Hazy Outlook for Congressional Response to Justice Dept.'s Overhauled Marijuana Guidance

Marijuana goods on sale in Santa Ana, California, in January 2018.

Marijuana goods on sale in Santa Ana, California, in January 2018. shutterstock/ by mikeledray


Connecting state and local government leaders

"I don't think we've come together around one particular legislative proposal," according to Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, said Wednesday it is still unclear whether his colleagues in the GOP leadership might support legislation that would restrict the Justice Department's enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states with regulated recreational pot.

Gardner has been one of the more outspoken critics in Congress of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision earlier this month to rescind Obama-era Justice Department marijuana enforcement guidelines. States that have legalized recreational marijuana had looked to the guidance—which was not enshrined in U.S. law—as they established systems to regulate the production, sale and use of the drug.

Spending legislation Congress has approved previously has included a rider that blocks the Justice Department from spending on activities that would prevent states from implementing medical cannabis laws.

In the House, Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis is championing an amendment that would effectively expand this spending prohibition to cover state-regulated recreational pot as well, shielding businesses and individuals who are in compliance with state marijuana laws from the risk of federal prosecution.

Route Fifty asked Gardner Wednesday what plans he has for backing an amendment like this in any upcoming spending bill.

"That's something that we're considering, something I'm talking to a number of Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate about, what the best way forward is on an appropriations rider approach," the senator said. But he added: "I don't think we've come together around one particular legislative proposal."

It's "yet to be determined," according to Gardner, whether the marijuana-related rider could be tacked into a short-term spending bill in the days ahead, or if it would be part of a final 2018 appropriations package that comes later.

And whether Republican leaders in the Senate would support such an amendment, Gardner said, is "yet to be seen."

The current stop-gap spending measure that is keeping federal agencies funded is set to expire on Friday. Republican leaders are now eying another short-term measure that would fund the government through Feb. 16 and avert a government shutdown.

Polis, who is running for governor in Colorado, released a letter last Friday signed by 69 lawmakers, including 15 Republicans, outlining support for the amendment that would restrict the Justice Department from cracking down on people and businesses following state marijuana laws.

Colorado, along with seven other states and the District of Columbia, have passed laws allowing for regulated, recreational marijuana possession and use by adults. Marijuana, however, remains classified as an illegal drug under federal law, muddying the legal waters.

Medical and recreational sales of pot in Colorado last year topped $1 billion. Recreational sales began there in 2014.

Gardner said that, in his view, it's important lawmakers look for a long-term legislative solution to resolve the discrepancy between state and federal marijuana laws.

"I would support a federalist approach that would allow states to continue with their laboratory of democracy experiment," he said. "And I hope that that's the direction we can move to through hearings and other committee work."

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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