Republican Sen. Cory Gardner to introduce cannabis bill for states' rights with Elizabeth Warren

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Yahoo News
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photos: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photos: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., is teaming up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on a bill that could finally reconcile the current discrepancy between federal and state cannabis laws.

Earlier this year, Gardner protected thriving marijuana industries in states like Colorado by threatening to block all Justice Department nominees after Attorney General Jeff Sessions killed the 2013 “Cole memo,” which effectively allowed states to determine their own cannabis laws. Earlier this week, Gardner co-sponsored the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 with the aim of removing that form of cannabis from Schedule 1, the list of substances, including heroin, under the strictest federal controls.

And he’s not finished yet. Gardner is working with colleagues on a bipartisan legislative solution that can pass Congress and appear on President Trump’s desk — so he can deliver on his campaign position to make cannabis a states’ rights issue.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Since then, seven more states and the District of Columbia followed suit.

Yahoo News reached out to Gardner Wednesday afternoon to discuss the conflict between state and federal law regarding cannabis, and the several ways he’s promoting the ability of states to set their own rules. He provided some details about the bill he’s drafting with Warren, which he said could appear as early as this week.

Yahoo News: Do you think that President Trump will be true to his word that the rescission of the Cole memo will not impact Colorado’s legal marijuana industry?

Gardner: I do believe he will be true to his word, and certainly has over the last several weeks since the agreement was entered into remained true to that word. His commitment was reconfirmed multiple times by the White House legislative director, Marc Short, as well as Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the live press briefing carried on national television. This is something the president has agreed to. I believe he will hold to his end of the bargain. And I believe we will also be able to work together on a federalist-based approach to resolve the conflict between federal and state law.

Mile High Green Cross is a recreational and medical marijuana dispensary serving the greater Denver area. Located south of downtown, the shop is one of many that makes up the city’s “Green Mile.” (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)
Mile High Green Cross is a recreational and medical marijuana dispensary serving the greater Denver area. Located south of downtown, the shop is one of many that makes up the city’s “Green Mile.” (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)

Were there any stipulations when Trump told you he would support a federalism-based legislative solution?

There were no stipulations that he placed on it but that doesn’t mean once we get our bill drafted — which we’re in the process of, talking to Republicans and Democratic members of the Senate who are involved on this issue — they may not embrace the language fully. They may want some tweaks. We’ll see how that goes, but I don’t envision the president changing his mind generally from the idea of letting the states make this decision.

I know it’s still in process but could you tell me a little about the bill you’re working on with your colleagues toward this goal?

Basically, this is a states’ rights bill. This is a federalism bill that says if a state like Colorado decides to move forward on medical marijuana, recreational marijuana, CBDs [cannabidiol, which is a medical cannabis compound that doesn’t make one “stoned”], hemp, that that activity is going to be lawfully, legally carried out. It opts the state out of the marijuana provisions of deferral law, of Schedule 1. While this doesn’t change Schedule 1 at all, it simply says if the state wants to do this, it no longer violates the law. So if Oklahoma wishes to maintain a prohibition on marijuana, then it would be illegal under state and local law in Oklahoma. But as far as Colorado goes, there would no longer be an illegal activity.

When can we expect this sort of bill to appear?

We’re going to have a meeting this afternoon in my office with a number of senators on both sides of the aisle. We’re going to talk about the concept and framework of the bill. It could be as early as later this week or it could be a couple of weeks from now. We haven’t quite decided exactly the time frame.

Cannabis on display at Denver Relief. The pot shop purports to be the oldest marijuana dispensary in Denver, having opened its doors in 2009. The shop is open for both Colorado red-card-holding medical marijuana patients and adult-use recreational cannabis sales. (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)
Cannabis on display at Denver Relief. The pot shop purports to be the oldest marijuana dispensary in Denver, having opened its doors in 2009. The shop is open for both Colorado red-card-holding medical marijuana patients and adult-use recreational cannabis sales. (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)

And then there’s the Hemp Farming Act, which you’re co-sponsoring, to help hemp farmers and entrepreneurs. What sorts of barriers do they currently face? [Earlier this week, Gardner and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., co-sponsored Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Hemp Farming Act of 2018: a bipartisan bill that would define industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the list of controlled substances — legalizing it nationwide. If successful, this would reconcile the current contradictions between state and federal laws over hemp.]

Well, several years back when I was in the House, I sponsored legislation with Mitch McConnell — a pilot program within the farm bill for states to move forward with this under certain conditions. What the legislation does now is remove hemp from the schedule where it never should have been in the first place. This is think is a great alternative to crops. There’s a lot of excitement in Colorado. I visited a number of hemp farms and operations, from fabrics to medicinal sources. This has a lot of economic development potential that farmers who are looking to diversify are very interested in. We have historically low commodity prices right now. And if you can shift out of corn, which people are losing money on, and into hemp, where they may be able to make money, that means they’re able to stay on the farm. That means the next generation is able to participate in the family business. Right now, that legal cloud that’s over hemp may jeopardize that continuation of the family farm or family operation. This is a good step for diversity, economic opportunity and to make sure that we keep our agricultural roots strong.

Some in government are confused about the difference between hemp and marijuana, including, it seems, the politicians who grouped all species of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug back in the 1970s. What could be done to educate government officials and the public about the difference between hemp and marijuana, and why this is so important? [Hemp and marijuana are both species of cannabis and, therefore, classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin. But they are cultivated and used differently. Marijuana is smoked or consumed for medicinal or recreational purposes. Hemp, on the other hand, has many other applications, such as creating clothing, skin products, dietary supplements and health foods.]

I think that’s a great point. This comes down to education. On every aspect of cannabis, it comes down to education: What the industry is, what it isn’t, what is medicinal marijuana, what recreational means, what hemp is. That means we have to take the time to visit with members of Congress and their staff — to have people from the industry visit with their staffs back home, to take the time to educate members through policy papers, position papers, through speeches, through the work we do at conferences and meetings. This is going to be a lot of shoe-leather work, just walking in, beating down the halls of Congress and making sure people understand what we’re dealing with.

A “budtender” organizes and inventories marijuana at the Health Center, a medical cannabis and recreational marijuana dispensary in Denver. (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)
A “budtender” organizes and inventories marijuana at the Health Center, a medical cannabis and recreational marijuana dispensary in Denver. (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)

Do you think cannabis-friendly states should still worry about Sessions? Do you think he’s backed down or do you think he still wants to send federal prosecutors into states that have legalized cannabis?

Well, I think the president of the United States, who the attorney general works for, has made it very clear what his objectives are. This is something the president said in 2016, reiterated to me in a very public fashion now. What we need to do now is not sit back with the status quo but work for a resolution of this federal-state conflict so we provide certainty once and for all.

I have a related question, on the issue of criminal justice reform. A lot of people are serving harsh sentences because of the almost draconian laws that surrounded marijuana. Do you have any thoughts on the war on drugs and the effect it had on society?

Certainly, there has been a great deal of discussion on this over the last several congresses. Senator Mike Lee [a Republican from Utah] and Senator Chuck Grassley [a Republican from Iowa] put together some sentencing reform last Congress because of some of the disparities in law. This perhaps could be viewed as one of the ways to address some of the sentencing disparities, while also addressing a states’ rights issue that probably is one of the most significant federalist advancements that this country’s seen in decades.

Back to your upcoming bill. Could you tell me a little bit more about the role Elizabeth Warren is playing in this project?

The lead Democrat on this effort is Elizabeth Warren. When this first happened, the reversal of the Cole memorandum back in January, I had a number of conversations with Senator Warren. We had a meeting in our office with a number of senators who are interested in finding a solution. It was clear that Elizabeth Warren and I were thinking about the same kind of approach on a federalism level. We’ve continued that work together. We’re leading this meeting this afternoon.

Cannabis at the Health Center in Denver. (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)
Cannabis at the Health Center in Denver. (Photo: Vince Chandler/The Denver Post)

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