Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said on Wednesday that he “will lay myself down” to block any other senators who seek to pass marijuana banking legislation before the body approves comprehensive cannabis reform like the federal legalization bill he newly unveiled alongside Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
Over in the House, meanwhile, the lead sponsor of the cannabis banking bill says he agrees with the need for a broader policy change—but feels that Congress should still advance the more incremental reform as soon as possible for public safety reasons.
During a press conference on the long-anticipated Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, Schumer, Booker and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) were asked about whether the chamber should pursue a separate, House-passed bill that would simply protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators if the trio cannot get enough support to advance their legalization legislation.
Booker put the issue in no uncertain terms.
“I’m telling you right now, if somebody tries in the Senate to do just a banking bill,” Booker, said, it would only accomplish further enriching of people in a multi-billion industry without addressing the harms of the drug war.
Because of that, Booker said, he will block any bills from advancing that singularly address cannabis banking issues.
“To just do it so some people can get rich and not do something about the people who are languishing with criminal convictions—to not do something on restorative justice, not to make sure that the business opportunities that are created are given a fair playing field, where right now in many states, someone who has a criminal conviction for selling marijuana can’t get a license now” is unacceptable, the senator said.
“I don’t know about other members of the Senate, but I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that’s going to allow all these corporations to make a lot more money off of this, as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspect,” he said.
When it comes to legalizing recreational marijuana, we can’t allow the creation of this massive, multibillion dollar industry unless the taxes from that industry get reinvested in the communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs.
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) July 14, 2021
It was a forceful and direct response to a question that’s been asked of Senate and House lawmakers in the past.
But Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the lead sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, said there’s an urgent need to get the bipartisan financial services reform passed as soon as possible.
“I support comprehensive cannabis reform legislation and believe it is important to ensure true social and economic justice is achieved following the War on Drugs,” he said in a statement. “However, there is a serious public safety threat that exists in our communities which we cannot wait to address.”
Cannabis-related businesses are forced to operate as high-volume cash businesses, targeted by violent criminals & putting our communities at risk. The #SAFEBankingAct isn't about making corporations richer-it’s about protecting employees, patients & customers of small businesses.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) July 14, 2021
“Cannabis-related businesses—including small and minority-owned businesses—and their employees continue to be forced to operate as high-volume cash businesses that are being targeted by violent criminals and putting our communities and constituents at risk,” he said.
“The SAFE Banking Act is not about making corporations richer—it’s about protecting employees, patients, and customers of small businesses. The SAFE Banking Act also immediately removes barriers for small and minority-owned cannabis businesses to access capital. Passing the SAFE Banking Act is the first step of many federal cannabis reforms to create a safer and more equitable industry.”
…but I urge the Senate to take immediate action to pass the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act to reduce the significant public safety risk threatening our communities. https://t.co/twxMmKIiHX
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) July 14, 2021
Last month, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT), sponsors of the Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act, urged a markup of legislation, arguing that it would help address an urgent public safety issue.
“This is not simply a matter of banking. The inability of these state-legal entities to bank their significant cash reserves is an issue of public safety,” they wrote, citing cases of robberies and armed burglaries at dispensaries in both of their home states.
But Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has made clear he’s not eager to advance the legislation, saying in April that “I think we need to look at a number of things,” and that the body is “not ready to move on it.”
One thing that Brown previously said he wanted to do was tie the cannabis banking legislation to sentencing reform, though he’s since indicated that he’s not necessarily married to that approach.
It should be noted that passing the Schumer, Wyden and Booker bill to end federal cannabis prohibition would automatically remove any penalties that financial institutions currently potentially face as a result of working with licensed cannabis businesses because those operations would no longer be federally illegal. That said, the legislation has far less bipartisan support than the narrower financial services measure does.
“I’ve always been of the view that while certainly we have to deal with the banking and financial issues that we should do them together with legalization because the [SAFE Banking Act] brings in some people who might not normally support legalization, and we want to get as broad a coalition as possible,” Schumer told Marijuana Moment in April.
Over in the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers already passed their version of the banking bill in April—marking the fourth time that the measure has cleared that chamber in some form.
As it stands, the banking legislation has 39 cosponsors in the Senate, in addition to lead sponsor Merkley, which means more than a third of the chamber is already formally signed on.
The legislation would ensure that financial institutions could take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators.
After it passed the House last Congress, advocates and stakeholders closely watched for any action to come out of the Senate Banking Committee, where it was referred after being transmitted to the chamber. But then-Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) did not hold a hearing on the proposal, despite talk of negotiations taking place regarding certain provisions.
Crapo said he opposed the reform proposal, but he signaled that he might be more amenable if it included certain provisions viewed as untenable to the industry, including a two percent THC potency limit on products in order for cannabis businesses to qualify to access financial services as well as blocking banking services for operators that sell high-potency vaping devices or edibles that could appeal to children.
When legislative leaders announced that the SAFE Banking Act was getting a House vote in 2019, there was pushback from some advocates who felt that Congress should have prioritized comprehensive reform to legalize marijuana and promote social equity, rather than start with a measure viewed as primarily friendly to industry interests.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and an original cosponsor of the bill, said in March that the plan was to pass the banking reform first this session because it “is a public safety crisis now,” and it’s “distinct—as we’ve heard from some of my colleagues—distinct from how they feel about comprehensive reform.”