The House approved a coronavirus relief package on Friday that includes provisions that would protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The vote was 208 to 199.
Advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers have been pushing for some form of cannabis reform to be inserted into COVID-19 legislation. The inclusion of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which was previously passed by the House as a standalone bill last year, represents a significant victory to that end. That said, it is unclear how the issue will fare in the Senate, whether as part of the COVID-19 response or otherwise.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the legislation that is being included in the new broad package, made the case in committee and on the floor this week that while some Republican lawmakers might argue that the cannabis language doesn’t belong in a coronavirus bill, the measure would actually protect public health by reducing the threat of spreading the virus through cash transactions.
“I’m encouraged that the House recognizes the urgency of this issue and has taken this strong and necessary position,” Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) said in a press release.
“Continuing to exclude the cannabis industry from accessing basic and essential financial services during this time will result in more harm than good,” he said. “Not only will it make the country’s economic recovery that much harder, but the provisions intended to help minority-owned businesses would continue to be absent within the industry.”
Several GOP members protested the banking legislation all the way up until Friday’s vote, arguing that it is not germane and is an example of irrelevant items included in a Democratic “wish list.” Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY) specifically took issue with a requirement in the SAFE Banking Act to study diversity in the marijuana industry—though he’s declined to criticize the main point of the bill, which is banking access for the cannabis sector.
The Democrats’ supposed coronavirus bill includes taxpayer-funded studies to measure “diversity and inclusion” in the cannabis industry. It’s a parade of absurdities that can hardly be taken seriously. pic.twitter.com/2aCyOEnnAZ
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) May 15, 2020
This week Speaker Pelosi published an 1,800-page catalog of left-wing oddities & called it a coronavirus relief bill. It proposes tax hikes on small business, giveaways to blue-state millionaires, checks for illegal immigrants, and diversity detectives for the cannabis industry. pic.twitter.com/deEIYPEMSg
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) May 15, 2020
Here’s how other GOP committees and legislators are reacting:
This bill is a joke.
Instead of writing a bill that provides real relief Pelosi gave us a liberal wishlist that:
➡️ Uses the word cannabis more than jobs or hire
➡️ Gives tax breaks for wealthy blue-state donors
➡️ Changes election law
— Ways and Means GOP (@WaysandMeansGOP) May 15, 2020
Today Pelosi brings to the floor her wishlist that is wildly out of touch with the needs of the American people.
For example, the word cannabis is mentioned 68 times. That’s more than the word job or hire in a package that’s being sold as an economy recovery plan. pic.twitter.com/cX2oTHvGKR
— Ways and Means GOP (@WaysandMeansGOP) May 15, 2020
They are focused on ensuring illegal immigrants get a $1,200 check from the federal government and ensuring cannabis industry bankers meet certain diversity goals.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) May 16, 2020
One more time for @HouseDemocrats in the back: This bill will not pass the Senate.
It shouldn’t pass. Look what’s in it:
– Taxpayer $$ for illegal immigrants
– Tells states how to handle their elections
– 68 mentions of “cannabis”
What does any of that have to do with #COVID19?
— Senator John Thune (@SenJohnThune) May 15, 2020
"Somehow cannabis is mentioned 68 times. What in the world cannabis has to do with this crisis, I don't know."
— Howard Mortman (@HowardMortman) May 15, 2020
LaMalfa:Bill includes "Safe Banking Act which if enacted would financially green light marijuana industry..Marijuana is still illegal drug under fed schedule 1,yet this bill attempt to legitimize this criminal enterprise.What's next?Safe banking for whale oil or shark fin sales?"
— Craig Caplan (@CraigCaplan) May 15, 2020
Democrats are continuing to take advantage of this crisis to move unrelated policies. Did you know: In Speaker Pelosi's bill, the word cannabis appears more times than the word job.
An emergency is no time to play political games.
— Financial Services GOP (@FinancialCmte) May 15, 2020
Given the seemingly coordinated messaging from GOP members of both chambers in opposition to the banking language, it seems likely that the provisions will face challenges when the Republican-controlled Senate receives the bill.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said in a floor speech that the limited number of individuals involved in crafting the COVID-19 legislation is “why it ended up talking about cannabis more than it ever mentioned a job.”
“Yes, this bill is up in smoke and it should end that way,” he said. “But we should get back to what the American people expect of us.”
“The House Democrats, who are not here but who, remarkably, from afar have evidently put together this fantasy wish list of things they would like to see accomplished—if you can imagine an 1,815-page bill, they mention ‘cannabis’ way more times than they mention ‘jobs,'” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said on the Senate floor.
In Pelosi's "Heroes Act" the word cannabis is mentioned more than jobs. This isn't a bill written to help the American people. It's a bill written for special interest groups and dedicated to the Speaker's personal far-left priorities. @realDonaldTrump is right to veto this bill.
— Rep. Doug Lamborn (@RepDLamborn) May 15, 2020
Today we will vote on a bill that @SpeakerPelosi claims helps American workers. Instead, the bill uses the word "cannabis" more times than the word "jobs". Just another example of how Democrats prioritize their liberal policies over helping American workers.
— U.S. Representative Bill Flores (@RepBillFlores) May 15, 2020
GOP @RepBuddyCarter: "This package mentions 'cannabis' more than it mentions 'jobs!'"
— Ben Siegel (@benyc) May 15, 2020
Fact: Cannabis is mentioned on the bill more times than jobs!
— RepRossSpano (@RepRossSpano) May 15, 2020
Nancy Pelosi's liberal wishlist uses the word "cannabis" more than "jobs" and "hire." Legitimate question: Was the staff responsible for this legislation high when they wrote it? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/8e9k1mN6FV
— Rep. Mike Johnson (@RepMikeJohnson) May 15, 2020
I voted against this bill because it’s an irresponsible non-starter, filled with anti-work provisions, incentives for illegal immigrants, wholesale election law changes, expansion of marijuana businesses' banking abilities, and comes with a 3 trillion dollar price tag.
— U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (@boblatta) May 16, 2020
Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA), on the other hand, described the marijuana banking provision as “smart-capitalism.”
If my colleagues find the inclusion of smart-capitalism provisions like giving cannabis companies access to banking reprehensible — they can bring their concerns to the bargaining table instead of walking away. (4/x)
— Rep. Harley Rouda (@RepHarley) May 15, 2020
A summary of the legislation says the banking section would “allow cannabis-related legitimate businesses, that in many states have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential services, along with their service providers, to access banking services and products, as well as insurance.”
“This section also requires reports to Congress on access to financial services and barriers to marketplace entry for potential and existing minority-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses,” it continues.
The House passed the SAFE Banking Act last year and it’s since sat in limbo in the Senate Banking Committee. Negotiations over the bill have been ongoing, with the Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) recommending a series of changes, but Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) saying a deal was “close.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies at MPP, said that given “the public health and public safety benefits of this specific change in policy, the Senate has good reason to pass this language into law.”
“This is a change in policy that the banks are asking for even more than the cannabis companies,” he said. “We urge the Senate Banking Committee to adopt the SAFE Banking provisions to ensure financial institutions can provide basic banking services to businesses that are compliant with state law.”
Advocates have also been asking lawmakers to add language extending access to federal Small Business Administration (SBA) relief programs to cannabis businesses in coronavirus legislation. That didn’t pan out in this package, however.
Currently, SBA specifically prevents marijuana businesses from receiving COVID-related relief due to federal prohibition. That also includes companies that work indirectly with the industry, such as accounting and legal firms.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill last month that would fix that, calling for SBA access for cannabis businesses and ancillary companies. That came after he led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of the House urging leadership to include the policy change in future coronavirus-related bills.
Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) made a similar request to Senate leaders in a separate letter.
The new coronavirus bill does include a section that could help people with prior convictions to become eligible for SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
It stipulates that the agency’s lending service “shall include a statement that an applicant is not ineligible for assistance under this paragraph solely because of the applicant’s involvement in the criminal justice system.’’
That provision seems responsive to a request that Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Joyce Beatty (D-OH) made in a letter to leadership last month. The pair stressed that the current policy renders even those with cannabis possession convictions ineligible for PPP.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.