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Warren, Gardner Unveil Marijuana Bill Easing Federal Enforcement

Bipartisan legislation would bar interference in states with legal marijuana

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., hold a press conference in the Senate Radio and TV Gallery to discuss bipartisan action they are taking to put marijuana legislation into the hands of state lawmakers on Thursday. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., hold a press conference in the Senate Radio and TV Gallery to discuss bipartisan action they are taking to put marijuana legislation into the hands of state lawmakers on Thursday. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., are rarely on the same side of a hot-button issue. But the two senators shared a podium Thursday to launch new legislation on an issue they can agree on: keeping federal hands off state-legalized marijuana.

The two senators on Thursday unveiled bipartisan legislation that would protect marijuana users and businesses from federal interference in states that have legalized the drug. The legislation would allow states to pursue liberalized marijuana policies as they see fit, they said.

Warren said current federal prohibition on marijuana impedes effective marijuana treatments for medical patients and unjustly targets minority communities. Gardner described marijuana legalization as a matter of states’ rights.

Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana and another 20 have legalized the drug for medical use. But federal law still prohibits it.

“These are archaic laws that don’t just hurt individual people,” Warren said at the Thursday morning press conference. “They also prevent businesses who are in the marijuana business from getting access to banking services. That forces a multibillion dollar industry to operate all in cash. That’s bad for business and bad for safety.”

The bill, nicknamed the STATES Act, would require states, territories and tribes to abide by certain restrictions to qualify for protection from federal law enforcement, including a minimum age for marijuana sales and restrictions on selling the drug at highway rest stops.

Gardner and Warren emphasized that their bill does not legalize marijuana on the federal level and does not impose legalization on states that don’t want it. But the bill would legalize the drug in states that choose to do so.

The senators say they have bipartisan support in the Senate and the House of Representatives for the bill. Warren quipped they were “lining them up like Noah’s Ark” — one Democrat for each Republican.

“The support of this bill is across a very wide spectrum of political ideologies,” Gardner said. “You’re going to see that in the outside groups and organizations that support this legislation, you’ll see that in governors across the country and you’re also going to see that in terms of the members of the House.”

In January, both Warren and Gardner opposed Attorney General Jeff Session’s rescission of Obama-era rules that largely left states to their own devices on marijuana policy. Sessions, who has a history of strict views on drug crime enforcement, said the previous administration’s policy undermined rule of law and impeded law enforcement.

When he revoked the Obama-era rules, Sessions said his new guidance on federal marijuana enforcement “simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.” 

Gardner blocked a series of Trump appointments to the Department of Justice until Trump promised to back off Colorado’s drug regime in April.

President Donald Trump has signaled support for legislation easing federal intervention in states with legalized marijuana, Gardner said. Trump told Gardner in an April phone call he would support a “legislative solution” to protect a “states’ rights approach” to enforcement, Gardner told the Denver Post.

But it remains unclear what odds the bill faces in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said he opposed federal marijuana legalization.

Gardner’s home state of Colorado was one of the first to legalize marijuana, in 2012. The senator opposed legalization at the time but has since defended Colorado’s legal marijuana industry from federal meddling.

Warren expressed support for legalization during her 2016 re-election campaign in Massachusetts, whose residents voted to legalize the drug that year.

“The science is clear — medical marijuana treatments are effective,” Warren said Thursday. “There is absolutely no reason that patients should be prevented from seeking scientifically approved care.”

Warren also stressed the discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws in communities of color.

“We cannot talk about our country’s approach to marijuana policy without addressing the widespread discrimination these policies foster within our criminal justice system — discrimination that has devastated communities of color for generations,” Warren said.

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