States' rights marijuana protection bill unveiled by Sens. Cory Gardner, Elizabeth Warren

Other Colo. members of Congress also back measure

DENVER – U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, on Thursday unveiled a bipartisan states’ rights marijuana bill with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., they say will allow states, territories and tribes to “decide for themselves” how to regulate legal marijuana.

The measure, called the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, also has an identical House counterpart sponsored by Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. are original cosponsors of the measures, which come on the heels of months of work by most of Colorado’s Congressional delegation and members from other states where marijuana is legal to shore up state protections for the programs.

The work has been ongoing since Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo in January—a 2013 Justice Department memo that generally kept states where marijuana is legal safe from extraneous federal law enforcement.

The STATES Act has several pillars that would change federal code to ensure that legal marijuana programs that comply with a basic series of rules stay intact.

It would amend the Controlled Substance Act so that any person acting in compliance with state or tribal law would no longer see most of the act’s provisions apply to them. It would also exclude industrial hemp from the federal definition of “marihuana” (the U.S. government’s term for marijuana) but would keep intact prohibitions on allowing people under age 18 to work in the industry and exchanging marijuana at transportation safety facilities.

The bill also contains language that says that financial transactions involving legal marijuana do not amount to trafficking or an unlawful transaction.

Gardner and Warren praised one another Thursday for their combined work on the measure.

“I’m proud to be in this fight and I’m proud to have a partner like Cory Gardner,” Warren said at the Thursday morning news conference, saying he has “done great work in trying to plow the ground here.” Gardner said, “This has been a great partnership from the very beginning.”

Both emphasized that their measure was “not a legalization bill.”

“This is an approach that allows a state to move forward. If a state like Oklahoma, Kansas or Nebraska doesn’t want to … they don’t have to. Nothing changes for them,” Gardner said. “But for states like Massachusetts and Colorado, this is the opportunity our founders intended. Allow states to be those laboratories of democracy.”

Gardner said he’d spoken with President Donald Trump several times about the measure, including on Thursday before the two senators introduced it. He said in April that Trump had reassured him Colorado's programs were safe.

“As the president said in a conversation with me, we can’t go backward, we can only go forward,” Gardner said. “The ketchup’s not going back into the bottle, as the old saying goes.”

Gardner said the measure “fixes the most significant challenges” facing states’ marijuana industries, especially involving the banking and financial facets of the industry.

“The city of Denver, the state of Colorado can collect taxes … they can take it to the bank. But if you are in the business, you can’t get a loan. We need to fix this public hypocrisy,” Gardner said, also calling the lack of financial protections a “public safety issue.”

“We need to bring these dollars out of the shadows and make sure we hold people accountable for an industry states are moving forward with—regardless of the pace of business in Washington D.C.,” Gardner said.

And while both he and Warren said they think they have a strong bill that is developing good bipartisan support, Gardner acknowledged there was a “significant education push” lawmakers still had to do.

“I think it’s important we work with Sen. [Mitch] McConnell, work with our colleagues who might not be supportive at this time,” he said.

Bennet in a tweet said he was supporting the measure after Sessions’ rescission of the Cole Memo.

“Congress needs to join 21st century on marijuana regulation. This bill even more important since AG Sessions upended the will of our state by rescinding the Cole Memo,” he said.

“Coloradans voted for responsible marijuana legalization, and our state is better off because of it. That’s why I’m supporting the #STATESAct, to ensure residents are protected from the federal government’s meddling into these freedoms within our borders,” DeGette tweeted.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said he would be introducing the STATES Act along with Joyce and Blumenauer in the House. He has also been one of the top proponents of states’ rights protections regarding marijuana.

“Today, more and more Members of Congress have realized that if we don’t act now, the President and his Attorney General will trample on the rights of states to legalize marijuana,” Polis said in a statement. “The STATES Act is a sensible proposal that reaffirms that states should have the unencumbered right to legalize and regulate marijuana if they so choose.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Ken Buck did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

In addition to the support from the members, Gardner and Warren said they expected more organizations and local and state politicians to back the bill in coming days and weeks. There are already a host of organizations from all sides of the political spectrum backing the bill, including the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, the ACLU, NORML, and several credit unions, among others.

And though there were questions about whether the White House might support such a measure, Gardner said he believed it would.

“Not putting words in the mouth of the White House, but I think this will be an opportunity for us to fulfill what is that federalism approach,” Gardner said. “I have spoken to the president today and that was part of the conversation.”

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