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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., unveil their bill on June 7, 2018. Photo by Humberto Sanchez

The marijuana industry would be protected from federal interference in states like Nevada that have passed laws to legalize the drug under a bill introduced last week in Congress.

“This is not a legalization bill,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, at a press conference unveiling the bill Thursday. “This is an approach that allows the states [that have legalized marijuana] to move forward.”

Nevada, like Colorado, is one of the 46 states that have adopted laws permitting or decriminalizing marijuana or marijuana-based products.

Gardner said he has talked to President Donald Trump about the measure, and Trump last Friday signaled initial support for the bill.

“I know exactly what he's doing; we're looking at it,” Trump told reporters as he left for the G7 meeting in Canada. “But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”

While Trump’s backing could help win support among Republicans, prospects for the legislation are unclear. House and Senate Republican leaders will likely be reluctant to take up anything controversial before the midterm elections in November. Also, there are several pending must-pass pieces of legislation for Congress to take up, including the farm bill as well as 12 annual appropriations bills.

“It’s a messaging bill,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat and champion for the marijuana industry in Congress.

The measure is an attempt to settle a conflict with federal law, under which marijuana is illegal and considered as dangerous as heroin. States like Nevada that have allowed recreational marijuana are home to a growing industry that is an increasingly important part of their economy and tax base.

According to Nevada’s Department of Taxation, marijuana sales in the state topped $41 million in March, a new record, which helped push total marijuana tax revenues to nearly $49 million through the first nine months of the fiscal year. With three months remaining in the fiscal year, the state has already brought in about 97 percent of the combined marijuana tax revenue that was projected for the entire year.

But the threat of federal prosecution remains and has contributed to the industry’s difficulty in accessing the banking system and collecting some tax benefits. The bill, which would allow state law to trump federal law in states that have allowed marijuana use, is designed to address those issues.

To qualify for an exemption from federal law under the measure, states must adhere to a few basic rules including banning marijuana sales at highway rest stops and ensuring that those working in the industry are at least 18 years old.

“The way the law is designed is there are some federal guardrails as there often are in issues that are left to the states,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who appeared with Gardner at the press conference.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“Nevada voters have made it clear that they favor the regulation and taxation of marijuana in the state,” Cortez Masto said in a release. “The federal government must respect the rights of states who choose to legalize and regulate marijuana. This bipartisan bill will allow Nevada to continue benefiting from the economic development and increased tax revenue that the cannabis industry has brought to the state, while also respecting the rights of states that have not chosen to pursue legalization. It will also address the federal government’s antiquated approach to the issue that has allowed the black market to thrive and created public safety and money laundering risks by refusing to allow cannabis businesses to access banking services.”

The office of Republican Sen. Dean Heller did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment on the bill.

A companion measure was introduced in the House by Rep. David Joyce, a Republican from Ohio, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon.

Titus said she would support the bill, but she noted that several measures to accomplish the same thing have already been introduced and she called on the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee, which oversees what amendments can be offered to legislation the House takes up, to allow more marijuana amendments to be offered.

“We don’t really need more vehicles, we need more votes,” Titus said in an interview. “And that means they’ve got to quit blocking this in the Rules Committee and let some of these come to the floor.”

Titus suggested that Gardner’s efforts were political given that he is expected to have a difficult race in 2020 when he’s next up for re-election.

“I see Cory Gardner’s on it. He’s got a tough race in Colorado. It’s a big issue in Colorado,” she said.

Rep. Jacky Rosen voiced her support for the measure.

"It's past time that our laws caught up with the will of states like Nevada, whose voters went to the polls to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016,” Rosen said in a statement from her office. “This legislation will help to ensure that our state's rights are protected, while also taking the necessary steps to address regulatory issues that have left marijuana businesses without access to banking services they need to thrive."

Rep. Ruben Kihuen said he backs the bill and reiterated the need to address the industry’s tax and banking issues.

“Hundreds of thousands of Nevadans and millions of Americans have already voted in favor of marijuana legalization,” Kihuen said in a statement from his office. “This common-sense, bipartisan legislation is an important step in respecting states’ rights and providing legal clarity to the marijuana industry that creates thousands of jobs and has brought in nearly $50 million in tax revenue to Nevada. I will continue to support marijuana reform efforts that respect the decision made by Nevadans, allow cannabis businesses to access banking services, and grow our economy.”

Rep. Mark Amodei’s office said he’s still reviewing the proposal.

Gardner and Warren said that they hope to build up a large group of members who support their effort from the 46 states.

“This is a significant education push we have to do,” Gardner said. “There are so many states now that have this; we have to fix this conflict."

One key member who will need educating is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky. McConnell is a supporter of industrial hemp, which does not have the properties that marijuana has. He opposes legalization and has referred to marijuana as hemp’s “illicit cousin.”

But Gardner hopes to entice members of his party, including McConnell, by stressing the need to allow states to govern themselves, something most Republicans agree with.

“I think it’s important to work with Sen. McConnell, work with our colleagues, who may not be supportive at this time to find a solution that is something that we’ve all said ‘let’s give the states more power to make decisions for themselves,’” Gardner said.

The bill comes after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo in January.

The memo, which was issued in 2013, gave guidance to prosecutors urging them not to go after state-legalized marijuana programs, so long as they follow certain guidelines such as preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.

Sessions’ move spurred Gardner to threaten to block Trump’s nominations to the Department of Justice until the policy was restored. In April, Gardner announced that he withdrew his threat after speaking with Trump and receiving a commitment that the rescission of the Cole memo would affect Colorado’s legal marijuana industry.

Trump also said that he would support a federalism-based legislative solution to fix the issue once and for all.

“I have talked to the president about this bill,” Gardner said Thursday. “I think this will be an opportunity for us to fulfill what is that federalism approach.”

Warren added that even under the Cole memo policy, the marijuana industry was hurt because of the problems with banking and taxes.

“The importance of the [bill] is to try to fix all of those things, not simply to rely on the Justice Department to be more forgiving, but to move marijuana laws into the 21st century,” Warren said.  

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