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Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner Continues His Standoff With Jeff Sessions Over Marijuana

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., says the policy change on marijuana laws "directly contradicts" a commitment Attorney General Jeff Sessions made before his confirmation.
Win McNamee
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Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., says the policy change on marijuana laws "directly contradicts" a commitment Attorney General Jeff Sessions made before his confirmation.

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who is calling on the Trump administration to allow states to legalize marijuana without federal interference, is continuing his nearly weeklong standoff with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the issue. In an interview with NPR, he suggests that if the Department of Justice doesn't back off, it might spur Congress to act.

Last week, after Sessions opened the door for aggressive prosecution of marijuana offenses, Gardner threatened to hold up Department of Justice nominations until Sessions reversed course. Gardner said the policy change "directly contradicts" a commitment Sessions made before his confirmation.

The two men met Wednesday, and neither has budged, Gardner tells NPR.

"There was no breakthrough yet," the Republican senator told NPR's Kelly McEvers, in an unaired conversation. "But I hope there will be."

"I have not changed my decision to hold these nominations until we have a commitment that lives up to what I believe was given to me prior to the confirmation," Gardner said.

Gardner described a conversation with the attorney general in which he emphasized two themes — states' rights and sticking by one's word — while Sessions played down the significance of the policy shift.

The new policy amounted to "interference with states' rights in Colorado and beyond," he told NPR. And it came after Sessions had personally committed to Gardner that marijuana enforcement would not be an administration priority, the senator said.

"Look, I mean I opposed the legalization [of pot in Colorado]," Gardner told NPR. "I think this, to me, is about states' rights. The people of Colorado decided to do this. In fact, I'm pretty sure if the election were held again today, it'd probably pass with an even higher margin today than it did just several years ago."

Gardner raised the possibility of congressional action on marijuana, saying he met this week with a bipartisan group of senators to talk about medical marijuana laws across the country.

The policy shift announced by Sessions "spurs Congress [to] an even greater need to act in this area of law," Gardner said. He pointed to efforts in the House of Representatives to protect states' medical marijuana laws and suggested congressional hearings on the subject in the future.

"We need ... a long-term legislative solution," he said.

Gardner is not the only lawmaker who has vocally opposed Sessions' reversal of the Obama-era guidelines on marijuana, as NPR's Politics team has reported:

"Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, called Sessions' decision 'outrageous.'

" 'Going against the majority of Americans — including a majority of Republican voters — who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made,' Blumenauer said in a statement.

" 'One wonders if Trump was consulted — it is Jeff Sessions after all — because this would violate his campaign promise not to interfere with state marijuana laws.'

"Trump had said  that he would respect voters' rights in places that have elected to modify their drug laws.

" 'I think it's up to the states,' Trump told NBC's Denver affiliate in 2016. 'I'm a states person. It should be up to the states, absolutely.'

"On Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president's position hasn't changed — 'but he does strongly believe that we have to enforce federal law.' "

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.