The long-awaited Senate marijuana legalization bill that was formally filed on Thursday has already gained two new cosponsors, including the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the chamber, who celebrated the measure’s introduction but also stressed the need to continue working to pass cannabis banking legislation as soon as possible.
Assistant Democratic Leader Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) have signed onto the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), raising the total number of senators on the bill to five. That includes the three prime sponsors: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
“It is long past time the federal government catches up to Washington state when it comes to cannabis laws,” Murray said in a press release. “This legislation is about justice, strengthening our economy, and bringing the federal government into the 21st century.”
“Our bill will undo deeply unfair and racially unjust laws that have disproportionately harmed people of color—that’s hugely important. It will also strengthen our economy by finally recognizing the cannabis industry and modernizing federal regulations,” the senator said.
It is long past time the federal government's cannabis laws catch up to Washington state.
I helped introduce legislation today to finally bring our laws into the 21st century—& undo deeply unfair & racially unjust laws that have disproportionately harmed people of color.
— Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) July 21, 2022
However, the statement also specifically addresses the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would protect financial institutions that work with state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. It’s passed the House in seven times so far, but it’s yet to advance in the Senate.
“While the reforms we are pushing for are critical and long overdue—I remain fully committed to passing SAFE Banking however possible—including as a standalone bill,” Murray said. “It makes absolutely no sense that legal cannabis businesses are forced to operate entirely in cash and my bill would bring them into the formal banking system where they belong.”
Schumer, for his part, has said on several occasions that he’s unwilling to bring SAFE Banking to a vote ahead of broad legalization centering on justice and equity. Booker similarly threatened to block any effort in the chamber to advance the banking measure first.
Murray, who also pushed for the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in a large-scale manufacturing bill as an appointed member of a bicameral conference committee, seems to be acknowledging that while the intent of CAOA is laudable and worth backing, it’s path to passage is far more complicated. Some would argue that reaching the 60-vote threshold to approve that comprehensive legalization bill in the Senate is an impossibility given the lack of GOP support and disunity among the Democratic caucus on the issue.
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But it’s a different story for the marijuana banking bill, the Senate version of which currently has 42 cosponsors, including nine Republican members. Its repeated passage in the House has also exemplified the increasing bipartisan support for the incremental reform.
To that end, Murray’s statement is another sign of the skepticism that CAOA will be enacted this year, despite the sponsors’ year-long work to solicit input from advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers across the aisle. Even Schumer has said that his legalization bill will be a “catalyst” for a policy change, hinting at the prospect that its various provisions could serve as building blocks for an alternative package of reforms, which he’s been discussing with bipartisan and bicameral offices.
A deal on that marijuana package hasn’t been struck yet, but it’s expected to contain key components such as cannabis banking, veterans marijuana research, federal Small Business Administration (SBA) access for the cannabis industry and more.
As standalone Senate legislation, the SAFE Banking Act is being sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT). Schumer and other colleagues have faced criticism from stakeholders who have grown frustrated over their refusal to bring the bill to a vote until broad reform is enacted, but there are signals that a compromise may be forthcoming.
For example, as talks about an incremental cannabis reform package have continued, Schumer has expressed openness to building upon the banking bill to incorporate specific equity provisions that would make it more palatable to him. CAOA does contain specific banking language, and there are equity components attached to that section that could serve as the foundation for legislation in the works.
In any case, negotiations on an alternative approach are ongoing, but CAOA is here. It’s expected to be discussed at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing chaired by Booker that’s scheduled for next week, though its path beyond that panel remains murky.
For SAFE Banking, the attempt by certain conference negotiators on the America COMPETES Act have proved fruitless, with leadership agreeing to keep the measure out of the manufacturing bill.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s chief sponsor in the House who has been the most vocal lawmaker on Capitol Hill advocating for its enactment, has since taken yet another approach to get the legislation passed. He successfully got it attached to defense legislation that passed the House this month. But it still remains to be seen whether the Senate will go along with it this round.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.