how to reconcile state and federal marijuana laws. We hope Sen. Feinstein will facilitate that discussion so that we can arrive at a legislative solution that advances a state-based approach that does not undermine federal interests."
Others are coming down between Fox and St. Pierre–hopeful, but not too hopeful.
"While she hasn't exactly been a friend to marijuana reform over the years, the fact is that public opinion is squarely on the side of letting states legalize marijuana if they want to," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. "And politically speaking, it's just going to be increasingly difficult for a Democrat to get away with using the Judiciary Committee chairmanship as a platform for drug war cheerleading."
Angell hopes that Feinstein will "move forward with Chairman Leahy's plans," but also sees a way for Leahy to affect drug policy on the Appropriations Committee. "Hopefully Sen. Leahy, if he does indeed take over the Appropriations chairmanship, will help see to it that some of the most ineffective punishment and interdiction-focused drug war programs are de-prioritized or eliminated."
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