Mike Littwin: Gardner gets high on his brief foray into dissent
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Cory Gardner was steamed. He was miffed. He was, as the twitterverse had it, lit.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had just declared a new front in the war on drugs — not on the national-emergency opioid front, as you might have guessed, but on the pot front, which much of America, including most of Colorado, thought was settled territory.
I have never seen the ever-smiling senator so upset as he was when he took the Senate floor Thursday to call out Sessions for directly lying to him and Donald Trump for, well, lying to everyone. I’m not sure why Gardner didn’t see this coming because Sessions is a well-known anti-pot zealot and Trump, of course, is a well-known liar.
But there it was. He was a man betrayed and he showed it.
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Going rogue — not a place that you’ll often find Gardner — he said he would place “a hold on every single nomination from the Department of Justice until Attorney General Jeff Sessions lives up to the commitment that he made to me in my preconfirmation meeting with him, the conversation we had, that was specifically about this issue of states’ rights in Colorado.”
This was an actual threat, not unlike the threat that Sessions is making against the pot industry, which, as you may have noticed, is booming in Colorado.
And for taking this stand, Gardner is being hailed by some as, well, bold. In The Washington Post, he was called a model for Republican dissent in the time of Trump (in other words, a sometimes-dissenting Republican who opposed Roy Moore and who doesn’t call Trump’s kids traitors or call Trump himself a bleeping moron).
I’m not sure how bold Gardner is being. In the late summer, conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin called him passive and cowering. When Gardner goes to the Senate floor to point out, as The New York Times did in its latest blockbuster, that Trump and Sessions apparently plotted to fire Comey and cover up their work, then I’ll call him bold. Hell, when Gardner goes to the Senate floor to say that Trump presents a unique threat to American democracy and is entirely unfit to be president, then I’ll call him whatever he wants me to call him.
On pot, though, it was a no-brainer. This is an issue about which Colorado voters have made themselves more than clear. And although Gardner’s re-election campaign in 2020 is still some time away, the question looming is how many times he can oppose the wishes of his purple-bluish constituency and still expect to win their votes.
All the same, it is true that when Sessions was nominated to be attorney general, Gardner asked him specifically about pot and whether the Trump administration would interfere with Colorado’s legal-pot industry. Sessions said that nothing would change.
When Trump was running for president, 9News’ Brandon Rittiman asked Trump whether he would interfere with the Colorado pot industry, and Trump said he thought the issue was one that should be decided by the states.
It was 8:58 a.m. Thursday, Gardner said on the Senate floor, when Sessions, with no advance warning and no consultation, announced he would undo the Obama-era Justice Department rules that basically had left those states that have legalized pot (now up to eight states and Washington, D.C.) to their own devices. Of course, there is the fact that marijuana remains not only illegal under federal law, but is still a Schedule 1 drug, like heroin. To understand how absurd that is, you should note that cocaine and meth are Schedule 2. You should also note that more than half the states now have legalized marijuana for medical use.
“Then-Sen. Sessions told me that marijuana simply wasn’t going to be on President Trump’s agenda, that it was something that they weren’t going to deal with, something that President Trump simply wasn’t going to focus on,” Gardner said. “That was back in the spring of 2016, and up until 8:58 this morning, that was the policy.”
Gardner, who was quite clear in his frustration, said on the Senate floor that it was a matter of states’ rights, although state laws, according to my reading of the Constitution, don’t actually supersede federal laws. But Coloradans did vote for legalization and, as Gardner pointed out, would overwhelmingly vote for it again. And Colorado politicians, from both parties, stand somewhere between upset and outraged over the news — not least because of pot’s major tax benefits — despite the fact that nearly all of them, including Gardner, opposed making pot legal.
Gardner demanded to know why Trump and Sessions had changed their minds.
I have a couple of guesses, but let’s start with the most likely. On Jan. 1, pot became legal in California. I’m thinking Sessions saw this as an opportunity to persuade Trump that cracking down on the devil weed was a perfect way to harass Jerry Brown and team. And although Sessions isn’t Trump’s favorite person just now, I’m hearing that the president may have been distracted by a book — not that he’s actually read it.
Of course, if it was politics, it was not the smartest ploy. On the same day of the pot proclamation, Trump also proclaimed that he would welcome drilling in all open waters, ensuring that states with, say, beaches will be upset. And ensuring that young people, who sometimes need encouragement to vote, will be reminded that Trump is cracking down on pot while also risking the environment in order to dump money into the pockets of oil companies.
Maybe that’s why Gardner was so miffed (not about the oil companies, of course, but you know). Gardner is in charge of getting Republican senators re-elected in 2018 and, as the party clings to a 51-49 advantage, Trump has just made his job that much harder and — here’s another guess — may make that job impossible.
Of course, if Gardner really wanted to be courageous, he would insist that Congress change the pot laws to allow states to “experiment” with legalization. I used to love how all politicians, when asked about their past, would say they had “experimented” with drugs, as if there was a Bunsen burner, and not a bong, involved. Colorado is well into its experiment, and it’s one that seems to be working quite well. In fact, you could say it’s a model for the country and one that Trump and Sessions seem ready to willfully smash.
Mike Littwin is a former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post. He currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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