Republican senators have a common refrain when asked about cannabis policy: “Cory talked to me about it.”
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner has emerged as a champion of the cannabis industry in a GOP-controlled chamber led by anti-marijuana hawks, most notably Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Gardner is also one of the most endangered Republican senators in the country. He's facing a difficult reelection — polling behind the likely Democratic nominee, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, in a state that’s trending increasingly blue.
If the election comes down to a tight race in November — as many think it will — the politically active cannabis industry could prove to be a kingmaker.
Colorado strategists say a cannabis win would give Gardner’s campaign a much-needed boost and activate the political arm of the state’s influential cannabis industry, which came out strong for now-Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, in the 2018 election. The industry is a political powerhouse: Its lack of party alignment makes it a coveted ally for politicians on both sides of the aisle who want to show they can bring jobs and tax revenue to the state.
But so far, the GOP’s most ardent promoter of cannabis in Congress hasn't delivered any legislative wins for the state’s $1.7 billion, rapidly growing cannabis industry, where marijuana was legalized in 2012. The two major cannabis bills Gardner sponsors — one to increase access to banking and capital for the cannabis industry and one to codify federal protections for states that choose to legalize marijuana — have not advanced in the Senate at all, despite the banking bill passing the House with a bipartisan majority last fall. Gardner does not support any bill that would legalize cannabis nationwide.
“At some point, I have to go to Cory Gardner and say, ‘Why should the industry continue to support you?’” said Marijuana Policy Project’s Don Murphy, a former Republican lawmaker in Maryland. “I know you’re trying, but you’re not getting anything.”
Gardner has one major opportunity left to prove he can bring cannabis legislation home for Coloradans: He needs to add language that would give marijuana companies access to financial services — the industry’s No. 1 legislative priority — into a coronavirus aid package. Cannabis banking language was included in the House’s $3 trillion coronavirus relief package, but that proposal has been dismissed by Senate Republicans, and the cannabis provision ridiculed by McConnell.
Gardner was noticeably silent on the subject until this week, when he broke with Senate leaders to call for a new coronavirus relief package that includes cannabis banking. Despite the resistance from within his own caucus, many lawmakers, advocates and strategists say Gardner continues to work behind the scenes to rally support for the banking legislation. Last week, he met with top White House adviser Jared Kushner to tout cannabis banking as a tool for economic recovery, said a friend of Gardner’s and two lobbyists.
“I think it's dangerous if the narrative is out there that Gardner is bad on cannabis, because it would turn cannabis into a partisan issue. And it isn't right now," said Sal Pace, former Colorado House Democratic leader and board member of the Cannabis Voter Project. Polling data shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, including a majority of Republicans.
“Any suggestion that Gardner has pivoted on this stance is misguided,” Gardner campaign spokesperson Meghan Graf said.
Gardner’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview for this story, but encouraged a number of emissaries from the cannabis industry to reach out to POLITICO and make the case for his value as an industry ally.
In 2018, Gardner and Hickenlooper both left their mark on the cannabis industry. Gardner — a conservative Republican — earned its loyalty when he vowed to block judicial nominees in the Senate until he received a promise from President Donald Trump that the Justice Department would stay out of Colorado’s cannabis industry. Then-governor and moderate Democrat Hickenlooper vetoed three cannabis bills, angering much of the industry and leaving a permanent bad taste in their mouths for the politician.
Hickenlooper's campaign said as governor, he helped Colorado become a model for marijuana legalization, and he would be a friend to the industry going forward.
"As senator, John will fight for federal decriminalization, to declassify cannabis from Schedule I, and actually pass banking reform — something Sen. Gardner has failed to get through Mitch McConnell's Senate," Deputy Communications Director Alyssa Roberts said. Removing cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act would lift the federal ban on marijuana.
Democratic and Republican strategists say the industry is formidable when mobilized. Neither candidate, however, has activated the cannabis industry’s political machine in 2020 in the way it turned out for Polis.
In the 2018 gubernatorial contest, Polis held voter registration drives at dispensaries, had staffers devoted to cannabis issues and worked closely with the industry to turn out employees and consumers. Pace, the former Colorado House leader who helped with Polis’ 2018 effort, said cannabis industry worker turnout increased from 29 percent in 2014 to over 50 percent in 2018 — approximately 15,000 voters. Pace also worked with dispensaries to reach the more than 1 million cannabis consumers in the state.
While some industry leaders, Pace, and lobbyists, including Melissa Kuipers Blake of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck — who represents the Cannabis Trade Federation — say Gardner retains more support from the cannabis industry, the Democratic narrative of him being all talk and no action could influence undecided voters. When Gardner threatened to hold up the Senate’s Memorial Day recess this week, Hickenlooper accused him of giving up too easily and not standing his ground to get more from McConnell. Gardner received just one concession from McConnell, and it was to create funding for maintenance projects on federal lands, not cannabis banking. Colorado Democrats also note Hickenlooper could help flip the Senate blue — creating a much clearer path for cannabis legislation.
"At the end of the day," said Andrew Short, a Democratic strategist in Colorado, "the industry needs to see results."
Gardner’s cannabis moment may have already passed, however. Current polling — which shows Hickenlooper up 54 to 36 percentage points in Colorado — may be the writing on the wall for Republican leaders. If McConnell thinks Gardner can't be saved, advocates and staffers say, he may be less inclined to pass Gardner's legislation.
“It's always helpful to have someone who's vulnerable championing your issue," a Democrat House staffer working closely on cannabis legislation said in April. "If Mitch McConnell thought that he was super in play and could save Cory Gardner, things might be a little different. But I think that it's just, you have someone who's so underwater."