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Senate Candidates In Three States Pressed On Marijuana Issues At Debates

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Marijuana was on the minds of the moderators of three separate U.S. Senate election debates in one day.

Incumbent senators and their challengers in Colorado, South Carolina and Texas were all pressed to share their cannabis policy views on Friday.

Here’s what the candidates said:

Colorado

Voters in Colorado made their state the first to legalize marijuana by passing a ballot initiative in 2012, but that was far from the end of the cannabis debate there. Now, senators and would-be senators are being pressed to talk about what they will do to defend their state’s law from federal intervention.

At their debate on Friday, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and his challenger, former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) were asked if they support legalization of marijuana at the federal level.

“I’ve worked hard to make this conflict go away, to allow states’ legalization to occur,” Gardner replied. “Yes, the answer is yes. Gov. Hickenlooper actually vetoed marijuana legislation.”

Hickenlooper, who first endorsed legalization during the course of his unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, said, “Yes, we have to decriminalize it at the federal level, absolutely.”

Gardner is correct that Hickenlooper vetoed several cannabis reform bills in his last year in office as governor, including proposals to add autism as a medical marijuana qualifying condition, to increase flexibility for investments in the cannabis industry and to allow dispensaries to operate tasting rooms. In 2012, he unsuccessfully campaigned against the state’s marijuana legalization ballot referendum but then went on to implement it after voters approved the measure.

Gardner, for his part, is one of a handful of GOP senators who have helped to lead the charge for cannabis reform on Capitol Hill. He filed legislation to respect state legalization laws, which President Trump endorsed, and also backs other proposals such as a bill to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks. That said, he has not been able to convince the leadership of his party to advance any of those measures despite repeatedly expressing hope that he would be able to do so before the election.

The Colorado Democratic Party isn’t impressed with Gardner’s efforts, saying on Friday that he is “all stem and no bud” on the issue.

South Carolina

South Carolina continues to ban marijuana, but that didn’t stop Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) from being asked whether he supports changes to federal cannabis laws in a debate forum on Friday.

“No ma’am, I do not,” he replied. “I’ve been a prosecutor, defense attorney and a judge. Marijuana can be a very dangerous drug, particularly for young people.”

That said, Graham added that he does “support medical marijuana.”

“I am convinced that there are medical purposes associated with marijuana, and I’d be willing to make that that exception.”

The moderator followed up by saying that polls show most Americans support cannabis reform, to which the senator responded, “I’m in the 30 percent that says it’s not a good idea.”

“I’ve seen the effects as a gateway drug to other things,” he said. “When it comes to medical marijuana, it makes sense. When it comes to legalization, I’m not going to impose that on the people of South Carolina.”

Graham’s Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, was not asked about marijuana during the event, but has previously said he favors legalizing cannabis.

“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” he said in July. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”

As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Graham hasn’t brought any pending cannabis legislation up for hearings or votes in his panel, which handles criminal justice issues.

That said, he has cosponsored a handful of reform bills in past years. For example, in 2016 he signed onto legislation to protect medical marijuana states from federal interference and reschedule cannabis, and in 2017 he cosponsored a bill to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances.

He has a mixed record when it comes to votes on cannabis amendments.

In 2015, Graham voted against an Appropriations Committee amendment that would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical cannabis to patients; but the next year he reversed himself and supported a similar measure. Also in 2016, he backed an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.

Texas

Texas currently has a limited medical cannabis program, but the moderators of a Friday debate between Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Democratic challenger MJ Hegar wanted to know their positions on broader marijuana decriminalization.

“I think before we answer that question, we need to have some very comprehensive research done on the effect of marijuana, THC, the active ingredient on the developing brains of children,” Cornyn said. “We know that vaping among kids and using things like THC concentrates can have a dramatic impact on their mental health and on their physical health as well. So I think before we make those decisions we need to we need to know what the facts are.”

Hegar said she backs decriminalization “for multiple reasons.”

“I have a lot of experience with the effects, the medicinal effects,” she said. “A lot of military veterans that have PTSD that can ease those symptoms through that. I don’t support giving it to children,” she said. “I think we should regulate it like tobacco, and we should benefit from the taxes on it as well.”

Another reason to end prohibition, she said, is “because it has also led to a disproportionate impact to communities of color, of the incarceration epidemic in this country.”

The Democratic challenger ended by throwing a dig at the incumbent GOP senator, saying, “the private private prisons and detention centers that are donating to his campaign want it to stay that way.”

Hegar said in a Democratic primary debate earlier this year that the ongoing ban on cannabis “only boosts cartel profits.”

“I am absolutely for legalizing marijuana. I think we should be expunging the records of those who have been incarcerated for such. And I think that we have a mass incarceration problem, not just in marijuana but in the world,” she said at the time. “I mean, we are one of the top incarcerated countries in the world and that’s not something that I’m very proud of, I don’t know about you.”

Cornyn, for his part, said last year that he’s open to holding bipartisan conversations about a cannabis research bill and recognized that the ongoing marijuana banking problems arising from the state-federal policy conflict pose “a real threat,” he’s decidedly against legalization.

Cornyn also said that claims about the therapeutic potential of cannabis remind him of decades-old tobacco industry advertisements asserting that the product had medical benefits.

He also co-chaired a hearing that shed light on how the restrictive federal classification of marijuana impedes research.

In any case, the fact that marijuana was brought up in debates for three separate high-profile U.S. Senate races in one day shows how cannabis issues are increasingly on the minds of the public and of reporters who cover politics.

Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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