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.