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Interview: Cory Gardner Talks Marijuana, Trump And His Reelection Bid

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For anyone left questioning whether marijuana reform has become a mainstream issue in American politics, look no further than the race for a key Senate seat in Colorado, where incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and his main rival former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) are each competing for the cannabis vote this November.

In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment on Friday, Gardner discussed his cannabis reform record, his thoughts on the House’s inclusion of his Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in their latest COVID-19 relief package and more.

At a time of heightened partisanship, the senator and Hickenlooper are largely on the same page when it comes to marijuana: They agree it should be legal, taxed and regulated, and that federal prohibition needs to end. But when residents of one of the first states to legalize in 2012 hit the polls this year, many will have to decide which candidate—both of whom opposed Amendment 64 when it was initially proposed—has done more for the industry and consumers in the years since.

As one of the only GOP senators who has consistently advocated for cannabis reform in a chamber reluctant to take up the issue, Gardner is banking on some kind of legislative victory for marijuana ahead of Election Day. By his own admission, it would help him in a race in which polls show him trailing. But advocates of late have raised serious questions about whether he’s done enough. Some doubt that his occasional statements in support of the industry, sponsorship of legislation and behind-the-scenes conversations with colleagues on Capitol Hill and in the White House will affect real changes in the law sufficient to earn their support.

Some have questioned how the senator has approached cannabis policy amid the coronavirus pandemic. Several Democratic lawmakers have made the case that this is the time to enact reform to normalize the marijuana market and provide relief to an industry that employs tens of thousands of workers across the country. Gardner did not join his across-the-aisle colleagues in signing letters on the industry’s access to COVID-19 relief funds recently, but he agrees with them nonetheless, he told Marijuana Moment.

He also agrees with House Democrats that his bill—the SAFE Banking Act—should be included in the next coronavirus package taken up by the Senate. But Gardner has found himself combating a chorus of Republican voices protesting the inclusion of the senator’s own bill in the House’s version of legislation.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marijuana Moment: According to a recent survey, 71 percent of Colorado residents say the state’s adult-use marijuana system has been a success. You, like your Democratic opponent, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, initially opposed Amendment 64. Do you agree with residents at this point that legalization has been a success?

Cory Gardner: It has been. In fact, what surprises me is that that number isn’t higher than that. I’ve seen other polls that show support for the decision of Colorado in the 80s. I think there’s significant success in what has been able to be done.

MM: Is it fair to say, then, that if legalization was on the ballot this November, you’d be a “yes” vote?

CG: That’s correct—just like the rest of the state of Colorado.

MM: What do you make of the seemingly coordinated messaging among several of your GOP colleagues criticizing the House inclusion of your SAFE Banking Act in their latest COVID-19 package? Do you feel it is germane given arguments that it could mitigate the spread of the virus?

CG: Not only is it germane but it’s needed. Here’s one very commonsense reason why we should be doing this. At a time when volumes of cash are leaving banks and being invested to save businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, through economic emergency disaster loans, through loans the bank is making to save its customers—billions and billions of dollars are leaving banks and saving our economy. Well, all of that money is leaving the financial system, here’s an opportunity for us to bring billions of dollars into the financial system that could then be turned around to save even more businesses.

Not only do I think this makes sense from a year-ago, pre-COVID, no-idea-this-was-going-to-happen point of view—but it really makes sense now because these are dollars that could actually be going into the system, helping with solvency and helping reserves build up to turn around and do even more good in saving our economy.

MM: When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticized the House package, he very narrowly focused on the diversity reporting provision of the SAFE Banking Act, rather than the main financial services components of the bill. Does that give you hope that he’s open to including your legislation in a Senate coronavirus bill?

CG: There’s no doubt that many of my Republican colleagues, including Senator McConnell, probably don’t want to support this or are trying to find a way to make it go away. But the fact is, he knows it’s not going to go away. He knows it needs to be dealt with. So that does give me hope—but what gives me even more hope are the great conversations I’ve had with [Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID)] and many of my other colleagues who recognize a need to do this.

There’s a lot of things that Congress is really, really bad at doing. But one of things it’s really good at doing is sticking its head in the sand. That’s what Congress has been doing for the last several years on this and it can’t do this anywhere.

MM: What is the latest from negotiations with Crapo? I assume those conversations have been partly derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, but you said a few months ago that a deal was “close.” Are there any remaining sticking points that need to be addressed?

CG: I wouldn’t say derailed. I would say it certainly delayed the movement of the standalone bill. But I have had several conversations with Senator Crapo since we’ve been back in session post-COVID and I think we’ve got another meeting coming up that I think will go in depth. There’s some good opportunities to look at language right now, so I really do feel like we’re still making progress. I think this is something that should be included—it absolutely should be included—in the relief package that we’re moving forward.

MM: In terms of specifics, are there any sticking points at issue from the chairman’s perspective that need to be tackled for the standalone bill to be advanced?

CG: I don’t think I’d say sticking points. I’d say I think there are areas where we just haven’t seen how he wants them resolved yet. We know what he wants to do and we know there are ways to address them in a manner that would fix the problem and that industry would agree to, we just haven’t seen all of that language yet. We’re still getting it, but I still feel good about it. Do we have everything in place? Not yet.

MM: Do you expect a committee vote during the 116th Congress?

CG: Yes, I would.

MM: You’re one of very select GOP senators representing a recreational cannabis state. Do you feel like it’s going to take additional conservative states legalizing to shift the rhetoric and position of the Republican-controlled Senate when it comes to not just the SAFE Banking Act but marijuana reform legislation more broadly?

CG: In many cases, that shift has already happened. There are very, very few states that haven’t had to address this in some way, shape or form, either on the medical side or the recreational side. You’re down to just a very small, small minority of states that haven’t had this very question that needs to be dealt with. When the banking community has come to every member of the Senate, regardless of the level of business activity in their states, and say, ‘hey, this needs to be fixed.’ When that happened, I think a lot of attitudes changed. Most will recognize that we need to take this step of getting financial services to address this challenge. They may not agree with recreational use or other legalization, but I think they absolutely see the need for this.

MM: There’s admittedly been a lack of real legislative action when it comes to cannabis reform in the Senate. Can you tell me what you’ve been doing to advance this issue behind the scenes and what your constituents can expect in the months to come?

CG: Continued advocacy on the PPP side, the economic disaster loans. Trying to continue to work on the research backlog that we have with DOJ. I’ve talked to Attorney General Barr many, many times about that issue. Continuing to work with my colleagues—trying to explain what is happening, what the need is and, frankly, what it is not. Trying to explain away any misconceptions that they have. And then as they say something or pop off about the number of times cannabis was mentioned in the law versus the number of times jobs was mentioned in the law, you know, I take them aside and I talk to them and try to explain, hey, this is what’s going on. This is why we need to do it. Maybe they’re being nice to me, but it seems like it’s making sense to them.

MM: Speaking of marijuana research, several advocacy groups have weighed in during a recent Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) public comment period on proposed rules to expand cannabis manufacturing facilities and argued that DEA shouldn’t be responsible for this research as a law enforcement apparatus. Do you agree with them that a federal health agency would be a more appropriate authority for that activity?

CG: It should be our federal health agencies. I think that’s still that kind of old-think that’s happening, and they’re trying to look at this through a 1950s lens and it’s just no applicable.

MM: You notably secured an endorsement of the STATES Act from President Trump a whiles back and you recently sat down with the president alongside Gov. Jared Polis (D). Did marijuana reform come up at that meeting? And if not, when it the last you discussed the issue with the president?

CG: In that conversation it did not come up, and I think I was in the room the entire time the governor was in the room and I didn’t hear him either so I don’t believe it came up at all in that discussion. Obviously what’s interesting is you had the governor of North Dakota there and you have Senator Cramer has been very supportive of our efforts from North Dakota. You had two states that have been very active on this front in the room. But I talked to the president probably within the last several weeks about this, talking about the need, particularly on the SAFE Banking Act because of what the House was going to do and because of what I thought we should do in the next relief measures that we pass. It’s been in the last month I know because we talk about it regularly. It’s something I want to make sure he’s got top of mind.

MM: What can you say about how President Trump has reacted when you bring up cannabis policy issues?

CG: It’s usually a very supportive comment. Something [in response to anti-cannabis talking points] like, “well, that sounds like something my grandpa would’ve said or my uncle would’ve said.” It’s just not something that’s going to change. It’s all been positive. And I think we’re seeing that. Had they wanted to do something, they’d do what Jeff Sessions did and mess around with that and they haven’t.

MM: The president is known to tweet out significant policy positions. Have you ever asked him to use social media to endorse something like the STATES Act?

CG: No, but I will now. You can take full credit for it when it happens.

MM: Do you think the president would benefit from backing some level of marijuana reform heading into his own election?

CG: Look at the number that you cited at the beginning of this phone call. 71 percent. People of this country have moved to favor it. This is supported. So I think the president would be right to get on the side of the people and obviously that certainly would help.

MM: How much stock do you think voters will put into your record on cannabis advocacy come November? Put another way, do you think the passage of the SAFE Banking Act would help you in a significant way?

CG: People are looking for results. I’ve made a habit of getting big things done over the last six years—from passage of the three-digit national suicide hotline to a vote we’re going to have in a couple weeks on the most significant conservation package this country has seen in the last 50, 60 years, the Great American Outdoors Act. This is something that we’re going to get done, and I think people will look at that record. They know that, hey here’s somebody who was opposed to it, been very honest about that and recognizes the people of Colorado spoke and is now championing it. I think that’s a level of effort that we’ve put in over the last many years that will matter to people.

MM: What do you make of former Vice President Joe Biden’s continued opposition to legalization? Among advocates, there’s a lot of disappointment and frustration over his ongoing opposition to legalization and controversial comments he’s made about the issue. Should voters hold him accountable?

CG: Look, Biden is—I haven’t really followed him closely on his position other than I know he remains opposed and what he’s done over the years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he flip-flopped as well.

MM: Voters in Denver made history last year by passing a first-in-the-nation measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. It’s an issue gaining traction nationally. Have you given any thought to psychedelics reform?

CG: No, I haven’t. And so far it’s something that hasn’t come up as much across Colorado as certainly marijuana did. And I don’t mean that as in marijuana did now, but as marijuana did back in 2007-2008 timeframe. I’m not familiar as much with that issue and I don’t know that the people of Colorado are as familiar with it.

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New York City Adds More Exceptions To Pre-Employment Marijuana Testing Ban

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New York City officials have finalized rules for a local ban on pre-employment drug testing for marijuana, and they added additional exemptions that will allow an even greater number of workers to be screened for cannabis before they are hired.

The City Council approved the ban last year, and it was enacted without Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) signature. It stipulates that, generally speaking, companies in the city can’t conduct pre-employment tests for THC metabolites unless the position is safety sensitive. The policy took effect in May.

As originally written and passed, the bill included language carving out exceptions from the prohibition on testing for those applying to certain jobs such as police officers and people charged with supervising or caring for children, as well as positions “tied to a federal or state contract or grant.”

However, it also contained a provision that allowed the New York City Commission on Human Rights to expand the list of excepted jobs. That body proposed its own set of regulations in April and has been in the process of finalizing those rules in the months since.

On June 16, the commission voted unanimously to approve the finalized rules, including new exemptions on top of what they initially proposed.

Workers who use heavy machinery, spend a significant amount of time at a construction site, work on or near power or gas utility lines or regularly operate a motor vehicle for work would still be subject to pre-employment drug testing for cannabis. The language around working “near” utility lines wasn’t in the original proposal, and the motor vehicle stipulation was loosened to cover workers who drive “on most shifts” rather than just those who do so “on an approximately daily basis.”

The commission also added a new section stating that those with “work relating to fueling an aircraft, providing information regarding aircraft weight and balance, or maintaining or operating aircraft support equipment” will also be exempt from the cannabis testing ban.

A catch-all for workers whose marijuana consumption “would interfere with the employee’s ability to take adequate care in the carrying out of his or her job duties and would pose an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm to the employee or to other people” remains in the finalized rule, which takes effect on July 24.

Reform advocates have widely celebrated the policy overall, applauding local lawmakers for taking steps to protect cannabis consumers against discrimination. But some—including the Marijuana Policy Project—argue that the exemptions are excessively broad.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (D), who sponsored the legislation that created the ban, previously said he’s opposed to adding any exemptions to the law because he believes that “no individual should be tested for THC, and I stand firmly against any expansion of exemptions to Local Law 91.”

Of course, cannabis remains illegal for recreational use in New York despite efforts from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and legislators to enact it through the state budget over the past two years. But the City Council did draft the testing ban with the expectations that marijuana would eventually become legal for adult use in the state.

“It was introduced by the public advocate in the context of legalization of marijuana [which] had a lot more momentum. There was an assumption that that would be in place by the time this went into effect,” a member of the commission said prior to the body’s vote on the final rule last month. “But the intent as we understand it behind the law was to lower barrier to entry for folks.”

Some lawmakers recently called for legalizing cannabis to be a part of the state’s policing reform efforts amid protests over police killings of black Americans.

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Feds Hire Hazmat Firm For Marijuana Eradication Training

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The U.S. Forest Service will spend nearly $50,000 to hire a hazardous materials consulting firm to train employees how to safely remove marijuana grown on public lands under a newly awarded government contract.

The agency says the training is needed to protect employees, some of whom reportedly have been taken to emergency rooms after being exposed to hazardous chemicals while clearing marijuana plants in years past.

“Before 2016 we had numerous number [sic] of our Agents and Officers getting sick in our marijuana cultivation sites on our public lands requiring trips to emergency rooms with possible long term health effects,” says a typo-ridden document filed in support of the contract that was posted last week to the U.S. General Services Administration website. “In 2016 we received our fist [sic] citation from OSHA for not providing our personnel the training and PPE needed to operate in this environment.”

Training of agents with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region will be conducted by NES, a leading hazardous materials consultant and training company that works extensively with law enforcement. In the document, the government says the NES program “is the ONLY training course in the U.S. available that meets our needs, and has met OSHA standards.” The course is estimated to cost taxpayers $44,732, and there will be no bidding process or consideration of competing firms under the single source award.

Going forward, employees will need to pass the hazmat class before they can participate in cannabis-clearing operations.

Forest Service HAZMAT marijuana contract document

U.S. General Services Administration

While marijuana has been grown clandestinely across the continent for generations, large-scale commercial grows hidden on public lands ramped up in the early 2000s, especially in California. Much of the marijuana fed the nation’s illicit market, but some also made its way to medical dispensaries, which were largely unregulated at the time.

Cannabis can be cultivated successfully in most environments without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but many of the unregulated growers cut corners. They apply dangerous chemicals that pollute nearby waterways and fell entire sections of national forest to clear land.

The other potential contaminants at illegal grow sites appear to be the Forest Service’s chief concern. The document notes that many cultivation plots run by drug trafficking organizations “use hazardous chemicals not allowed for use in the United States.”

The Forest Service itself has come under fire for its handling of the sites. In April 2018, a watchdog report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general found that the Forest Service “does not always reclaim and rehabilitate marijuana grow sites after plants are eradicated, and FS is unaware of the overall impact these marijuana grow sites pose to the forest ecosystems.”

“As a result,” the watchdog said at the time, “trash and chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers are still present on these grow sites, thereby putting the public, wildlife, and environment at risk of contamination.

It’s not clear from the new contract whether the CES-led training will include information on how to effectively remediate cultivation sites after marijuana plants have been cleared. The documents specifically mentions the health and safety of Forest Service employees but is silent on broader environmental impacts.

Opponents of marijuana prohibition have for years argued that many of the environmental and health threats posed by chemical contaminants could be effectively eliminated through legalization. Though enforcement is inconsistent, most states that have legalized cannabis for adults have set strict limits on pesticides and other chemicals that can be used by licensed growers.

“It is hardly a surprise that those who elect to clandestinely cultivate cannabis on federal lands engage in practices that provide greater potential risks to both the environment and to the end product itself,” Paul Armentano, deputy director for the advocacy group NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “By contrast, a legal market provides regulatory oversight and demands that those engaged in these activities be licensed and utilize best practices.”

“While legalization itself will likely not entirely eliminate the illicit market, just as, for instance, broader alcohol legalization has not eliminated moonshining in its entirety,” Armentano added, “the reality is that it will continue to severely curtail these activities and the involvement of criminal entrepreneurs.”

Even many in federal law enforcement officials seem to agree on that point. In February, the head of the union for U.S. Border Patrol agents acknowledged that state-level cannabis legalization is forcing criminal cartels out of the market.

“The states that have legalized marijuana,” said National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, “have done more damage to the cartels than the [Drug Enforcement Administration] could ever think about doing.”

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DC Activists Submit Signatures To Put Psychedelics Decriminalization On November Ballot

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An ambitious campaign to decriminalize psychedelics in Washington, D.C., is one step closer to placing their measure on the November ballot with the formal submission of tens of thousands of voter signatures.

Organizers have been scrambling for weeks to collect enough signatures from D.C. voters by Monday’s deadline amid historically difficult circumstances: a global pandemic, months of stay-at-home orders and protests over racism and police violence that filled the streets of the nation’s capital. But with the help of innovative signature-gathering techniques and allies flown in from across the country, advocates said they had successfully submitted upwards of 35,000 signatures—more than enough to qualify the initiative.

If approved by voters, Initiative 81 would make enforcement of laws against plant- and fungus-based psychedelics among the “lowest law enforcement priorities” for the Metropolitan Police Department. It would not, however, legalize or reduce penalties for the substances.

The measure would apply to all natural entheogenic substances, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine and DMT.

“Today is a milestone for D.C.,” Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature D.C., the organization behind the measure, said in a press release. “Voters in our nation’s capital have made clear that they are ready to end another piece of the war on drugs and to support their neighbors who, like me, have found relief in entheogenic plant and fungi medicines.”

Lavasani, a mother of two, has said psychedelic therapy helped her recover from postpartum depression. She told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that removing stigma around psychedelics could help other patients find relief.

“A lot of people here are using these substances on the down low. It’s not something we’re open about,” Lavasani said. “My frustration when I was treating myself, I didn’t feel like I had resources to reach out to… What we’re trying to do here is not only get this initiative passed but try to create a community that’s really inclusive.”

Elections officials now have 30 days to validate the petitions, the final step before the measure is formally certified for November’s ballot. A total of 24,712 signatures are needed to qualify the measure, a Board of Elections representative told Marijuana Moment on Monday.

Decriminalize Nature D.C. has already independently verified more than 27,000 of the collected signatures, said Adam Eidinger, a longtime drug reformer and the campaign’s treasurer. “According to our validation, we have exceeded [the required] number by more than 2,000 signatures—at least,” he told Marijuana Moment.

Polling suggests D.C. voters are open to the idea. According to a survey released in April by campaign organizers, 51 percent of respondents initially said they supported decriminalizing psychedelics, while 27 percent were opposed. After being read pro and con arguments about the initiative, support rose to 59 percent, while opposition increased to 32 percent.

Most who were surveyed said they hadn’t used psychedelics themselves. Ten percent of respondents said they had personally used psilocybin or magic mushrooms, and 23 percent said someone close to them has. Only single-digit percentages of voters said they or someone close to them had experience with ayahuasca, mescaline or ibogaine.

Majorities of respondents, however, said they or someone in their life had experienced mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Nearly a third said they knew someone who has experienced PTSD, which a growing body of research suggests could be effectively treated with psychedelic therapies.

“D.C. residents who benefit from entheogens include those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other traumas, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and patients in end-of-life care,” the campaign said in a statement Monday.

Despite apparent support for the measure, qualifying it for November’s ballot was a daunting task for activists, who had to update their tactics amid coronavirus-related social distancing.

In March, organizers asked elections officials to allow them to gather signatures electronically, but neither the mayor nor the D.C. Council acted on that request.

Instead, the Council passed a novel bill that allowed a hybrid approach: Organizers could distribute petition forms electronically, but voters would have to print a physical copy in order to sign it. From there, residents could simply snap a photo of the signed document and return a digital copy to the campaign.

Officials also, for the first time, allowed people to sign their own petition sheet instead of having to use one controlled by a separate person—a longstanding prior policy that contributed to initial signature gathering difficulties during a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

Eidinger told Marijuana Moment the campaign received nearly a thousand signatures through email alone. “We have 980 signatures collected through email,” he said. “That’s the first signatures ever collected through email in the United States.”

The campaign also sent petitions by postal mail to every registered voter in the District in order to reach people at home, and signature-gatherers petitioned voters at demonstrations and on sidewalks and street corners across town.

Organizers also had help from activists from across the country, including those behind Denver’s successful drive to decriminalize psilocybin, who flew to Washington in recent weeks to help gather signatures.

“Despite unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. voters from all 8 wards signed the petition to support common-sense reforms to police priorities that would help ensure that D.C. residents using natural plant and fungi medicines are not targeted by law enforcement,” the campaign said in a press release.

Lavasani, the mom behind the decriminalization campaign, said that with signature gathering now out of the way, the focus shifts to winning over voters. “For our campaign, today is also the beginning of the next phase to make Initiative 81 law,” she said. “We look forward to engaging and educating D.C. voters so that on November 3, D.C. says ‘Yes on 81’!”

Momentum for similar reforms is building across the United States, and Lavasani said a win in the nation’s capital could help propel the issue forward.

“I can see the Capitol from my house,” she said. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that this could lay the groundwork for national reform.”

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

An Oregon effort to decriminalize drug possession and increase funding for treatment officially made it onto the ballot last week.

Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use turned in what advocates believe are more than enough petitions to qualify, but some submissions must still be validated by the state.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last week.

Organizers in Nebraska last week submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.

Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Washington state activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

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