Cory Gardner Aims to Pass Cannabis Reforms in Senate


Marguerite Arnold

December 17th, 2018

Policy


Forget the hemp reform promised by the federal Farm Bill for a second, although that is a tall order. The bill sets national agricultural, nutritional, conservation and forestry policy for the country twice a decade. Allowing hemp to be grown legally, nationally, in every state for the first time since the Great Depression is certainly a forward victory long in the making.

However that is, from a cannabinoid perspective, just one small step. Concurrently there is also another federal initiative on the table now along with strategy to pass it that is actually far more momentous for cannabis should it actually move through the legislature as intended.

Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican Senator from Colorado, plans to speed up critical reforms in cannabis banking this week and further do so in a way designed to speed passage. Finally.

The cannabis industry is highly supportive. Recreational reform may have come to many U.S. states since 2014. One thing however that has not budged is banking services. Despite repeated attempts to reform the same at the federal level in Congress.

That is the simple news. As there is nothing “simple “about Congressional procedure however, the reality as well as the strategy is a little more complicated than that.

The Details

In Senate speak, here is the high pitch. Gardner plans to attach an already drafted piece of legislation called the STATES Act (Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States) that has stalled in the Senate to another piece of legislation called the “First Step Act” (S.3649) which is on a more rapid trajectory to passage. This is a common legislative move, frequently also seen at the end of biannual legislative sessions.

The STATES Act, introduced by Gardner and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) is what all the excitement is about from the cannabis side. The legislation, finally, fixes both the tax and banking problems that have plagued the industry for the last four years while leaving the rescheduling issue alone. Namely, it allows cannabis businesses to legally open bank accounts in states where either medical or recreational reform has occurred. It would also exempt retailers from federal prosecution while still keeping cannabis a Schedule I drug.

The reason that everyone is getting so excited about this strategy however, is that Gardner intends not to push for an up or down vote on this legislation, but rather include it in a prison reform bill that both the Republican Senate leadership and President Donald Trump want to prioritize.

The First Step Act is a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that allows non-violent federal prisoners to be released from prison more quickly and earn the right to enter society again through a defined set of steps intended to reduce recidivism.

It will also, at least according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reduce the federal prisoner population over the next decade by about 53,000 “person years” – or the equivalent of freeing 53,000 inmates in a single year. As a result, at least according to the CBO, it will also increase direct federal government spending on programs such people would then qualify for (such as Medicaid and Disability) by $346 million through 2028.

Presumably the revenue gathered by both the states and federal government via efficient controlling and levy of both federal and state taxes will more than pay for the same.

Guaranteed Passage?

There is still no guarantee that this strategy will work. Why not? A similar version has to pass in the House and there is no guarantee that it will. If it does not, once both Senate and House versions of the First Step Act pass, the differences will have to be rectified in conference committee. And that also means that the language and intent of the STATES Act could be stripped from the final prison bill. Or even watered down.

That said, it is also clear that creative cannabis reform has finally hit the federal discussion on Capitol Hill, even if imperfect in multiple ways. And even if this creative attempt goes down in flames, there is no reason to believe that such efforts will go away, particularly spurred on in a democratically controlled House starting next year.

About Marguerite Arnold



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