Republican Sen. Gardner torches Sessions over pot reversal

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Sen. Cory Gardner, R.-Colo., on Thursday threatened to block all nominees to Justice Department posts in response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to end Obama-era policies that let legal marijuana thrive. Gardner also warned that the looming Justice Department announcement would make things harder for 2018 Republican candidates in states where pot is legal.

“It certainly lights up a new challenge for them,” Gardner told Yahoo News in a telephone interview.

The Colorado lawmaker said Sessions had personally promised him prior to his confirmation that he would not take steps to tighten enforcement of federal pot laws.

“I’m prepared to hold every Justice Department nominee until Jeff Sessions lives up to what he told me, lives up to his commitment,” Gardner said. A “hold” is a senatorial threat, frequently invoked to gain leverage over the executive branch, to filibuster nominees.

“Jeff Sessions told me this wouldn’t be a priority. Jeff Sessions told me the policy would not be reversed, and today Jeff Sessions went back on his word,” the senator said.

Gardner said Sessions made the assurances in “a call specifically set up because I would not release my vote [to confirm him as attorney general] until I got an answer.”

“He said, ‘This is just not something that President Trump is focused on.’ And apparently, it’s not just a focus, it’s a primary initiative of the new year,” Gardner fumed.

Cory Gardner, Jeff Sessions. (Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images, Joshua Robert/Reuters)

The senator’s comments came after the Associated Press reported that Sessions would let federal prosecutors in states where marijuana is legal determine how tightly to enforce federal laws that prohibit growing, selling, buying and using pot. Eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In Gardner’s home state of Colorado, pot has become big business, though constrained by some federal laws that hamper the industry’s ability to use U.S. banks.

“What it means is uncertainty, instability and a thumbing of noses at the people of Colorado,” where legalized marijuana is a $2 billion industry, supporting thousands of jobs and generating millions of dollars in tax revenue, Gardner said.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump said “it’s up to the states” to decide whether marijuana is legal. Asked whether he would order a federal crackdown on pot, he replied: “I wouldn’t do that, no.”

Pointing to that exchange, Gardner told Yahoo News: “President Trump was right. Why does Jeff Sessions think he was wrong?”

The announcement put the Trump administration at odds with an important ally: Gardner heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee — the party organization devoted to retaining the GOP’s Senate majority. In that capacity, he withdrew NRSC support from Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore in the Alabama special election, which yielded a surprise Democratic upset victory. Trump had thrown his support to Moore, despite sexual misconduct allegations against the former judge.

A syringe loaded with a dose of CBD oil is shown in a research laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. (Photo: David Zalubowski/AP)

The announcement could also complicate Republican fortunes in states like California, amid growing GOP concerns that the 2018 political climate could generate a Democratic wave that risks swamping their House majority.

Gardner noted that he himself had opposed legalizing marijuana “but the people of Colorado felt otherwise.”

“If you’re a Republican in Washington, if you’re a Republican in California, if you’re a Republican in other states that have legalized, then this becomes a significant barrier toward understanding this administration’s policy,” he said.

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