Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner has emerged as a champion for the cannabis industry, supporting efforts to provide tax relief and pushing back against federal intervention.

Gardner’s most significant support yet for the cannabis industry came recently after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo that offered flexibility to federal prosecutors on marijuana issues. The so-called “Cole Memo” provided federal prosecutors with leniency in going after legal cannabis businesses.

Though the recent guidance and backtrack from Sessions is largely symbolic and filled with rhetoric, the conservative U.S. attorney general still encouraged federal prosecutors to crackdown on legal marijuana.

Gardner, during an at times passionate speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, reminded Sessions that he had made a promise not to interfere with legal marijuana. Gardner went on to point out that President Trump, when he was running for office, promised to leave cannabis enforcement up to the states.

“What happened today was a trampling of Colorado’s rights, it’s voters,” Gardner said. “The people of Colorado spoke, they spoke loudly.”

Gardner went on to point to the more than 30,000 jobs created in Colorado because of the cannabis industry, with an economic impact of $2.4 billion. The sale of marijuana – which topped half-a-billion dollars in the first three-and-a-half years following legalization – generated more than $226 million in taxes and fees in 2017 through November.

In the last two fiscal years, nearly $118 million in Colorado marijuana taxes was used to fund school construction projects, and more than $16 million was allocated for substance abuse prevention and treatment, and more than $10 million was used for mental and behavioral health services. Another nearly $6 million was allocated for school drop-out prevention programs and bullying prevention and education.

Gardner, a powerful Colorado Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, earlier in the day issued a series of tweets and statements defending a successful legal cannabis regulatory system. Gardner went as far as to threaten to block Justice Department nominees “until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made.”

On Feb. 15, after weeks of holds on President Trump’s nominations, Gardner announced that he had made progress in his negotiations with Sessions’ office. The senator said he would no longer block some appointments, noting that negotiations with Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had been productive.

Meanwhile, interim Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer made it clear that Sessions’ memo did not change policy, stating, “The United States Attorney’s Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions.”

Tax reform

Gardner has also been active on tax reform for cannabis businesses. In November, he announced that he would co-sponsor legislation creating an exception to the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits state-based legal cannabis businesses from benefiting from critical income tax credits and deductions.

At issue is so-called “Code 280E,” which effectively forces cannabis businesses to pay a much higher tax rate than other companies. The 1980s IRS provision was initially intended to combat drug cartels that were writing off expensive purchases during the cocaine boom. Cannabis businesses pay an effective tax rate of as much as 80 percent because of the IRS code, compared to about 15-30 percent for other businesses.

Gardner considered taking a bold step to add the IRS code change to a high-profile Republican tax reform bill when it was in the U.S. Senate. But conditions were not ripe for Gardner to push the vote at the time.

In a statement announcing his support for the standalone bill that would provide relief for cannabis businesses, Gardner said, “Our current tax code puts thousands of legal marijuana businesses throughout Colorado at a disadvantage by treating them differently than other businesses across the state.

“Coloradans made their voices heard in 2012 when they legalized marijuana, and it’s time for the federal government to allow Colorado businesses to compete.”