Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), seen here in a file photo, had been holding up Justice Department nominees due to a standoff over legalized marijuana with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Sen. Cory Gardner shares details of marijuana deal forged with Trump

“I’m confident, after this discussion, that we have the protections that we were looking for,” Gardner said.

Now that he has President Donald J. Trump’s support for comprehensive legislation protecting state-legal marijuana, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner says he likes his odds of getting a bill through Congress.

Colorado’s Republican senator told The Cannabist in a phone interview that he received assurances from Trump that his state’s marijuana legalization regime would be safe from federal interference. And the president’s commitment extends to other legal marijuana states, he said.

During a phone call Wednesday night, Trump also assured Gardner, “you have my support,” for federalism-focused legislation that will allow U.S. states to decide how they want to regulate cannabis without fear of federal interference, the senator said.

As part of the deal, Gardner agreed to lift his blockade on U.S. Department of Justice nominees — a hold put in place following U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rescission of Obama-era guidance on marijuana.

That bill is in the works, Gardner said, adding that it’ll look a lot different than the medical marijuana appropriations riders of recent years.

The “states’ rights, federalist” legislation also should be more comprehensive than the slew of bills that have addressed aspects of marijuana regulation — including banking, taxes, research, and federally authorized state systems — but have languished in congressional committees.

“I would envision this legislation taking care of all of that,” Gardner said.

Gardner and congressional colleagues such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; are putting the finishing touches on a draft bill, he said, adding that it’s “hopefully moving soon.”

“We have the president’s support,” he said. “You have 30-some states that have addressed this issue in one way or another.”

And as such, there is a growing number of legislators whose constituents support cannabis regimes, he said.

Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, were not a party to the senator’s conversations with Trump and White House officials, Gardner said, deferring comment to the DOJ.

“I’m confident, after this discussion, that we have the protections that we were looking for” in regards to Colorado’s legal marijuana program, Gardner said.

Following Gardner’s public statement, which was first reported by The Washington Post, optimism permeated throughout the nation’s burgeoning multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.

But it was tempered.

“It’s obviously good news, if the president doesn’t change his mind,” said Rachel K. Gillette, a Greenspoon Marder attorney specializing in cannabis business licensing and regulatory compliance. “We’ve seen him change his mind on a number of different issues.”

Drug policy expert and author John Hudak said one need no look further than the events of the previous 24 hours when Trump reportedly weighed rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement he nixed early in his presidency and once called “a rape of our country.”

“That is a massive policy shift on a massive policy,” said Hudak, who serves as  deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management for the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

“And so I think people should be weary.”

When it comes to marijuana, Trump isn’t necessarily shifting positions. On the campaign trail, Trump expressed support for states’ rights and indicate he would not interfere with states, including Colorado, which chose to implement some form of cannabis legalization.

“What this means is a president, who changes his mind on an hourly basis sometimes, has committed to one senator that he’ll support legislation that does not have a clear path forward to 60 votes in the United States Senate and does not have a clear path forward in the United States House of Representatives,” Hudak said.  

The cannabis industry should view this as a positive step but not as a landmark victory.

“There are so many barriers still in the way between this statement and a presidential signature,” he said.

Sam Kamin, a marijuana law professor at the University of Denver, said Gardner has been burned by the Trump Administration before on marijuana. And if he’s burned again, then he’s the proverbial Charlie Brown fruitlessly trying to kick a football that fellow Peanuts pal Lucy pulls away at the last second, Kamin tweeted.

“My first thought is that Senator Gardner was given assurances by Attorney General Sessions that states’ rights would be respected and that he felt burned when Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo,” Kamin said via email to The Cannabist. ” I hope, for his sake as well as Colorado’s, that these assurances are more enforceable than those made by the Attorney General.”

Regardless of the outcome, Gardner’s announcement could be another indications of tides shifting in legal cannabis’ favor, he noted.

“Also, along with former Speaker (John) Boehner joining a marijuana firm the other day and with a growing list of national legislators signing off on marijuana law reform, things feel very different than they did just as recently as January of this year,” Kamin said.