Talks are intensifying over a marijuana banking and expungements bill that Senate leadership is working to finalize, with advocates feeling increasingly optimistic about seeing action during the lame duck session.
Still, other activists are making clear that they want to see amendments to the SAFE Banking language to incorporate targeted equity provisions, arguing that it’s not enough to simply attach separate expungements provisions to the financial services reform.
Bipartisan and bicameral offices have been in negotiations about the so-called SAFE Plus package for months, and the latest signals indicate that the legislation will be less wide ranging than some initially expected—with previously floated sections on veterans and small business assistance seemingly being left aside as banking and expungements remain at the center of the talks—though the text has yet to be released so it remains unclear what will make it into the final product.
The negotiations in their current form are leading to “unprecedented levels of optimism” about passing a cannabis reform package by the end of the current Congress, one advocate familiar with the status of negotiations and who did not wish to be named told Marijuana Moment.
One sign that a deal may be imminent is that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) met with other key lawmakers, including Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and bipartisan lead Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking sponsors Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) last week, as Politico reported.
For other advocates, support for SAFE Plus will be largely contingent on what happens with the banking language, as they’re discontent with the current provisions that have passed the House in some form seven times now.
Specifically, they’d like to see the bill amended to provide funding for Minority Deposit Institutions (MDIs) and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that lend commercial loans to minority-owned businesses.
They’re further calling for changes to require banks that work with the cannabis industry to demonstrate non-discrimination in lending, as Supernova Women Executive Director Amber Senter wrote in a recent op-ed for Marijuana Moment.
These amendments align with some of the SAFE Banking Act recommendations that Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) outlined in a paper sent to legislative leaders in August.
“We are looking forward to reviewing the final language of the ‘SAFE Act Plus,'” Maritza Perez, director of the office of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told Marijuana Moment. “We are ready to support meaningful reform in the SAFE Banking Act as well as the HOPE Act.”
The Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act is a standalone marijuana expungements bill filed late last year by Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that is being floated as an addition to SAFE as a way to include some manner of criminal justice reform that could bring progressives on board with advancing the industry-focused banking reform.
But the details of the final package matter, they say.
“For too long, communities of color have been locked up for marijuana while being shut out of the regulated market,” Perez said. “Congress has an opportunity to change that with this package.”
Brown told Politico that the House-passed standalone banking legislation “is very inadequate,” adding that his “main focus is to protect the workers in this industry.”
It’s not immediately clear what he meant with the reference to workers. He could have been talking about the problems that some marijuana industry employees face when trying to secure personal commercial loans. Or he may have been referencing labor issues in the industry, including those surrounding workers’ health—though adding something to the bill addressing that could further complicate the delicate negotiations. Or the comment may have been a reference to the public safety implications of cash-intensive businesses that have been targets of burglaries and robberies.
In any case, the senator said that he’s also been discussing the cannabis package with Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA), House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC)
“Some things will be kicked upstairs to the leaders—others will be done on our level,” he told Politico.
Joyce, a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that “there seems to be consensus on its ability to move,” referring to the current framework of the SAFE Plus bill that’s still being finalized. “When people add things to SAFE [such as] different financial decisions or market decisions, I think that will bog it down,” he said.
While advocates would like to see a comprehensive legalization bill enacted, it’s apparent that there’s not enough support in the Senate to reach the required 60-vote threshold to advance to passage. And with Republicans taking the majority in the House following this month’s elections, the pressure is on to get something meaningful approved in the lame duck.
“We need to try to get as much passed as we possibly can in the lame duck, because next session might be significantly more difficult to get anything passed—in particular, anything that has significant social and criminal justice aspects attached to it,” Morgan Fox, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
Advocates don’t necessarily believe that GOP-controlled House means that cannabis reform will be dead on arrival in the chamber, especially with Republican reform champions like Joyce and Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), the sponsor of a legalization bill that she filed earlier this year.
“I don’t want us to sit on the sidelines and do nothing next session like we always have,” Mace told Marijuana Moment last week. “We’ve got to modernize our laws, modernize our regulations. We need to make sure that we’re not funding the cartels by not moving the ball forward—that we are being smart about it and saving lives. This is where we can make that work happen.”
The congresswoman said that she hoped her GOP colleagues watched last week’s House Oversight subcommittee hearing on federal and state marijuana reform that she helped put together as ranking member. She said it underscored how the issue could be thoughtfully discussed and advanced on a bipartisan basis.
Meanwhile, advocate Weldon Angelos—who received a presidential pardon for a federal cannabis offense during the Trump administration and has continued to work with the White House on reform issues—said last week that “SAFE is still on track,” and he’s heard the bill will “be introduced in December” with final language potentially being released “before end of the month.”
SAFE is still on track. Will be introduced in December. Final language will likely be released before end of the month.
— Weldon Angelos (@weldon_angelos) November 19, 2022
It seems unlikely that lawmakers will seek to pass the marijuana reform package as standalone legislation, but it’s also an open question as to what kind of legislative vehicle it could be attached to. There’s the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the House has previously approved with cannabis banking language included. Another possible scenario would be for leadership to try and insert the reform into omnibus appropriations legislation that needs to be passed and signed into law by December 16. All bills that might go to the president’s desk before the end of the current Congress are on the table as possible vehicles, however.
Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of key congressional players, including Schumer and Joyce, but representatives were not immediately available to comment on the latest state of play on SAFE Plus.
Meanwhile, as those talks continue, lawmakers are still exploring additional cannabis reforms.
For example, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said at last week’s hearing in the Oversight subcommittee that he chairs that he will soon be introducing a bill aimed at protecting federal workers from being denied security clearances over marijuana.
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Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) filed a bill last week that would allow state-legal cannabis businesses to access certain federal Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and services that are available to companies in any other industry.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) recently announced that he will soon be introducing legislation to direct the attorney general to create a commission charged with making recommendations on a regulatory system for marijuana that models what’s currently in place for alcohol.
Also last week, Congress passed a bipartisan cannabis research bill, sending the first piece of marijuana reform legislation to the president’s desk in U.S. history. A White House spokesperson confirmed to Marijuana Moment that President Joe Biden will sign the measure.
“I hope after passing this bill the Senate can make progress on other cannabis legislation, too,” Schumer said following the bill’s passage. “I’m still holding productive talks with Democratic and Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate on moving additional bipartisan cannabis legislation in the lame duck.”
“We’re going to try very, very hard to get it done,” he said. “It’s not easy, but we’re making good progress. I thank my colleagues for the the excellent work on this [research] bill and hope it portends more good cannabis legislation to come.”
The majority leader similarly said late last month that Congress is getting “very close” to introducing and passing a marijuana banking and expungements bill, citing progress he’s made in discussions with a “bunch of Republican senators.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), meanwhile, said following the election that Democrats who want to enact cannabis reform must either do it “now” during the lame duck session or wait until “many years from now” when his party has a shot at controlling Congress again.
These developments come about a month after Biden issued a mass marijuana pardon for federal possession cases and directed an administrative review into cannabis scheduling under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA).
Meanwhile, in late September, the House Judiciary Committee approved a series of criminal justice reform bills—including bipartisan proposals to clear records for prior federal marijuana convictions, provide funding for states that implement systems of automatic expungements and codify retroactive relief for people incarcerated due to on crack-cocaine sentencing disparities.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.