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Though it puts my progressive credentials at risk, I confess to being a Dianne Feinstein fan. Though she is unapologetically moderate, and though I disagree with her on many of her positions, I have long felt about her the way I feel about a family member with whom I disagree: She’s wrong, but she’s family. And just like I would feel protective toward a family member who was being attacked, I have watched with interest and concern recent attacks on her from both the right and left.

I’ve never met Senator Feinstein, but we have history; within a couple of degrees of separation, we’ve been keeping company for years. Our association began in 1969 when I was a student at what was then called San Francisco State College and she was running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. A few years later, I was a San Francisco bus driver when Dan White, an aggrieved former San Francisco Supervisor, assassinated both Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Immediately after the shooting, then-Supervisor Feinstein found Milk’s body. As President of the Board of Supervisors, she became Acting Mayor, then later became the elected Mayor. (She is widely acknowledged to have been among the best mayors in San Francisco’s history.) I also once served on a civil jury at which her husband, Dr. Bert Feinstein, appeared as an expert witness. Yes, we go way back, Dianne Feinstein and I.

All this time, I have chosen to both tolerate and forgive her her policy and political positions that I thought were too centrist, were insufficiently progressive. When she took positions with which I disagreed, I shrugged; we had different views, but she had the job. Yet I could never understand or reconcile her ardent support of civil rights with her support of and recalcitrance over the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA), in particular her ongoing support for marijuana’s inclusion in the CSA’s Schedule I. The war on drugs has from its inception been a civil rights issue, a sub-rosa war on Blacks. Given her support of civil rights, how could she also support the CSA and in particular a section of it that for 50-plus years has been used as a battering ram to disrupt and decimate Black culture and communities?

Also during that time I have—irrationally—felt guilty because I might have played a role in her blindness over that issue. She almost certainly will not remember, but in 1969, campaigning for a seat on the SF Board of Supervisors, she came to speak at SF State. SF State was recovering from a long, disruptive student strike that had culminated in a five-month campus shutdown. (The discord had erupted over the firing of Nathan Hare, the coordinator of the country’s first Black Studies Program.)

Feinstein’s venue on campus was the Experimental College. The EC’s pedagogic philosophy, as we understood it, posited that anyone could teach a class on any subject, anyone could attend that class, and students graded themselves. (This last was particularly attractive to me.) Classes were held in a large room in which teachers and students lounged on bean bags and couches. At one end of the room was a small stage on which a nascent, but even then electrifying, Carlos Santana and bandmates came to play. Soon after noon, candidate Feinstein mounted the stage to speak to an audience of 40 or so long-haired, bell-bottomed, paisley-shirted, stoned undergraduates.

As one of those stoned undergraduates, I remember little from her talk—it was the 1960s, and I was there—except that after only a couple of minutes, a heckled yelled, “We want to hear you curse!” Feinsten looked startled and confused—who wouldn’t?—and responded, “That’s not what I’m here for.” Someone else shouted, “Yes! We want to know if you’re for real! If you’re for real, you’ll curse!” Unable to follow that logic, she pleaded: “There are important issues to talk about.” But others took up the cry, and that cry devolved into a rhythmic, un-Ohm-like chant of “Curse! Curse! Curse!” Feinstein, showing the adaptability, pragmatism, and toughness that made her an effective Supervisor, Mayor, and long-serving Senator, shook her head, took a breath, and unleashed a robust torrent of very serviceable expletives and profanities. This impressed, satisfied, and quieted the crowd. She then spoke for a few more minutes and left shortly after, having won my vote and probably others.

I have occasionally thought of this incident, most recently when reading some of the ageist, right- and left-wing attacks on the now 88-year-old Feinstein (born June 22, 1933), both sides trying to prod her into leaving office, the right because disruption is their goal, the left because she is too moderate (and because we are unable to control our impulse to shoot each other).

Thinking about Feinstein’s frustrating political moderation, particularly her long–term support for keeping marijuana under Schedule I, and her resulting complicity in the damage that has done, I was initially sympathetic with these efforts to push her out. But then it occurred to me to wonder whether she had, after her experience that afternoon at the EC, suffered a kind of political PTSD, had concluded, based on how I and my stoned cohort had behaved, that marijuana turns otherwise bright, young people into morons.

That conclusion would be justified if one’s sample was small, if one’s experience with marijuana and stoners were limited to that event. Certainly, like other intoxicants, marijuana can make someone temporarily stupid. But also like other intoxicants, its effects wear off, and it is simply wrong-headed to include it in Schedule I, under which a drug must 1) have “a high potential for abuse”; 2) have “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States”; and 3) lack “accepted safety for use … under medical supervision.” Along with marijuana, Schedule I includes, among others, LSD, methaqualone, ecstasy, peyote, and heroin.

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The major difference between Schedules I and II is that Schedule II drugs must have “currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” Schedule II includes, among others, amphetamine, cocaine, codeine, methadone, methamphetamine, morphine, opium, and oxycodone. (Quick, what’s more harmful: marijuana or opioids?) But marijuana actually fails to meet Schedule I’s conditions: It has a much lower potential for abuse than alcohol; there are many medically-accepted uses in treatment (though not officially sanctioned in the United States); and there is accepted safety for use under medical supervision (or, for that matter, without).

Yet despite marijuana’s clearly inappropriate inclusion under Schedule I, the Drug Enforcement Agency, which administers the CSA, has intransigently refused to reschedule it. In one denial of a request to have marijuana rescheduled, the DEA said that if a drug “is currently listed in schedule I, if it is undisputed that such drug has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and it is further undisputed that the drug has at least some potential for abuse sufficient to warrant control under the CSA, the drug must remain in schedule I." (In other words, it must continue to be included in Schedule I because it is included in Schedule I.) The CSA was signed into law in 1970 amid the flames of race-based-crime hysteria fanned by President Richard Nixon. Given the blatant irrationality of the DEA’s position, it is clear that the real reason for marijuana’s inclusion in Schedule I is its usefulness as a weapon in the right’s arsenal of oppression.

The hurdles raised by the DEA deliberately make it practically impossible for researchers to obtain marijuana for research and testing. This is a Catch-4:20: If marijuana can’t be researched and tested, it can’t ever be found to have any “accepted medical use” that would allow it to be rescheduled. (For more information, and the DEA’s position, see Wikipedia’s CSA page.)

Even without its use as a racist battering ram, this mis-scheduling of marijuana should rightfully be considered a civil-rights issue solely because one group of people, those who prefer alcohol, has imposed its intoxicant of choice on others who would choose a different intoxicant. In effect, and despite overwhelming evidence that alcohol is far more harmful, the federal government, through the CSA, has declared alcohol to be the officially-sanctioned intoxicant of the United States.

But beyond the issue of general civil rights, the facts marijuana’s use as a tool of racist oppression are indisputable: Although Whites and Blacks use marijuana equally, Blacks are almost four times as likely as Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession; are far more likely than whites to be given drug-related prison sentences; are far more likely to be given and to serve longer prison sentences; and are far more likely to have those sentences be third-strike offenses (because Black communities are over-policed). In many jurisdictions, felonized people can no longer vote, something that triggers choruses of “Oh Happy Day” among Republican politicians.

Let’s for the sake of argument, naively assume that keeping marijuana in Schedule I is the result of a sincere, good-faith belief in both marijuana’s inherent danger and the gateway-drug theory. Regardless of its intent, the CSA and its prohibition of marijuana have severely overburdened our legal and prison systems: We have collectively spent trillions of dollars unequally enforcing marijuana laws while prosecuting and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people, a vastly disproportionate number of them Black. The intangible costs to Black communities have been both enormous and obscene, all of this without any rational justification (unless one is a Republican office seeker).

Also included in this incalculable devastation are tens of thousands of Mexican and Central American lives—so far—lost to horrific cartel violence arising from competition over the fantastically lucrative illegal-drug trade. These drug-smuggling markets have arisen because of our drug policies. This ongoing, vicious and anarchic violence, like some globally-metastasized version of prohibition-era Chicago, has corrupted and destabilized whole regions. Shouldn’t marijuana and drug policy in general be reconsidered for these reasons alone?

The obviously correct solution would be for our federal government to deschedule marijuana and regulate/tax it like alcohol and tobacco, both of which the CSA specifically exempts. That won’t soon happen, but at minimum, marijuana should be rescheduled to allow for research and testing of health claims. (Proving herself capable of change, Senator Feinstein in 2018 signed on to Elizabeth Warren’s and Cory Gardner’s bipartisan STATES act, which would federally recognize individual states legalizing marijuana, and in 2022 co-sponsored marijuana-research legislation.)

Progressives will—and should—continue to disagree when her positions are too moderate, but Senator Feinstein has devoted much of her life to serving Californians and the United States, and though she’s been on the right side of some issues, she’s also been on the correct side of many others. Speaking for myself, I respect her service and won’t sign on to any effort to push her out the door before she decides she’s ready. For me, she’s earned the right to leave on her own terms. As for my behavior that day at the EC, I offer her a long-overdue apology.