The president of a major GOP super PAC is suggesting that sponsoring marijuana legislation will be an asset in Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s fight to retain his vulnerable Colorado seat in the 2020 elections.

But while the senator’s embrace of cannabis reform has earned him bipartisan praise, he still faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled chamber to actually score a legislative win on the cannabis front to bring home to voters before next November.

“Cory Gardner is a tremendously facile politician. He gets a lot of bipartisan legislation pushed through,” Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law, who previously served as chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers last week. “Because of where Colorado is on legalization of marijuana, he’s fighting for a states’ rights solution there that protects his state’s interests.”

“Again, I think good politicians, good senators, figure out what matters in the state, what they can get done, and it’s going to be unique to each individual state depending on what their voters care about,” Law, whose organization spent $127 million to put and keep Republicans in office last cycle, said.

Gardner’s seat is one of the most embattled in the 2020 race, with a dozen Democratic primary candidates and deep-pocketed committees threatening to push him out. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who remains popular in the state, became the latest to enter the race after dropping his bid for the presidency this month.

An Emerson College poll released this week found Hickenlooper thirteen points ahead of Gardner. And with just 40 percent of voters stating in another recent survey that they view Gardner favorably and 39 saying the opposite, the incumbent needs to score some wins ahead of the general election. And it stands to reason that passing his legislation to protect legal cannabis states from federal interference—or at least a bill allowing banks to service marijuana businesses, for which he’s also the chief GOP sponsor—could give him a much-needed boost in a state that overwhelmingly voted for legalization.

But standing in his way is a Republican-controlled Senate that has so far expressed little interest in achieving those goals. While Law, of the Senate Leadership Fund, said Gardner gets “a lot of bipartisan legislation pushed through,” that hasn’t included his marijuana bills so far.

The Senate Banking Committee did hold a hearing on cannabis financial services issues at which Gardner testified in July, but no votes have yet been scheduled and the chamber under McConnell’s leadership generally has not been amenable to broader reform—outside of legalizing non-intoxicating hemp late last year.

“Even as appetite for comprehensive marijuana reform continues to grow in Congress and amongst American voters, McConnell continues in his legacy of being the barrier between the status quo and meaningful reform,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “McConnell finally advancing comprehensive marijuana reform, from descheduling to criminal justice provisions, would be a real win for Gardner, Colorado, and the country.”

“Criminal justice reform and second chances have generated robust bipartisan support—there’s an opportunity here to deliver a win that brings people together across the aisle and benefits communities most impacted by decades of the failed policy of prohibition,” she said.

While it’s unclear if Law has talked to current McConnell staffers or the majority leader himself about moving Gardner’s marijuana bills in an effort to boost his political survival, his comments on C-SPAN signal that at least some key Republicans in Washington, D.C. believe that cannabis could be a key part of the vulnerable senator’s reelection strategy.

Could the prospect of losing Gardner’s seat—and potentially the Senate majority—be enough to motivate GOP leaders like the anti-marijuana McConnell to get the senator’s cannabis bills passed? Advocates have mixed opinions.

“It would appear that the Senate leadership now views marijuana reform as a winning issue,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “Voters support ending federal prohibition, and one way or another, voters will end it. This may be good news for Senator Gardner, but it’s great news for reformers.”

Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said “we really need to take a moment to appreciate how far we have come over the past decade.”

“In just the past week, we have seen approving statements related to respecting state cannabis laws from the head of [the Office of National Drug Control Policy] and the head of a Republican Senate campaign committee,” he said. “We are moving beyond majority support to consensus support.”

Still, not all advocates are convinced that the risk of losing a key Senate seat will be enough to move staunchly anti-legalization leaders in the chamber.

“Senator McConnell has shown zero interest in advancing legislation that would rename a post office, much less bills that would do something as ambitious as ending our failed prohibition on marijuana,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “On top of his blockade on most substantial policy, Mitch has been outspoken about his personal opposition to legalization.”

“As much as I’d love to see our war on cannabis come to an end sooner rather than later, there is little evidence to suggest that McConnell is ready to suddenly reverse course on marijuana law reform,” Altieri said.

Michael Correia, government relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said Republicans would do well to draw lessons from the 2018 election, which “showed that marijuana obstruction was not a winning position for House Republicans to take.”

“If Senate Republicans don’t learn that same lesson, and get in line with the vast majority of voters, a similar result will play out in 2020,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Majority Leader McConnell is savvy and knows his power is retained by defending seats like Senator Gardner’s so I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibilities to see some marijuana reform legislation reach the Senate Floor at all.”

Should the Senate battle see Hickenlooper and Gardner go toe-to-toe in November, it’s not clear how the race would play out among marijuana reform advocates and leaders of the state’s growing cannabis industry, who are increasingly flexing their muscles as a political players who can cut big campaign checks.

Gardner has, after all, put the issue in the congressional spotlight and served as a valuable GOP vehicle for cannabis legislation in a chamber that hasn’t see much action on the issue, even if he hasn’t yet gotten any marijuana bills passed. He even elicited a tentative endorsement of his states’ right marijuana bill from President Trump last year.

And while Hickenlooper was initially opposed to his state’s legalization measure, he by most accounts effectively implemented the voter-approved law and has since become a vocal proponent of legalization even though he vetoed some legislation to expand the industry and consumer access before leaving office.

But for Gardner to overcome the odds, it may require him to deliver something actionable for his constituents. Marijuana seems like a rational place to start, but unless Senate leadership gets behind him, achieving that won’t be simple.

Top House Democrat Peddles Gateway Theory To Justify Marijuana Legalization Opposition

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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