Gardner’s Marijuana-Related Justice Dept. Holds Ongoing As Sessions Continues Linking Pot, Opioids

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Photo Credit: Alex Wong

Sen. Cory Gardner continues to hold up Justice Department nominees in protest of new federal guidance regarding states’ marijuana programs as the U.S. attorney general continues to link marijuana to the opioid epidemic.

Gardner, R-Colo., has for a month now used a Senate rule that allows one senator to block nominees to the Justice Department after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, which generally protected states with legal marijuana programs from extraneous federal enforcement, in early January.

Gardner’s office confirmed a report by The Denver Post Wednesday that said up to 11 nominees had so far been blocked by Gardner from getting a full Senate vote. There are more than 20 others who could be blocked, according to The Post, including U.S. marshals and U.S. attorney nominees.

And Gardner won’t back off the hold anytime soon, according to his aides.

Gardner’s spokesman, Casey Contres, told Denver7 that Gardner’s staff and Justice Department staff continue to meet—even after the first meeting between Gardner and Sessions proved to be relatively unfruitful.

“These discussions continue to be necessary and we appreciate their willingness to have them,” Contres said.

But it’s still unclear where the Justice Department stands as a whole in regards to legal recreational marijuana, and whether or not Sessions shares more extreme views than other legal officials.

On Tuesday, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Sessions again insinuated that marijuana use led to opioid addiction—though he hinted that was only his opinion.

“The DEA said that a huge percentage of the heroin addiction starts with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number; they had it as high as 80 percent,” Sessions said.

“We think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs too, but we’ll see what the facts show,” he continued.

One report published last year in a medical journal showed that states with legal medical marijuana programs saw drops in opioid hospitalizations and abuse, while another journal published research showing that opioid-related deaths fell drastically after recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado.

The National Fraternal Order of Police has had it out for Gardner because of his holds.

“Senator Gardner does a real disservice to the nation as a whole and we urgently ask him to reconsider his rash and ill-advised obstructionism,” said a statement from FOP National President Chuck Canterbury released late last month. “Policy difference should be worked out by a dialogue and not turn into hostage situations.”

Though U.S. Attorney for Colorado Bob Troyer has reassured Colorado’s leaders and lawmakers that not much will change under the new Justice Department guidance, all of the state’s congressional delegation—except for Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican—has been working together and separately on shoring up protections for states with legal marijuana programs, like Colorado.

The lawmakers have both written to federal agencies requesting protections and proposed legislation.

House members have sent a letter to leadership pushing a bill sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., asking that any new appropriations or funding bills not include language that would allow federal law enforcement relating to marijuana in most U.S. states.

Gardner and his colleague, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have also written to FinCEN’s director asking him to keep guidance for federal marijuana financial institutions in place.

And Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, joined 18 other attorneys general in sending a letter to congressional leadership asking them to pass measures to safeguard marijuana businesses and their dealings with the banking industry.

The attorneys general urged Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act, which Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., is sponsoring in the House, and which Gardner and Bennet are cosponsoring in the Senate.

The SAFE Banking Act would allow banks and financial institutions to work with marijuana businesses without fear of being punished.

Perlmutter’s measure has 79 current cosponsors in the House, including fellow Colorado Reps. Mike Coffman (R), Diana DeGette (D) and Jared Polis (D). The Senate’s version, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, has 13 cosponsors, including Bennet and Gardner.

Such legislation would typically be tacked to a funding measure, like the one reached in the Senate and announced Wednesday as Congress tries to avoid another government shutdown. But there were no indications any marijuana-related measures would be tacked onto the latest measure.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told The Post that he “can understand” why Gardner is holding up the nominees despite disagreeing about the states’ rights issue. All justice nominees must be confirmed by the committee before the full Senate can vote on their nominations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have to take to the Senate floor to try to override Gardner’s holds, and there have so far been no public discussions of that happening.

“Senator Gardner would like to lift his hold on DOJ nominees as soon as possible, but he believes his actions are necessary to protect Colorado’s states’ rights,” Contres told Denver7. “He opposed the legalization of marijuana in 2012, but is not going to sit back and let Colorado’s rights be trampled on by the federal government. This is a stand that has the support of members from the far right, the far left, and many in between.”

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