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Sen. Cory Gardner stands ground on marijuana against Jeff Sessions' taunts

February 13, 2018 Updated: February 13, 2018 at 8:19 pm
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WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) speaks during the first day of Judge Neil Gorsuch's Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Blame Cory Gardner. Democrats have been doing that for a while, but now U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is down on the Colorado senator, claiming his fellow Republican is using pot to trip up the Justice Department. But Tuesday, Gardner wasn't backing down.

He's blocking Trump nominees over Sessions' decision in January to rescind marijuana industry protections in states that have legalized and regulated pot.

"Sen. Gardner's holds on Justice nominees remain in place as he and our staff continue to talk with the Department of Justice and discuss a path forward which recognizes Colorado's state's rights and ensures law enforcement has the authority and tools needed to protect our communities," said Gardner press secretary Casey Contres.

"These discussions continue to be necessary, and we appreciate their willingness to have them. Sen. Gardner is also working with a bipartisan group of senators from across the political spectrum, and they continue to look at ways Congress can take action to preserve states' rights."

Gardner is the reason the administration hasn't filled key jobs, including justice officials in charge of national security and the criminal and civil rights divisions, Sessions told the National Sheriffs' Association at a Monday conference in Washington.

"These are critically important components," the AG said. " ... but because right now one senator's concerns over unrelated issues - like reversing federal law against marijuana - we can't even get a vote."I'm attorney general of the United States. I don't have the authority to say that something is legal when it is illegal, even if I wanted to. I cannot and will not pretend that a duly enacted law of this country - like the federal ban on marijuana - does not exist. Marijuana is illegal in the United States - even in Colorado, California and everywhere else in America."

Trump's inability to fill vacancies and confirm nominees has been unusual, given the GOP control of the executive and legislative branches.

But many of the Justice Department slots were open for months before Gardner's standoff began in January, the Associated Press noted Monday. Gardner has worked alongside fellow U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver, to defend the marijuana industry and legalize banking support.

Gardner is chief among Colorado leaders who have called foul and suggested Sessions is bluffing, including Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

Hickenlooper said shutting down the Colorado industry is unrealistic. Justice doesn't have the staff or budget to raid otherwise-legal businesses, then take on the massively expensive litigation against a thriving industry with an army of employees, he said.

The question is likely to come down to whether Colorado regulates marijuana tightly enough to satisfy Sessions, who has a long history of opposing marijuana.

The National Fraternal Order of Police, however, sides with Sessions.

"Sen. Gardner has come out swinging to defend the pot industry in his state," said FOP President Chuck Canterbury two weeks ago. "However, the fact that he believes Colorado can profit from the sale of this illegal drug does not give him the right to hold up or delay the appointment of critical personnel at the Justice Department."

Sales of recreational and medical marijuana topped $1.5 billion in Colorado last year, up from $1.3 billion in 2016 and $996 million in 2015, the state Department of Revenue reported this month.

Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

In October 2016, the pro-industry Marijuana Policy Group released a report that said marijuana has eclipsed oil and gas as the state's chief industry, estimating pot's economic impact on the state at nearly $2.4 billion in 2015.

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