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Marijuana bill could help Cory Gardner’s re-election chances. Will Senate GOP leaders get behind it?

Bipartisan measure would end federal interference in states that have legalized cannabis

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, center, says the STATES Act would pass if it got to the House and Senate floors, though the latter may be harder to accomplish. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, center, says the STATES Act would pass if it got to the House and Senate floors, though the latter may be harder to accomplish. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday to clear away some of the weedier legal issues between federal marijuana law and states that have legalized cannabis.

The bill, co-sponsored in the Senate by Colorado Republican Cory Gardner and Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and in the House by Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer and Ohio Repbublican David Joyce, would amend the federal drug law so its marijuana provisions no longer apply to individuals acting in compliance with state or tribal laws.

“The STATES Act simply says that if you are operating in conformance with your state laws, what you are doing is legal under federal law,” Blumenauer said.

The bill has attracted broad, bipartisan support: Reps. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, and Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, bookend the ideological spectrum in Congress, yet both spoke in the bill’s favor Thursday morning.

The bill’s sponsors are confident the bill can pass — if it comes up for a vote.

“If we get it on the floor of the Senate, it passes,” said Gardner. “If we get it on the floor of the House, it passes.”

Also watch: Wait, there’s a Cannabis Caucus? Pot proponents on the Hill say it’s high time for serious policy debate

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Senate hurdle

Gardner acknowledged the bill will have a harder time in the GOP-controlled Senate than in the Democrat-led House, saying he was working to convince Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham to advance the bill and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to eventually allow it to come to a floor vote.

Graham, asked about the bill, said he hadn’t thought about marking it up. “I’m not very excited about it,” the South Carolina Republican said.

If the bill advances through the Senate Judiciary Committee and on to the floor, a wide swath of senators have already signed on in support: Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Ron Wyden of Oregon; and Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, and Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

[Warren, Gardner unveil marijuana bill easing federal enforcement]

Gardner is up for re-election in 2020 in a state that legalized recreational marijuana, and allowing him a legislative win could help the GOP retain control of the Senate. On the other hand, Republican leadership may be loath to give some Democratic co-sponsors running in 2020 — whether for re-election or the presidency — political victories.

If Congress passes the proposal, Gardner said President Donald Trump will sign it.

“The president has been very clear to me that he supports our legislation,” Gardner said. “He opposed the actions that were taken by the Attorney General [Jeff Sessions] to reverse the Cole memorandum and believes we have to fix this.” The Cole memorandum is Justice Department guidance against prosecuting federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized it.

The House Financial Services Committee reported a bill last week that would allow state-authorized cannabis businesses to get access to the federally regulated banking system. Currently, state-licensed dispensaries and growers largely operate as cash-only businesses because federal banking laws require financial firms to report illegal activities, which is what federal law considers growing and selling marijuana.

That bill — introduced by Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter, and co-sponsored by Washington Democrat Denny Heck and Ohio Republicans Steve Stivers and Warren Davidson—  would offer a regulatory safe harbor to firms providing financial services to “cannabis-related legitimate businesses.” It would also exempt such companies’ proceeds from federal money laundering laws, which effectively deputize banks and credit unions to investigate when customers make shady-looking transactions.

Gardner said his bill would do more than Perlmutter’s.

“Both bills would be very, very important to pass. I think the STATES Act has the support,” the senator said. “It just flat out addresses the conflict in federal [and] state law — not only does it fix the banking side of things, but it fixes the taxation side of things. It fixes any issue that could be involved.”

House bill

Some GOP members of the House Financial Services Committee who voted against Perlmutter’s bill have said they’d be more willing to back it if it expanded protections to all legal entities operating in accordance with federal law — language intended to prevent the revival of “Operation Choke Point,” an Obama-era program that discouraged banks from doing business with controversial industries such as firearms dealers and payday lenders. Missouri Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer introduced an amendment to that effect during committee markup. The amendment was rejected down party lines.

Perlmutter said he was willing to entertain any idea as he worked to get his bill through the House.

“I meant it when I said I wanted to work with everybody to see what we can do,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m agreeing with it or disagreeing with it. I want to sit down and talk to them.”

But on Thursday, Gardner sounded less open.

“We have a straight up federalism approach in the STATES Act,” he said. “I don’t think we want to mess with this opportunity to show that states can lead. And that’s why we’ll just keep it within the four corners of the bill.”

Becky Dansky with the Safe and Responsible Banking Alliance said her focus was now on getting Graham to move Gardner’s bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee and trying to convince Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo of Idaho to advance a version of Perlmutter’s bill. Crapo represents one of just three states that have not legalized marijuana in some form.

Don Murphy, a former GOP congressional staffer now with the Marijuana Policy Project, said he was worried about Democratic legislators adding provisions to address race and social justice issues that would be untenable to GOP members.

Both bills are broadly supported by the banking industry, the legalized cannabis industry, and state and tribal elected officials where marijuana has been legalized.

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