A Montana sheriff is throwing his support behind a marijuana banking bill being sponsored by one of the state’s Republican U.S. senators.
In an ad being promoted by Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that because cannabis businesses are forced to operate on a largely cash-only basis due to federal prohibition, that makes them targets of crime. And with Montana voters opting to legalize adult-use marijuana, it’s imperative to enact a federal policy change.
“We’re not talking about thousands of dollars—we’re talking about millions of dollars that will flow through” cannabis companies, Slaughter said. “So there become security risk factors of how do you keep this money secure? Banks have perfected this.”
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act “completely makes our communities safer,” he said. “Senator Daines is taking a very responsible and logical step to ensure public safety, and truly what he’s doing is he’s looking out not only for the citizens but he’s looking out for me because it enhances my ability to protect the public as well.”
The Montana legislature sent a bill to implement marijuana legalization to the governor last week, months after voters approved a reform proposal at the ballot. That means more businesses in Daines’s state would stand to benefit from the federal policy change beyond the ones that currently operate under Montana’s existing medical cannabis program.
Hear from Montana's Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter on the importance of passing my bipartisan bill, the “SAFE Banking Act,” which will increase public safety & help support law enforcement in communities with legal cannabis businesses. pic.twitter.com/Z4OtgNr9tQ
— Steve Daines (@SteveDaines) May 6, 2021
The U.S. House of Representatives passed its companion version of the SAFE Banking Act last month. Advocates are optimistic that, with Democrats now in control of the Senate and the White House, it will advance through Congress and arrive on President Joe Biden’s desk.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was recently pressed on next steps for the bill, and he tempered expectations about the timing for advancing the reform.
Brown has made clear that he’s not eager to move on the SAFE Banking Act, citing reservations about certain provisions. “I think we need to look at a number of things,” he said in an interview, adding that “I will look at this seriously. We’re not ready to move on it.”
That said, Brown has been talking with other Senate leaders about a way forward for cannabis banking legislation.
One thing the chairman previously said he wanted to do was tie the cannabis banking legislation to sentencing reform. That’s fine by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the House version of the SAFE Banking Act who said he’s fine with making it a “bigger bill,” but now it seems Brown is being open to dropping that condition.
As it stands, the banking legislation has 36 cosponsors in the Senate, plus its lead sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), which means more than a third of the chamber is already formally signed on.
The vote in the House last month marked the fourth time the chamber has approved the SAFE Banking Act. Lawmakers passed it as a standalone bill in 2019 and then twice more as part of coronavirus relief legislation. At no point did the measure move forward in the Senate under Republican control last session, however.
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 last month that the plan is 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.”
This comes as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) works with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) on legislation to federally legalize cannabis. Schumer told Marijuana Moment last month that he doesn’t want to risk undermining comprehensive reform by passing more modest changes like the SAFE Banking Act first.
Meanwhile, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduce his reform bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.