Senators announce bill to protect states' legalization of marijuana

PHOTO: Cory Gardner speaks during a news conference following weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018, in Washington.PlayZach Gibson/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Senators announce bill to protect states' legalization of marijuana

Sens. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, and Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a bill Thursday intended to protect the laws of states that have legalized some form of marijuana from federal intervention.

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The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act would ensure that states can make and enforce their own laws pertaining to the production and distribution of marijuana as long as states comply with a few federally-mandated basic protections.

Currently, 46 states and additional territories have laws permitting medical and/or recreational marijuana. Both Colorado and Massachusetts have legalized recreational marijuana. But on the federal level, the drug is still listed as a controlled substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” and it has been up to the Justice Department to decide how rigorously to enforce that definition.

PHOTO: A legally grown marijuana plant is pictured at farm in Oregon in this undated stock image. STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
A legally grown marijuana plant is pictured at farm in Oregon in this undated stock image.

The new bill follows an agreement Gardner reached with President Donald Trump in April, in which the Colorado senator dropped his hold on Justice Department nominees being confirmed in exchange for the president’s assurance that the DOJ would not target Colorado’s marijuana industry.

“Our Founders intended the states to be laboratories of democracy and many states right now find themselves deep in the heart of that laboratory. But it's created significant conflict between state law, federal law and how we move forward,” Gardner, who said he had spoken with Trump about the bill Thursday morning, said during a press conference with Warren.

His agreement with Trump came a few months after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that his department would reverse Obama-era guidance that limited the prosecution of marijuana sales in states where it had been legalized.

At the time, Sessions said the previous guidance “undermines the rule of law.”

Warren noted that Sessions’ position on marijuana had actually spurred lawmakers to act to protect their states’ discretion on the issue.

“Thanks to the Attorney General, more people feel the urgency of the moment in changing federal law on marijuana,” Warren said. “Go Jeff Sessions,” she quipped. If this bill were to pass, states would no longer have to “rely on the Justice Department to be more forgiving,” she added.

In this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., waits to speak during a meeting of the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP
In this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., waits to speak during a meeting of the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The bill would make clear that states have the right to determine for themselves the best way to approach marijuana within their borders. It would abide by the federal requirements that are already in place, including prohibiting people under the age of 18 from working in the industry and prohibiting the distribution of marijuana at transportation safety facilities like rest stops and truck stops.

It would also maintain a prohibition on the sale of marijuana to people under age 21 other than for medical purposes.

But the bill would make clear that marijuana businesses in states where it is legal are engaged in legitimate commerce and would allow them to take advantage of all of the trappings of commercial activity, including using the banking system and claiming business tax deductions.

“Clarity's important. Important for the businesses and important for the people who use marijuana,” Warren said.

Gardner said he wouldn’t speak for the president but suggested that it would make sense for him to support the effort.

“I think this will be an opportunity for us to fulfill what is that federalism approach,” he said.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a legalization advocacy group, called Gardner and Warren’s bill “the most significant piece of marijuana-related legislation ever introduced in Congress.”

“While we look forward to the day when there is full acceptance of cannabis at the federal level, we heartily embrace the states’ rights approach proposed by this bill,” Don Murphy, conservative outreach director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement.