Sen. Cory Gardner: How a Prohibitionist Became Legalization’s Defender

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner has emerged as the grand champion of cannabis legalization on Capitol Hill in the summer of 2018. It is not a role the rising Republican has been groomed for.

Yesterday morning, Gardner and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced the Senate version of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act, a measure that could end the decades-long federal war on marijuana and cannabis legalization. Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) co-sponsored the House version of the bill. 

Cory Gardner is young, energetic, and well-liked on both sides of the aisle. And he's evolved on cannabis along with his fellow Coloradans.

The bill’s introduction came via a quartet of Congress members, but Gardner is widely viewed as the driving force behind the STATES Act. And that may be one of the story’s biggest surprises. Just a few years ago, nobody would have pegged this conservative Republican with roots in rural farming as the one who finally (maybe) broke the framework of federal cannabis prohibition.

The more you know about his personal and political background, the more unlikely the whole thing seems.

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Deep Roots in Colorado

A fifth-generation Coloradan raised on the agricultural plains of Eastern Colorado, Gardner was brought up in a family that sold agricultural implements to the farmers of the Great Plains. As his official bio states, “he lives in the same house his great-grandparents lived in.”

He’s an alum of both of the state’s rival state universities. Gardner graduated summa cum laude from Colorado State University and received his law degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. After working at his family’s farm implements company, he took a job for a few years with the National Corn Growers Association before signing on as a legislative assistant for Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO), eventually advancing to become Allard’s legislative director. So he knows how to move legislation through Congress.

Gardner was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Colorado state legislature in 2005, then won the seat outright in 2006. He was elected to Congress in 2010, representing Colorado’s rural eastern plains.

In 2014, he was the first challenger in decades to win against an incumbent senator in Colorado when he defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

Sharp Mind, Keen Politician

A youngish senator (he’s 43) who’s well-liked on both sides of the aisle, Gardner has quickly gained a high political profile in Congress. He serves on a number of senate committees and is currently chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, which deals with many North Korean issues.

'He understands how this political environment works, where the temperature of the public is on certain issues,' a former colleague told Leafly.

A former colleague of Gardner points to his ability to quickly analyze and judge issues.

“His political acumen is outstanding,” said Tim Dore, an attorney and former Republican member of the Colorado House of Representatives, who worked with Gardner from his early career as a state representative and up through his rise to the Senate.

“He understands how this political environment works,” Dore told Leafly, “where the temperature of the public is on certain issues, where his constituency is, where the loyalists of his party are.”

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Anti-Cannabis Until Recently

As the Washington Post noted, Gardner has a “staunchly conservative voting record” that includes opposition to the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.  He also received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

Even after Colorado voters legalized the adult use of cannabis in 2012, Gardner remained firmly in the prohibitionist camp.

In 2013, then-Congressman Gardner sent a letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding to know why the Department of Justice decided to not interfere in state cannabis legalization laws – as laid out in the Cole Memo – while cannabis remained federally illegal.

“Do you believe the DOJ has the authority to override federal law?” Gardner wrote. “Do you believe you have the authority to change the law without the approval of Congress?”

At the time, Gardner framed his objections based on the possibility of states overriding other federal laws in the wake of the DOJ’s decision.

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The Shock of the Cole Memo Kill

And it appears the issue of states’ rights played a major role in Senator Gardner’s turnaround on cannabis legalization this past January. That’s when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was rescinding the Cole Memo, a move that sent shock waves throughout the legal cannabis industry.

When Jeff Sessions scuttled the Cole Memo, Sen. Gardner emerged as Colorado's cannabis defender.

Senator Gardner quickly and unexpectedly jumped into the issue, denouncing the attorney general’s decision.

“This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation,” he tweeted in response. “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.”

The senator then went on to make national headlines with an angry speech on the Senate floor.

‘This Is About Colorado’

During that speech Gardner said he understood the attorney general’s opposition to marijuana, and that he had opposed cannabis in his home state. “But this is about a decision by the state of Colorado,” he said, “and we were told that states’ rights would be protected.”

Gardner then declared that he would put a hold on every Justice Department nomination until Sessions’ decision was reversed.

And after Gardner blocked Senate floor votes on several Trump nominees to the DOJ, the White House finally blinked. In mid-April Sen. Gardner announced that President Trump had assured him that his administration “will support a federalism-based legislative solution to fix this states’ rights issue once and for all.”

Evolving Like His Voters

So how does an old-school conservative GOP politician evolve so dramatically on cannabis legalization, to the point where he is now co-sponsor of a potentially historic bill on the issue?

Gardner: Young & in touch. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“Well, they always say politics makes strange bedfellows, right?” said Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “And with cannabis being the transpartisan issue that it is, that’s become even more true.”

Smith told Leafly that Senator Gardner’s evolution underscores how party lines no longer define where lawmakers stand on cannabis legalization. Both Democrats and Republicans, he said, are “seeing the same polling data that we’re seeing,” that shows a growing support for cannabis legalization among Americans.

“Privately, all sorts of conversations are happening, I’m sure,” he added. “But there isn’t a big bloc of opposition pushing back against this, as there was a couple of years ago.”

In Touch With the Grassroots

One observer said Gardner’s support of cannabis was probably developed with an eye towards public opinion in his home state.

“He does not strike me as a marijuana champion,” said Sam Kamin, Vicente Sederberg Professor of Marijuana Law and Policy at the University of Denver.

“This seems to be sort of a constituent service. He knows that marijuana in popular in the state;  that people, generally speaking, think that legalization went pretty well, and he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of that.”

Despite Senator Gardner’s pro-cannabis stance, Kamin doubts the senator is an indicator of any major policy shift within the GOP.

“I don’t think we’re going to see the Republican Party take a lead on this,” he told Leafly, “although as a states’ rights issue that they should be out in front on it.”

“I think that it’s not something that appeals too much to their core demographic, but I think that they also know which way the wind is blowing. Support for marijuana legalization is at all-time highs and I think they will give into that, because they feel that they have to.”

Good Industry Actors Do Change Minds

Another major factor in Gardner’s evolution, said NCIA’s Aaron Smith, is that he has experience and exposure to the legal cannabis industry and understands that it’s been successful in his state.

“His legislation is not seeking to tell how other states should they should treat marijuana,” he added. “It’s just protecting the businesses and the voters who support these businesses in Colorado, and the other states that have those similar laws.”

For his part, Tim Dore sees the political rift on marijuana legalization as a mostly generational divide – with lawmakers like Cory Gardner representing younger politicians who aren’t afraid of cannabis.

Gardner, Dore told Leafly, is “an honest conservative who stands up for what is right, even if that means being up against the generation of leaders that are sometimes looking backwards instead of in the direction that we’re headed as a country.”