Even though U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) has painted himself as a defender of Colorado’s cannabis industry and a progressive Republican when it comes to immigration reform, he’s been unable to convince fellow Republicans to pass laws to help marijuana businesses or immigrants.
This has left some advocates for the cannabis industry and for immigration reform asking if Gardner is worth supporting in his senate race against former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
The Cannabis Question
In a Politico story published in May, Republican Don Murphy of the Marijuana Policy Project questioned how valuable Gardner is to the industry if he can’t convince other Republicans to support cannabis-friendly legislation.
“At some point, I have to go to Cory Gardner and say, ‘Why should the industry continue to support you?’” Murphy told Politico. “I know you’re trying, but you’re not getting anything.”
While Gardner does not support federal legalization of marijuana and did not support the 2012 ballot initiative that legalized pot in Colorado, Gardner became a supporter of cannabis banking reform in 2018, co-sponsoring the STATES Act and the SAFE Banking Act with Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO).
The proposed laws would prevent interference from the U.S. Justice Department in states where marijuana is legal, protect cannabis industry employees from federal prosecution, and protect banks servicing cannabis companies from federal banking penalties.
Although the SAFE Banking Act passed the house — co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) — neither of the acts made it past the Senate.
Peter Marcus, Communications Director for Terrapin Care Station, a Boulder-based dispensary operating out of three states, is pragmatic about Gardner’s history with the cannabis industry, indicating that the support — while not always followed up with results — is meaningful to the community.
“Senator Gardner has largely put his money where his mouth is,” Marcus said. “In pushing for banking reform, Gardner has acknowledged that the cannabis industry is a legitimate industry.”
In 2018 Gardner vowed to block all senate-confirmable appointees to the U.S. Justice Department until the agency promised to stay out of Colorado’s marijuana industry. While some called the gambit a PR stunt, others say it may have worked as three months into the standoff President Donald Trump promised that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions would not target Colorado.
According to Marcus, Gardner maintains Trump is supportive of a banking reform bill for the cannabis industry and Trump himself said he would support the STATES Act. Attorney General William Barr said in April 2019 that he would support the banking reform approach outlined in the STATES Act. In a statement at the time responding to Barr’s support, Gardner addressed his Republican colleagues who were not supporting him.
“I’m glad Attorney General Barr today reiterated his belief that the current situation is untenable and that the STATES Act is an approach he would be interested in pursuing, and I hope my colleagues will hear his loud and clear call for Congress to act,” Gardner said in a statement last April.
Marcus laments Gardner’s limited success and points out the obstacles he faces.
“Now the question is what good is that if you don’t see any results,” Marcus said, “And we’re way down the road now without any results. That being said, the senator works in a dysfunctional Congress and he’s dealing with Mitch McConnell.”
Gardner has been a part of the Senate leadership since 2016 and has a good relationship with McConnell.
However, McConnell and other GOP legislators slammed the cannabis banking provisions proposed in the coronavirus relief bill, ridiculing the fact that the word ‘cannabis’ appeared more times than ‘job’.
Even with support from the president, the attorney general, the House of Representatives, and with a close relationship with Senate leadership, Gardner has not been able to push his legislation through the Senate.
“In the end what matters is actual reform,” Marcus said. “If the Senator fails to do so before November I think it’s a fair question to ask. Did this result in anything? Are you successful as a Senator if you can’t get these things through?”
An Immigration Champion?
In November of 2019 Gardner was honored by the National Immigration Forum, a D.C. based advocacy group, along with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) for their bipartisan work on immigration reform. Gardner voted for a bipartisan bill in 2018 that would have kept pathways to citizenship open for DACA recipients and supported the DREAM Act in 2017.
Arash Jahanian is the Director of Policy and Civil Rights Litigation for The Meyer Law Office, a law firm specializing in defending immigrant rights and advancing immigration reform in Colorado. Jahanian disagrees with the National Immigration Forum’s view that Gardner is deserving of an award for his work in immigration policy.
“For four years we’ve had a president who is unabashedly anti-immigrant and has launched all-out attacks on immigrants in every possible way,” Jahanian said. “And in Cory Gardner we’ve had a Senator who is essentially Trump’s hatchet man, who refuses to stand up to the president.”
Gardner said he was against Trump’s plan for a border wall but in March 2019 he voted to uphold Trump’s emergency funding for it. While he verbally supports DACA, Gardner voted to block President Barack Obama’s order to expand the DACA program in 2014. Gardner has said he’s against a state law allowing ‘Dreamers’ to pay in-state tuition at Colorado colleges and universities, but his recent support for the American Dream and Promise Act (ADPA) would mean he now supports in-state tuition for Dreamers.
Gardner’s record does not inspire faith in community leaders like Victor Galván, Federal Campaigns Director for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), a group who since 2002 has been fighting for immigrant’s rights.
“Senator Gardner has not only run away from conversations with Colorado immigration advocates but has kicked our community leaders out of public meetings. These are not the actions of an immigrant rights champion,” Galván said in a statement to the Colorado Independent in 2019.
The ADPA would give 39,700 Coloradans a path to citizenship, according to the CIRC, but it is stalled in the senate, continuing the theme set by cannabis banking reform; they are policies backed by Gardner, but he is unable to convince fellow Republicans to support the measures.
“Senator Gardner is in the majority party,” Jahanian said. “He does hold leadership positions. If he wanted to accomplish something meaningful for immigrants in this country he could do so, but he’s just not willing to take that step.”
The 2020 Senate Race
Sam D’Arcangelo is the Director of the Cannabis Voter Project, a group whose goal is to inform voters interested in Cannabis-related candidates and policies.
D’Arcangelo pointed out a difference between Colorado’s Senate race this year with 2018’s gubernatorial race between Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton. Polis activated the cannabis industry with friendly policies and voter engagement strategies like setting up registration tables at dispensaries. Polis received endorsements from both local dispensaries and organizations like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML), which is a national political action committee.
It’s not clear if Hickenlooper or Gardner have the cannabis record to excite cannabis voters like Polis did, according to D’Arcangelo. Both candidates were tepid on marijuana in the past but have changed their official stances on legalization.
“The industry will probably be less concerned with the candidates’ platforms and more concerned with which of them has a better chance of moving federal cannabis reform forward,” D’Arcangelo said. “Sen. Gardner has sponsored a couple of cannabis reform bills in the Senate, but he has not managed to move them forward.”
When asked about his feelings towards Gardner’s claim of friendship towards the immigrant community, Jahanian is clear.
“He continues to support a president who makes it one of his primary agendas to beat up on the immigrant community in this country,” Jahanian said. “So, what does it feel like? It feels like Senator Gardner doesn’t have the best interests of Coloradans in mind. We have a thriving immigrant community that makes this state better and he is unwilling to provide meaningful protections for this community.”
Gardner’s office did not return a call seeking to know why he was unable to leverage his close relationship with Trump, McConnell, and other Senate Republicans to produce results.
Correction: The source for the statement that Trump supports cannabis banking reform is Peter Marcus, not Politico, as originally stated in this post.