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Former Congressman Behind Marijuana Banking Bill Discusses New Lobbying Work And Offers Rescheduling Predictions



Former U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) didn’t waste much time after retiring from Congress to revive his push for a bipartisan marijuana banking bill he championed for a decade—this time from the private sector, as a policy advisor now lobbying for the reform on behalf of a national cannabis group.

Just over a year after his congressional retirement, Perlmutter is getting back to work on the issue, taking the National Cannabis Roundtable (NCR) as a client with the goal of helping to advance the Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act, while also advocating for federal marijuana scheduling reform.

Perlmutter, who is now a partner at the government relations firm Holland & Knight, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that while it was “disappointing” and “deflating” to leave Capitol Hill without seeing the cannabis banking bill enacted into law—despite advancing through the House in some form seven times—he remains “hopeful” that there’s enough momentum to get the job done this year.

“I think there are a lot of folks that want to get it done,” he said. “The problem is just that Congress has got to start functioning in a better way. And I hold out hope for that.”

The SAFER Banking Act—a revised version of the bill that Perlmutter first introduced in 2013—did move through the Senate Banking Committee last September. The reason for the holdup for floor action is multifaceted, but more recently supporters have touted progress in negotiations amid a holdup that has largely centered on broader banking regulation provisions in Section 10 that don’t concern the marijuana industry specifically.

But there are still uncertainties in the divided Congress. There are questions about timing, as lawmakers continue to struggle to reach consensus on appropriations legislation and foreign funding, for example. There are also questions about how the GOP-controlled House will approach the issue if it does move through the Senate.

Perlmutter said that he sees a path forward, though. And while advocates have raised concerns about the willingness of House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to allow the legislation to advance given his consistent anti-marijuana legislative record, the former congressman said Johnson was a “friend” of his who he believes would not proactively block the reform.

In the interim, Perlmutter is also optimistic about the prospect of a federal marijuana scheduling change under President Joe Biden’s 2022 directive that led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to recommend moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). He says his “best guess” is that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will make a decision on that recommendation “anytime between now and mid-summer.”

Perlmutter spoke with Marijuana Moment about his cannabis banking lobbying work, scheduling reform and more. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marijuana Moment: What can you say about your current work in the private sector to advance the SAFER Banking Act that you aggressively championed in Congress?

Ed Perlmutter: My goal is to help NCR—but just everybody in general—to work through and pass SAFE, which I think can be done. I think the pieces are there to get it done. And then also to assist on rescheduling or descheduling so that cannabis, which is legal in so many places, is also legitimate under federal law.

You and I have had a lot of conversations about this. My goal is to just get this thing done so that the cash doesn’t pile up in cannabis-related businesses, that research can be done, taxes can be deducted and normalize the business aspects of cannabis and it’s related industries and not have it over here in an entirely different kind of setting.

MM: What did it feel like to leave Capitol Hill without seeing the legislation enacted into law?

EP: I loved being in Congress, but you’re right. I was disappointed that they didn’t pass it. It wasn’t just me, but a bunch of us worked on that very hard for a number of years and came very close—half a dozen times—to passing it and making it law. And so yeah, it was disappointing and deflating.

But on the other hand, I can work on it now as a private citizen, or as a board member of NCR, their advisory board, and try to get it to Biden’s desk to be signed.

MM: What’s your current sense of the status of the banking bill? Is it your understanding that the holdup is primarily about non-cannabis provisions such as Section 10?

EP: Section 10 has been part of it. I think the language there is getting pretty well-resolved, and there are some additional clauses in there that [Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI)] wanted and others in the Senate. But there’s a lot, which was really what [Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO)] and I had worked out years ago on the Operation Chokepoint language and that stuff, so that’s some of it.

It’s more just the way Congress is functioning right now. I mean, it’s just hard for the place to get anything of any size or controversy passed. And hopefully they’ll get a continuing resolution or appropriations bill or some sort passed this week or next. I think it’s more just the general workings of the Congress that are holding things up right now.

I’m very pleased to see the Senate Banking Committee move on it and mark it up and get it so they could go to the floor of the Senate. So there is the ordinary course of business or regular order, that process could be pursued. And then also adding it to one of the bigger bills. There’s a lot of negotiation and conversation underway about the bill even as you and I speak.

MM: So you are hopeful that there’s enough time and momentum to get the job done this year?

EP: I am hopeful. I’ve been hopeful pretty much all the time. And some people are going to call me kind of naive, but the pieces are there to get it done. That’s the bottom line. And I think there are a lot of folks that want to get it done.

The problem is just that Congress has got to start functioning in a better way. And I hold out hope for that.

MM: Do you have any concerns about Speaker Johnson potentially blocking the reform given his record opposing even incremental cannabis legislation?

EP: You know, Mike is a friend of mine. And he has opinions on this. But I think, if this thing is part of a bigger package, that he knows how many members of his caucus support it. I think he probably won’t vote for it himself, but he’ll allow it to move forward.

MM: What about the prospects of rescheduling? Do you feel that’s in the cards? And could that potentially bolster momentum for the SAFER Banking Act?

EP: Rescheduling certainly will help on the tax side and on the research side, which are two very important components. And it cannot hurt movement on the banking side. Because there will, again, be recognition—this time by the federal government, which has been very slow on it—as to the legitimacy of this product of cannabis.

MM: Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) told us last week that she opposes rescheduling because she argues it could set the country back “another 50 years” on the path to federal legalization. What’s your take on that?

EP: It’s more of a political philosophy. Barbara Lee has been in politics a little longer than I have, but I’ve been in a pretty long time in the state legislature and in Congress, and you can try for the whole thing every decade or two, you get the whole thing. But most of the time, it’s a slow, steady process that really moves things forward.

And, you know, she’s been a good friend and co-sponsor of SAFE and has really worked a lot in this space, but I guess I would disagree with her. I think we’ve got to just have slow, steady progress.

It’d be nice to get one big—just deschedule it totally, which would resolve a lot of things. But we couldn’t get Obama or Trump to even think about rescheduling. They were okay with Cole memo and with the FinCEN guidance, but that’s as far as they were going to go. And they weren’t going to go further.

Biden’s gone farther than that, to his credit. Hopefully, it will end up being rescheduled. I just want to see progress here.

MM: Do you have any predictions on when the country might deschedule, or legalize, cannabis?

EP: I don’t want to make a prediction on that. But once you start the ball rolling, then it will move quicker. But we got to get the ball rolling.

MM: What about the timeline for rescheduling?

EP: I think my best guess is it’s anytime between now and mid-summer.

MM: We’re in a presidential election year. Do you think Biden should do more on marijuana policy than he’s already done—for example, by expanding pardons to include people with non-violent sales convictions?

EP: I’ve been very pleased with the steps he’s taken. There have been more than about anybody else at that level. I don’t know who the critics are, but, you know, everybody’s got to be a critic.

And I really just appreciate the fact he’s taken some pretty, in my opinion, bold steps on the pardon front [and] on a number of things that really nobody else did, or has done—maybe at the state level, but not at the federal level.

MM: Another congressional champion of marijuana reform, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), is also retiring after this year. Who’s left to take up the mantle in D.C. in your opinion?

EP: [Rep. David Joyce (R-OH)], certainly. And [Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA)]. I would put those two guys at the top. [Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY)] from a business side. [Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH)], kind of on the libertarian side. There are there are several still that I think will pick up the mantle.

MM: I know your focus is on cannabis. But you’re in Colorado, where a different drug policy issue is playing out: The state is implementing a voter-approved psychedelics legalization law. What are your thoughts on that process and the merits of the reform?

EP: The process is underway in the Department of Regulatory Agencies, which has really been working on the statute, allowing for it to develop regulations and rules. And there’s a pretty good-sized commission that is working with the Department of Regulatory Agencies to put our rules in place.

I have not been very engaged in that. I was asked to be involved in that early-on, before I had retired from the Congress, and I declined, just because I didn’t know precisely what I was going to be doing. So I’m not very close to that. I can’t give you a good answer.

MM: I’d be remiss not to ask about whether you’re entertaining any plans to seek elected office again in the future? Perhaps governor?

EP: Never say never. But I loved every second of being an elected official. I loved campaigning, I loved being in office. But there’s always a time for everything, and I think that time has passed.

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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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