WASHINGTON – Colorado's Republican U.S. senator will stop blocking nominees for some Justice Department jobs over concerns about the marijuana industry, saying Thursday that federal officials have shown good faith in recent conversations on the department's pot policy.
Cory Gardner used his power as a senator last month to freeze nominations for posts at the agency after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era protections for states like Colorado that have broadly legalized recreational marijuana.
It was a dramatic move by a Republican senator against his own party's attorney general and came after Gardner said Sessions had promised him there wouldn't be a crackdown. Gardner said he was placing holds on nominees until Sessions changed his approach.
The holds have created friction both with Sessions, who has complained that critical posts are going unfilled, and some of Gardner's fellow GOP senators who want key law enforcement officials in their states confirmed.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Gardner said Thursday that he's discussed the issue with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and has been pleased with progress so far.
Department leaders have "shown in good faith their willingness to provide what I think will be hopefully the protections we sought, and as sort of a good faith gesture on my behalf I'll be releasing a limited number of nominees," Gardner said.
He will release his holds on nominees for U.S. attorneys in a dozen federal districts, U.S. marshals in every district and on John Demers, who was nominated to head Justice's national security division.
Gardner stopped short of saying Rosenstein offered his assurances that the department would not crack down on the legal cannabis industry, but gave him enough comfort that Colorado's acting U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, will continue to focus on prosecuting people acting outside of Colorado's voter-approved marijuana laws rather than those who follow them. That follows a pledge Troyer made the day Sessions announced his agency's new marijuana policy.
The Justice Department said it appreciated Gardner's decision and looked forward to further conversation with him.
Gardner will continue to hold the nominations of seven top Department of Justice nominees. He's also working with a bipartisan group of members of Congress to pursue legislation protecting states that have legalized marijuana.
Marijuana groups were supportive of Gardner's move.
"I applaud Senator Gardner for fighting for states' rights, and support his decision to lift a number of DOJ holds on certain nominees while negotiations continue," said Neal Levine, chairman of the pro-legalization New Federalism Fund.
But Colorado Democrats were skeptical.
"The fact that Gardner surrendered his leverage to protect Colorado's legal marijuana industry in exchange for vague promises from a proven liar shows that he's not just a pushover, but a fool as well," said Colorado Democratic party spokesman Eric Walker.