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.
Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill
The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.
His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.
“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.
I have filed #SAFEBanking as an amendment to #AmericaCOMPETES b/c cannabis-related businesses – big and small – are in desperate need of access to capital & the banking system in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner & compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) January 28, 2022
“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”
It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.
The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.
Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.
In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.
Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures
Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.
This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.
The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.
CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.
“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”
The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.
Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.
A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).
A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.
There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.
After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.
Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.
Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.
A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”
While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.
The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.
“The higher the content of THC, the greater the likelihood that you will become addicted to the drug… The content of THC has gone up at least 4-fold.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.
The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.
That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.
“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.
Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.
“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”
The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.
She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”
However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.
“We need to provide them [addicts] with treatment, so just to say ok we are going to liberalize everything… and not support treatment for those people under those conditions, I actually think it is quite irresponsible.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.
She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.
Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.