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House Approves Marijuana Banking Bill In Historic Vote

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The House of Representatives passed a standalone marijuana reform bill for the first time in history on Wednesday.

The chamber advanced the legislation—which would protect banks that service the cannabis industry from being penalized by federal regulators—in a vote of 321-103.

All but one Democrat voted in favor of the bill. Republicans were virtually split, with 91 voting for the legislation and 102 opposing it.

For six years, lawmakers have been pushing for the modest reform, which is seen as necessary to increase financial transparency and mitigate risks associated with operating on a largely cash-only basis—something many marijuana businesses must do because banks currently fear federal reprisal for taking them on as clients.

Watch the House debate and vote on marijuana banking below:

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO). It cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March and was officially scheduled for a floor vote last week. The vote was held through a process known as suspension of the rules, meaning it required two-thirds of the chamber (290 members if all were present) to approve it for passage.

While the House has approved historic cannabis amendments in the past, including one this summer that would protect all state marijuana programs from federal intervention, those have had to be renewed annually. This is the first time a standalone reform bill was approved in the chamber, and the policy will be permanently codified into law if the Senate follows suit and the president signs it.

“If someone wants to oppose the legalization of marijuana, that’s their prerogative, but American voters have spoken and continue to speak and the fact is you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Prohibition is over,” Perlmutter said on the floor. “Our bill is focused solely on taking cash off the streets and making our communities safe and only congress can take these steps to provide this certainty for businesses, employees and financial institutions across the country.”

 

Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) made an impassioned case for the bill, sharing an anecdote about a security guard who worked for a cannabis shop who was killed on the job and emphasizing that the legislation would mitigate the risks of violent crime at these businesses.

“You can be agnostic on the underlying policy of whether or not cannabis should be legal for either adult recreational use or to treat seizures, but you cannot be agnostic on the need to improve safety in this area,” he said.

“This bill is not only timely, but extremely necessary,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) said. “Right now the cannabis industry needs access to safe and effective banking immediately.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, raised concerns about the legislation and suggested that the bill would provide drug cartels with access to financial services. He was one of just three lawmakers who rose in opposition to the bill, with the remaining time on the opposition end having been yielded to supporters.

The legislation hasn’t been without controversy, even among pro-reform advocates. After Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced his intent to put the bill on the floor by the end of the month, several leading advocacy groups including the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Center for American Progress wrote a letter asking leadership to delay the vote until comprehensive legalization legislation passed.

The groups has expressed concerns to Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) that approving the banking bill first could jeopardize the chances of achieving more wide-ranging reform that addressed social equity issues such as legislation introduced by Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). They said they were caught off guard when Hoyer announced the vote.

But as the vote approached, advocates and lawmakers wasted no time emphasizing the need to go further than the banking bill.

“I have long fought for criminal justice reform and deeply understand the need to fully address the historical racial and social inequities related to the criminalization of marijuana,” Waters said in a press release on Tuesday. “I support legislation that deschedules marijuana federally, requires courts to expunge convictions for marijuana-related offenses, and provides assistance such as job training and reentry services for those who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.”

She reiterated that point during debate on the floor, stating that the banking legislation “is but one important piece of what should be a comprehensive series of cannabis reform bills.”

Nadler also released a statement stating that while he would vote yes on the SAFE Banking Act, he is “committed to marking up [his legalization bill] and look[s] forward to working with reform advocates and my colleagues in this important effort going forward.”

Hoyer also weighed in on the need for broader reform in a statement on Wednesday.

“I am proud to bring this legislation to the Floor, but I believe it does not go far enough,” he said. “This must be a first step toward the decriminalization and de-scheduling of marijuana, which has led to the prosecution and incarceration of far too many of our fellow Americans for possession.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) applauded the Judiciary Committee chairman for announcing he will hold a markup of comprehensive cannabis legalization following this vote.

“Today’s vote is a significant first step, but it must not be the last. Much more action will still need to be taken by lawmakers,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “In the Senate, we demand that lawmakers in the Senate Banking Committee hold true to their commitment to move expeditiously in support of similar federal reforms. And in the House, we anticipate additional efforts to move forward and pass comprehensive reform legislation like The MORE Act—which is sponsored by the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—in order to ultimately comport federal law with the new political and cultural realities surrounding marijuana.”

Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said the “cannabis industry can no longer proceed without the same access to financial services that other legal companies are granted.”

“This decision is an indication that Congress is more willing than ever to support and take action on sensible cannabis policies. The passage of the SAFE Banking Act improves the likelihood that other cannabis legislation will advance at the federal level. It is important to recognize that the SAFE Banking Act, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president, would strengthen efforts to increase the diversity of the cannabis industry.”

“We applaud the House for approving this bipartisan solution to the cannabis banking problem, and we hope the Senate will move quickly to do the same,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said. “This vital legislation will have an immediate and positive impact, not only on the state-legal cannabis industry, but also on the many communities across the nation that have opted to embrace the regulation of cannabis.”

“Allowing lawful cannabis companies to access commercial banking services and end their reliance on cash will greatly improve public safety, increase transparency, and promote regulatory compliance,” he said.

DPA noted that it had “no objections to the substance of the SAFE Banking bill,” but that the organization and its allies However, DPA and allies “sent a letter of concern because we believe it is a mistake for the House to pass an incremental industry bill before passing a comprehensive bill that prioritizes equity and justice for the communities who have suffered the most under prohibition.”

“We are encouraged by the announcement from House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler that he intends to hold a vote on MORE and will push him in the coming weeks to commit to a date,” DPA Policy Coordinator Queen Adesuyi said. “We also thank Majority Leader Hoyer for his commitment to work with Mr. Nadler and others to advance broader marijuana reform in this Congress.”

“The marijuana banking bill cannot be the end of the road for marijuana reform this Congress,” she said.

Ahead of the vote, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) said “Only Congress can provide the certainty financial institutions need to start banking cannabis-related legitimate businesses” and that he’s “proud to support the SAFE Banking Act today to support hard-working Coloradans and their families.”

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), said in a floor speech earlier on Wednesday morning that current law is “endangering communities as well as inhibiting small businesses from growing.”

“This industry is bringing revenue to our state, creating small businesses and helping those suffer with physical illness to relieve their ailments,” she said. “The SAFE Banking Act supports this growing Oklahoma industry, our banks and works to keep Oklahomans that work in and around this industry safe.”

“Access to safe banking is a big deal for the businesses and employees in New Mexico who work in the cannabis industry. It’s why I’m a cosponsor of the SAFE Banking Act & will be voting for it today,” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) said.

 

Many have viewed the banking proposal as the first step on the pathway to ending federal cannabis prohibition, and it’s consistent with an agenda outlined by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) last year through which he suggested that committees advance incremental marijuana reforms under their respective jurisdictions, leading up to the eventual passage of a full legalization bill.

“We’re in this fix today because Congress has refused to provide the partnership and the leadership that the states demand,” Blumenauer said on the floor. ”The states aren’t waiting for us.”

“This is an important foundation, but it’s not the last step,” he said. We have important legislation that’s keyed up and ready to go. This approval today will provide momentum that we need for further reform that we all want and will make America safer and stronger.”

That said, while the vote signals that the House has a clear appetite for reform, it remains to be seen if the Republican-controlled Senate will approve the banking bill. Apparently anticipating that conservative lawmakers might not support the legislation as it passed out of committee, Perlmutter moved to add amendments last week that were designed to broaden its GOP appeal.

Those provisions include clarifying that hemp and CBD businesses would also be protected and stipulating that federal regulators couldn’t target certain industries such as firearms dealers as higher risk of fraud without valid reasoning.

That’s likely to endear Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to the SAFE Banking Act. His panel held a hearing on the issue in July, and the senator said he wants to have a vote on cannabis financial services legislation by the end of the year but also suggested at the time that it might not be a copy of Perlmutter’s bill.

The hemp-focused provisions are also intended to appeal to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who championed the crop’s federal legalization through last year’s Farm Bill but has said he doesn’t support its “illicit cousin” marijuana.

Kevin Sabet, president of the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, recognized the inevitability of the House passing the legislation hours before the vote and said Perlmutter’s amendments were key to its advancement.

“This is a gift to Big Tobacco, which has already invested billions into pot,” Sabet said in a statement following the vote. “Granting this industry access to banks will bring billions of dollars of institutional investment from the titans of addiction and vastly expand the harms we are already witnessing.”

The legislation might also face pushback from some Senate Democrats who share concerns expressed by advocacy groups that it’s important to move on comprehensive reform before tackling banking. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) each recently indicated that their votes could possibly be contingent on advancing a justice-focused legalization bill.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggested last week that she also might withhold her vote for the same reasons, but she ultimately approved it.

Tough work still lies ahead for lawmakers and advocates if they hope to enact the banking bill into law this Congress but, for the moment, there’s an air of celebration as the House made history by voting to pass a standalone cannabis reform bill for the first time.

“Having worked alongside congressional leaders to resolve the cannabis industry’s banking access issues for over six years, it’s incredibly gratifying to see this strong bipartisan showing of support in today’s House vote,” Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said. “Now, it’s time for the Senate to take swift action to approve the SAFE Banking Act so that this commonsense legislation can make its way to the President’s desk.”

“This bipartisan legislation is vital to protecting public safety, fostering transparency, and leveling the playing field for small businesses in the growing number of states with successful cannabis programs,” he said.

Update: This story has been updated to include additional commentary. 

Key Committee Chair Broke Promise On Marijuana Justice Before Banking Vote, Advocates Say

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Marijuana Bill Up For House Vote Could ‘Reverse’ Federal-State Policy Gap, Congressional Research Service Says

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A bill to federally legalize marijuana that is scheduled for a House vote next week could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government, a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report says.

In an analysis of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that was published on Wednesday, CRS described the various complications resulting from ongoing federal prohibition as more states opt to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. The research agency said the legislation could inadvertently create a new schism where federal policy would be more progressive than those of certain states.

That’s because the bill does not require states to stop criminalizing cannabis, and so jurisdictions with prohibition still on the books could continue to punish people over marijuana even as such activity is legalized at the federal level.

“If the MORE Act became law, it could create a new divide between federal and state law—essentially the reverse of the current marijuana policy gap, since federal marijuana law would become less strict than some state laws,” CRS wrote. “The MORE Act could also highlight the inconsistency between marijuana laws in different U.S. jurisdictions by repealing the uniform federal prohibition and leaving in place a patchwork of varying state laws.”

The MORE Act, whose lead sponsor is Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.

The legislation would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

“Congress may be content to allow states to experiment with varying approaches to marijuana regulation,” CRS said. “In the alternative, Congress might prefer a more uniform approach, whether that approach is to criminalize or decriminalize marijuana, or something in between. However, while Congress can pass legislation creating a uniform federal policy, there are limits to its ability to affect state law.”

The agency said that while lawmakers lack the “constitutional authority to alter state criminal law,” they could “preempt state law through Commerce Clause legislation” or “encourage states to change their laws through the use of the spending power.”

To that end, while the MORE Act does not create a federal regulatory structure for cannabis or force states to change their own laws, it does include provisions that incentivize the adoption certain local reform policies. For example, it offers federal funding for “eligible states” that take steps to expunge prior cannabis convictions and stop penalizing people on parole for marijuana-related offenses.

“Congress could also invoke its spending power to encourage states to regulate marijuana more stringently, and has previously used the spending power to shape drug policy in targeted ways,” CRS said.

These and other considerations will likely be the subject of significant debate when the House takes up the MORE Act next week.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced on Friday that the bill will be taken on the floor as soon as Wednesday.

He had previously said this summer that the chamber would vote on the legislation in September, but that plan was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing cannabis reform before passing another coronavirus relief package.

The bill cleared Nadler’s more than a year ago and has been awaiting floor action since.

Even if the far-reaching reform does pass in the Democratic-controlled chamber, as it’s expected to with some bipartisan support, it remains unlikely that the Senate will follow suit, at least during this Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

Even so, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, but she’s indicated she will not necessarily proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.

Given Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

CRS, in its new report, also discussed broader drug policy reform efforts taking place at the state level and locally, such as Oregon’s recent vote to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs. The agency noted moves to decriminalize psychedelics specifically in Washington, D.C., too.

These “current trends suggest that there may be a broader movement toward decriminalizing controlled substances,” CRS said. “Comprehensively addressing such changes is outside the scope of the MORE Act, but Congress may wish to monitor developments in this area when considering future legislation.”

Mexico’s President Says Legal Marijuana Is About Freedom, As Legislation Advances In Congress

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Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Will Get A Congressional Vote Next Week, Leader Announces

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A bill to federally legalize marijuana will receive a full floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives next week, a top Democratic leader in the chamber announced on Friday.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said the chamber will take up the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act some time between Wednesday and Friday. The floor schedule announcement comes weeks after the leader first confirmed that the House would advance the proposal before the year’s end.

Early in the week, the bill is first expected to go before the House Rules Committee, which prepares legislation for floor action and decides which amendments can be made in order for consideration by the full body.

Hoyer previously said that the chamber would vote on the legislation in September, but that plan was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing cannabis reform before passing another coronavirus relief package. Several moderates ended up losing their reelection races this month on the same dat that voters in several red states approved legalization measures, however, raising questions about their strategic thinking on the politics of marijuana.

“I’ve been working on this issue longer than any politician in America and can confidently say that the MORE Act is the most comprehensive federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said in a press release. “Our vote to pass it next week will come after people in five very different states reaffirmed the strong bipartisan support to reform the failed cannabis prohibition. National support for federal cannabis legalization is at an all-time high and almost 99 percent of Americans will soon live in states with some form of legal cannabis.”

“Congress must capitalize on this momentum and do our part to end the failed policy of prohibition that has resulted in a long and shameful period of selective enforcement against communities of color,” he said.

The House approving the bill during the presidential transition could also raise the pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to embrace legalization—a policy he’s declined to adopt despite supermajority support among Democratic voters.

As currently written, the MORE Act, whose lead sponsor is Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.

The legislation would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

All of those provisions are subject to change through amendments over the coming week.

“This floor vote represents the first congressional roll call ever on the question of ending federal marijuana criminalization,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “By advancing the MORE Act, the House of Representatives sends an unmistakable signal that America is ready to close the book marijuana prohibition and end the senseless oppression and fear that this failed policy wreaks on otherwise law-abiding citizens.”

“Americans are ready to responsibly legalize and regulate marijuana, and this vote shows some lawmakers are finally listening,” he said.

The bill cleared Nadler’s more than a year ago and has been awaiting floor action since.

Even if the far-reaching reform does pass in the Democratic-controlled chamber, as it’s expected to with some bipartisan support, it remains unlikely that the Senate will follow suit, at least during this Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

Even so, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, but she’s indicated she will not necessarily proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.

Given Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States

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Two-Track Effort To Allow Psychedelic Mushrooms In Washington State Launches Amid Broader Drug Decrim Push

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Drug reform advocates won big in Oregon this year, with separate ballot measures to decriminalize possession of all drugs and legalize psychedelic mushrooms for therapeutic use passing on Election Day. Now organizers are setting their sights on similar reforms next door in Washington State with two newly announced efforts.

One seeks to utilize existing administrative mechanisms to expand access to psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use by patients in end-of-life care. The other, a proposed ballot initiative on track for 2022, would put Washington on par with Oregon, decriminalizing small-scale possession of all drugs and legalizing mushrooms for broader therapeutic use.

These efforts come after advocates already announced a separate plan to lobby lawmakers to pass a bill decriminalizing all drugs in 2021.

A healthcare professional is behind the first new psilocybin push via the administrative route. Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, a Seattle physician who specializes in end-of-life care, is hoping to win permission from state and federal regulators to cultivate psilocybin mushrooms and use them to treat patients.

“We know that it’s a naturally occurring substance that we can cultivate safely, we know how to dose it, and there’s really good reason to believe it can help,” Aggarwal said of psilocybin, the main active ingredient in entheogenic mushrooms.

Aggarwal and his clinic, the Advanced Integrative Medical Science Institute, hope to secure legal access to psilocybin for end-of-life patients under state and federal laws that allow patients with terminal diseases to try investigational medications that haven’t been generally approved.

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the federal “Right to Try Act,” which would give certain patients access to drugs that have not yet been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for broad use. Psilocybin, along with marijuana and MDMA, appears to fit the criteria for the law, including having completed a phase 1 clinical trial and being under active development. Washington State adopted a similar law in 2017.

In September, Aggarwal applied to the Washington State Department of Health’s Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission for a license to grow psilocybin mushrooms with the eventual goal of using them to treat patients in palliative care. The state commission has yet to review the application, Kaiser Health News reported this week.

Aggarwal would also need to obtain approval from the federal government, namely the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “We’re still working on formulating an application to them,” he told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview, adding that his team is consulting with lawyers for guidance.

As for a timeline on the applications? “I wish I could tell you,” Aggarwal said. “There’s really no way to know. This has never been tried before that we’re aware of.”

Meanwhile, more sweeping statewide reform could come in the form of a 2022 ballot question. A top backer of both of Oregon’s successful drug-reform initiatives recently said Washington is the next state on his list.

David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s soap company, has long bankrolled drug reform campaigns. In Oregon last election, he gave $3.4 million to Measure 109, which legalized psilocybin for therapeutic use, and $1 million to Measure 110, which decriminalized all drugs.

Bronner recently told the Daily Beast that he’d like to see Washington voters pass both reforms—medical psilocybin and broader drug decriminalization—in a single initiative on the state’s 2022 ballot.

“It’s moving faster than I would’ve thought,” he said. “I would not have thought we’d be ready for the kind of reforms we’re seeing, and it’s gratifying. I just think we can go further in 2022 and 2024.”

Bronner added that he hopes to team up with other drug-reform funders, such as Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros, to maximize their policy impact. “If we all line up as one grand coalition, we can run twice as many ballot measures in a given cycle,” he told the Daily Beast. “We’re working hard on figuring that out.”

In the meantime, another group of activists in the state are continuing their push for drug decriminalization. Treatment First Washington hopes to see lawmakers take up a proposed decriminalization measure next year that closely resembles Oregon’s Measure 110.

The group originally planned to qualify the Washington measure for the 2020 election, but organizers stopped collecting signatures in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with Oregon’s recently passed decriminalization measure, Treatment First Washington’s proposal would remove criminal penalties for drug possession, expand treatment for substance misuse and pay for that treatment with tax revenue from the state’s legal cannabis industry.

Aggarwal, the Seattle doctor applying to cultivate mushrooms, said that any of the reform efforts would likely help expand access for his patients.

“This effort would definitely be a lot easier if we had decriminalization,” he said, explaining that treatment could work similarly to how the clinic currently deals with marijuana.

“We kind of do this with cannabis in our office already,” he said. “People can do cannabis-assisted therapy sessions where they bring their own, and there’s a vaporizer and they can have a session with a decriminalized drug.”

Aggarwal said he filed the application because dying patients can’t wait for broader reform through the legislature or the ballot box.

“We just don’t have time to wait for that for patients who are sick now,” he said. “These are patients that really have exhausted legally available psychedelic-assisted therapy, which is ketamine, and I think there’s still a need for more… They need help now and not in 2022.”

Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States

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