Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner promised this week to continue the fight for federal marijuana legalization after the Senate failed to vote on adding his states’ rights amendment to the sweeping criminal justice reform bill passed Tuesday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, objected to Gardner’s move to call up the amendment he introduced earlier this week to the First Step Act, which will ease federal punitive prison sentences, in an effort to pass language that mirrors Gardner’s STATES Act. According to a news release this week, Gardner co-authored the act with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in June to amend the Controlled Substances Act so that states or Native American tribes can opt out of federal provisions criminalizing marijuana, allowing them to legalize the substance.
Gardner said in a Wednesday statement that he voted YES for the First Step Act but would continue to push for his bipartisan act to receive a vote in the Senate.
Gardner said his amendment would have ensured each state has the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within its borders. He supported the final criminal justice reform bill, even without his amendment, he said, “because it will have a real impact on how we help people re-enter society after they have served their sentence.”
Gardner spoke on the floor Tuesday as part of the debate on the bill after his amendment was blocked from a vote. Gardner said that although he did not vote for marijuana legalization in Colorado in 2012, he supported the voters’ decision.
“I am all for helping those that have paid their debt to society, but there are many for whom there should be no debt,” Gardner said on the floor. “But being from Colorado, it is hard to think about federal criminal justice reform without thinking about the biggest problem the federal criminal law creates: the refusal to respect the will of Coloradans when it comes to marijuana. Every day, Coloradans of good faith follow Colorado law to a T, yet they are still criminals in the eyes of the federal government.”
Gardner said federal policy on marijuana affects not only growers and retailers, but users as well, such as cancer patients or veterans using medical marijuana. The senator also discussed banking issues of third-party businesses interacting with the marijuana industry as a result of federal policy, which considers them money launderers and puts them at risk for asset forfeiture.
The failure to include legislation leading to marijuana legalization comes after the Senate passed the farm bill earlier this month, which legalized another cannabis product – hemp. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 states had already legalized hemp before the bill, and Gardner reminded the Senate that dozens of states, including Colorado, had also legalized marijuana in some form, meaning the body had to play catch-up to reflect state law.
“This legislation is the embodiment of the federalism our founders envisioned. It allows each state to move – if at all – at its own pace,” Gardner said on the floor. “It lets states like Colorado be the laboratory of democracy the American people have come to expect. But most importantly, it lets Colorado be Colorado, South Carolina be South Carolina, and Florida be Florida – and they all will have federal prosecutors backing up whatever decision they make with respect to marijuana.
Before yielding the floor, Gardner assured he will “not give up this fight” to grant full access to the banking system to the marijuana industry, which he said is estimated to become a $20 billion all-cash economy by 2022. Gardner said that if he had gotten the chance to bring his amendment up for a vote, it would receive a majority bipartisan support.
“If we had a chance to vote on this amendment today, the amendment would be germane, it would be a 50-vote threshold, simple majority up or down, and I know that this bill – this amendment has the support from this body on both sides of the aisle to fix this conflict and allow the states to make their own decisions without the heavy hand of Washington telling them what to do,” Gardner said on the floor.
Emily Martin is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.