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.
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Senator Touts New Marijuana Legalization Bill In Floor Speech On Racial Justice
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) talked up her new marijuana legalization bill during a speech on racial justice that she delivered on the Senate floor on Thursday.
The senator, whose “Substance Regulation and Safety Act” was introduced late last month, said that ending cannabis prohibition could help law enforcement devote more resources to serious crimes, rather than continue to criminalize people in a racially disparate manner.
“We could actually improve public safety by devoting resources to combating violent crime, rather than over-enforcing low-level offenses in communities of color. Let’s think about what this means for marijuana offenses,” Smith said. “The federal marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that contributes to mass incarceration and over-policing of communities of color.”
“White and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but a black person is almost four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense. The federal government is behind both state law and public opinion. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia already allow some type of marijuana use, despite the longtime federal prohibition.
While the senator recently introduced her own legalization bill, she also called on Congress to pass a separate reform bill that she’s cosponsored: the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.
The legislation “would address the devastating impact on communities of color of a war on drugs by expunging marijuana-related convictions and then reinvesting in community,” she said.
“It is time to legalize marijuana, and we should do it in a practical and commonsense way that protects the health and safety and the civil rights of our communities.”
Watch the senator discuss cannabis policy and racial justice below:
Her own bill, meanwhile, “would ensure that marijuana is regulated to protect the health and the safety of youth, of consumers and of drivers,” she said. “We do this without replicating the racist enforcement patterns of our current drug policy.”
Neither piece of legislation has advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate so far. The House version of the MORE Act cleared the Judiciary Committee last year, however, and a committee chairman’s staffer told Marijuana Moment last month that there are plans in the works to get it to the floor for a vote in September.
During her speech, Smith also discussed a number of other proposals concerning policing reform and racial justice. She announced the introduction of another new bill that she says “would help, state, local and tribal governments reimagine policing in their communities by funding innovative projects and best practices that will transform how we deliver public safety and other social services.”
The senator’s marijuana legalization bill would federally deschedule cannabis, require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop rules that treat the substance in the same way as tobacco, create a national research institute to evaluate the risks and benefits of use, require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose quality control standards and mandate that the Department of Transportation study methods for detecting THC-impaired driving.
The descheduling provisions “are retroactive and shall apply to any offense committed, case pending, or conviction entered, and, in the case of a juvenile, any offense committed, case pending, or adjudication of juvenile delinquency entered, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the text of the bill states.
HHS would have to come up with a “national strategy to prevent youth use and abuse of cannabis, with specific attention to youth vaping of cannabis products.” Further, text of the legislation states that the department would be required to “regulate cannabis products in the same manner, and to the same extent,” as it does with tobacco.
That includes “applying all labeling and advertising requirements that apply to tobacco products under such Act to cannabis products.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be tasked with working with other agencies to develop policies on allowing marijuana imports and exports.
The legislation further contains racial justice provisions. For example, HHS would have to consult with “consult with civil rights stakeholders” to determine “whether cannabis abuse prevention strategies and policies are likely to have racially disparate impacts” within 100 days of the bill’s enactment.
The Department of Transportation would similarly have to determine whether its impaired driving prevention policy “is likely to contribute to racially disparate impacts in the enforcement of traffic safety laws.”
Agencies charged with establishing these regulations would have one year following the bill’s enactment to finalize those rules.
A federal age requirement for marijuana sales would be set at 21 under the measure.
The legislation was introduced one day after the House approved a spending bill amendment that would protect all state, territory and tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.
Smith’s focus on marijuana reform comes as lawmakers in her home state of Minnesota push for legalization, with a top legislator unveiling a comprehensive plan for legalizing cannabis for all adults 21 and older in May.
Further, it comes shortly after the Democratic National Committee rejected an amendment to adopt legalization as a 2020 party plank, with members opting instead to embrace more modest reforms. Advocates suspend that there may have been pressure for the panel not to formally embrace a policy change that is opposed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State
Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”
Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.
“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”
The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.
That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”
The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”
The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.
This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.
“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.
Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.
For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”
The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”
“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”
The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.
The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”
The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.
“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to 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 caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate 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.
Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:
Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill
Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.
Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”
“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”
He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.
Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.