Montana’s Senate election complicates Cannabis legislation

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Montana’s Senate election complicates Cannabis legislation

Democrats are accusing Republicans of playing politics with a package of veterans bills spearheaded by Montana Senator Jon Tester.

The road for veterans’ cannabis research — and potentially control of the Senate — runs through Montana.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is the lead author of a bill to increase research into cannabis for veterans. He’s also one of the Senate’s most at-risk Democrats, running in a state Donald Trump won by 16 percentage points in 2020.

Fellow Montana Sen. Steve Daines, as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is charged with ousting Tester.

The Montana Senate election and cannabis policy collided on the Senate floor in April, when a package of five veterans bills — built around Tester’s VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act — was unexpectedly blocked by Republicans. The bills were widely supported in committee and the package included legislation introduced by both Republicans and Democrats.

If the package passed, it would have made VA home loans directly available to Native Americans, made changes to improve veterans health care programs, and instructed the VA to research cannabis use for conditions like PTSD and chronic pain.

“These all came unanimously out of [the] Veterans Committee,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told POLITICO last month. “Jon Tester’s in cycle, [and] Mitch McConnell probably doesn’t want to help him.”

Some lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates now suggest that the Montana Senate election increased the unforeseen opposition to the veterans package. They also fear that the brouhaha over the cannabis portion of the package, and Daines’ vote against it, could bode poorly for the financially ailing cannabis industry’s No. 1 priority: The SAFE Banking Act, which would make it easier for weed businesses to access financial services.

When Tester ran for reelection in 2018, many of his campaign ads touted his work to support a beloved constituency: veterans.

“Jon’s got our back,” a veteran says into the camera in an ad released in May 2018. To which dozens of other veterans respond: “So we’ve got his back.”

Currently the Chair of the Senate VA Committee, talking up his legislative wins for veterans is smart politics for a Democrat like Tester running in a deep red state.

In 2018, Tester won reelection by just under 18,000 votes. There are 89,000 veterans in the state of Montana — a demographic large enough to sway an election.

“The actual definition of how many veterans there are in Montana is ‘a fuck ton,’” said strategist Jim Messina, who worked for former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and helped on Tester’s first Senate campaign in 2006, in an interview. “In every race Jon Tester has ever had — all of them, of course, close — veterans have been a key to his winning coalition.”

Vietnam vet Mike Lawson — a Montana resident and Tester supporter who participated in the senator’s 2018 campaign ad — says veterans in the state are paying attention to the final fate of the VA package that includes the cannabis research bill. Lawson says he knows a number of veterans in Montana who say marijuana has made a huge difference for their quality of life, and doesn’t understand why the VA wouldn’t want to do more research on it.

“I get tired of political games people play at the expense of the veteran,” he said in an interview, but added that Tester’s reputation for championing veterans legislation is already well known. “We know who’s our friend.”

Details don’t add up

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) raised strong objections about the cannabis research proposal during a caucus meeting and in a conversation with POLITICO over the methodology of a retroactive study in the bill, arguing that the self-selecting nature of the study could skew the results. However, that study was added to the legislation at the behest of Republican Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), according to veterans advocate Amy Rising and a Democratic Senate aide with knowledge of the discussions.

Other GOP senators who support the cannabis veterans research bill — including Todd Young (Ind.) and Kevin Cramer (N.D.) — said they voted against advancing the bill to the Senate floor because they objected to the lack of an amendment process. But the Democratic Senate aide said Moran and Tester had agreed to proceed to the bill and were working together on choosing which amendments could come up for a vote.

“The argument that there was no time to have amendments is not factually accurate,” said Tom Rodgers, a Montanan and member of the Blackfeet Nation who works on veterans, cannabis and Native American issues. He advocated for a number of bills in the package, and said that both Moran and the bill’s GOP lead co-sponsor Dan Sullivan (Alaska) would have entertained amendments.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), when asked in May if the Montana Senate election had any impact on the bill’s failure to advance, told POLITICO: “I don’t think we need to talk about it — everybody knows that.”

For lawmakers and advocates who’ve been working on cannabis policy for years, the Montana Senate election is throwing one more hurdle into the long line of obstacles that weed legislation already needs to overcome to cross the finish line.

“What happened on that vote is that people actually got hurt,” said Rodgers. “In this situation, veterans [and] Native Americans … were the first casualty in this political battle.”

Rising says she’s working to get the bill back for another floor vote before the August recess, and Moran also confirmed he still wants to bring the bill back for another vote. With Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) back in town after health issues, the bill would be just one vote away from cloture — a vote supporters think they can coax out of one of the “nay” voters that caught them by surprise, like Young or Cramer.

The other weed bill

The SAFE Banking Act also has bipartisan support and has passed the House seven times in previous years, but the Senate has not yet moved it out of committee. At the end of the last Congress, a tentative agreement was reached on a package of cannabis bills built around the SAFE Act — but the deal ultimately ran out of runway in December. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a recent interview with POLITICO that Cannabis banking is still a priority.

Muddying the waters further is Daines, the SAFE Act’s lead GOP cosponsor who voted against the veterans cannabis bill.

Advocates are now eyeing that vote with concern as Daines negotiates with Schumer, Brown and the cannabis banking bill’s other lead sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) on the bill’s details. Three cannabis advocates POLITICO spoke with said they worried that Daines’ decision to not play ball on one cannabis bill could make Democrats less inclined to work with him on the other bill.

When asked if his vote on vets was complicating matters with the SAFE Banking Act, Daines argued that Democrats are the ones slowing the bill down right now. In a May hearing, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) raised concerns that the bill could make it more difficult for regulators to flag relationships that could present risks to banks — and now lawmakers are negotiating potential changes to one section of the legislation to address Reed’s issues.

The SAFE Act’s other backers, meanwhile, were quick to separate it from the veteran bill’s troubles.

Merkley said the veterans bill “was a different policy issue on which people had disagreements with the policy.”

Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), a cosponsor of the cannabis banking bill who voted against the veterans package, added it wouldn’t be “fair to assume” that the veterans package vote is “in any way indicative that there will be tough sledding for the SAFE Banking Act.”

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