Friday, January 14, 2005
by Chip Johnson

Former President Bill Clinton said he didn't inhale, and ill-fated Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg said he only smoked it with a few students when he was a professor at Harvard University in the 1970s.

At least Dan Siegel, a prominent Oakland attorney, school board member and mayoral hopeful, didn't pony up an excuse when he was detained Tuesday at the Oakland International Airport, and then handed a citation, for trying to board a Southwest Airlines flight after allegedly packing a small amount of marijuana to take with him.

Rather than find a way to distance himself from the contents of his own luggage, Siegel extolled the virtues of the drug, particularly its ability to help him relax from stressful situations. Never mind that he doesn't actually have a prescription for its use.

"I'm not hiding the fact that I use marijuana occasionally, and I don't think it should be illegal,'' Siegel said Thursday in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he was on a two-day business trip.

"In terms of the impact on anything else I do -- notwithstanding the public scrutiny -- I'm entitled to privacy in my private life, and as long as my ability to function in public isn't impaired by the use of alcohol or marijuana, I think it's my business,'' he added.

That view toward personal privacy is completely acceptable -- when you're a private citizen enjoying time at home. But when you are a public official or a public figure, when you toss yourself into what my journalism law professor called the "vortex of public life,'' you willingly surrender a portion of that privacy.

It's a rule every public person understands, and there are tabloid newspapers sitting on racks in every grocery store in America to prove it.

Siegel should have realized at the airport that his personal belief system can't be used as a template that neatly fits the rules that apply in public venues. And in George W's America, where airline passengers are randomly asked to remove their shoes and socks, trying to bring pot on board a plane is the epitome of poor judgment.

It's just plain stupid.

As an attorney, Siegel is surely familiar with the legal concept of time, place and manner restrictions on even sacred First Amendment rights, although come to think of it, he may not have been too hot on those rules when he was a student activist and Free Speech Movement supporter in his days at UC Berkeley.

Siegel admitted his embarrassment over the pot incident and said his colleagues on the school board and the attorneys at his law firm, Siegel and Yee, are going to want an explanation, "and I'll have to provide one,'' he said.

But he is counting on a public redemption in a city where more than 64 percent of the voters in the November election approved Measure Z, which called for city leaders to support state laws that would allow possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

But the reception he receives in the political arena may not be so warm and fuzzy.

"I wouldn't be surprised if people who don't care for me anyway would use this as a verbal weapon,'' he said.

You think? If Siegel follows through with his plans to run for Oakland's highest office when Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's second term expires in 2006, his opponents will surely have a field day with this misstep.

And who wouldn't call into question the judgment of a 59-year-old man who pulled such a sophomoric prank, apologies to all you mature sophomores out there.

One of his possible opponents, Oakland council member Ignacio De La Fuente, a bare-knuckles campaigner, is sure to jump all over Siegel's misstep.

At least one school board member pointed out that the Oakland students who grow up in low-income areas with language barriers and other obstacles face a whole lot more stress than a middle-aged attorney with political aspirations and a six-figure annual income.

And students who have been taught to "Just say no" in drug-awareness classes may be wondering who or what to believe.

As a criminal matter, the marijuana possession doesn't amount to a hill of beans. It is an infraction that can be satisfied by paying a fine.

As grist for the public mill, however, it should be a little more troubling for a person with aspirations of higher political office.

Personally, I don't care if Dan Siegel or any of his board colleagues want to turn on and tune out when they're not conducting public business.

But the thinking that led to his poor decision to take pot aboard a plane is troubling when it comes from someone who claims to have the wisdom and intellect to rehabilitate the city's struggling school system or serve as its highest elected official.

The bright side is that even if Siegel runs for mayor and loses, he can go home, roll a joint, and just say screw it, dude.