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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

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

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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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Democrats Remove Marijuana Research Bill From House Floor Schedule After Briefly Listing Possible Vote

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On Friday afternoon, a bipartisan bill to promote marijuana research was included in a list of legislation that was “scheduled for consideration” on the House floor next week. But hours later, it was removed.

“It was just an error,” a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told Marijuana Moment. “It’s not scheduled for next week.”

This is the second cannabis-related scheduling complication to occur within the House this month. The chamber’s leadership had previously announced plans to hold a vote on a comprehensive federal cannabis legalization bill this week, but that action was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democratic members. 

The Medical Marijuana Research Act that was mistakenly included in the list of bills to be taken up next week cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month in a voice vote. The crux of the proposal is to streamline studies, and one notable mechanism through which it would do that is to let researchers obtain cannabis from dispensaries in legal states—a significant departure from current policy that restricts scientists to using marijuana grown under federal authorization.

That could resolve an issue identified by researchers and lawmakers, who complain that marijuana produced at the only existing authorized facility at the University of Mississippi is difficult to access and is chemically closer to hemp than cannabis available on the commercial market.

It’s not clear whether that provision will be a sticking point for members who oppose broader marijuana reform if it does eventually get a floor vote. As initially listed on the House’s weekly calendar, the bill would have been considered under a process known as suspension of the rules, under which it could advance on an expedited basis with no amendments allowed and which requires at least a two-thirds majority to pass.

The legislation would also establish a simplified registration process for researchers interested in studying cannabis, in part by reducing approval wait times, minimizing costly security requirements and eliminating additional layers of protocol review.

As it was originally drafted, the bill would have made it so researchers could access marijuana from additional federally approved private manufacturers. But an amendment in the nature of a substitute was approved in committee, also via a voice vote, that included the component expanding access to state-legal dispensaries.

In July, the House approved separate legislation that also called for letting researchers study marijuana purchased from businesses in state-legal markets instead of only letting them use government-grown cannabis. The intent of that provision, tucked into a 2,000-plus-page infrastructure bill, was to allow the interstate distribution of such products even to scientists in jurisdictions that have not yet legalized marijuana.

The revised research-focused proposal that the House is poised take up next week also stipulates that nothing about the legislation precludes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary from enforcing Food and Drug Administration restrictions on the method of administration of marijuana, the dosage or number of patients involved in approved studies.

The bill would also make it so there would be no limit on the number of entities that can be registered to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. Additionally, it would require HHS to submit a report to Congress within five years after enactment to overview the results of federal cannabis studies and recommend whether they warrant marijuana’s rescheduling under federal law.

While the floor announcement would have represented a positive development for advocates, there’s still frustration over the postponement of a vote on the federal descheduling bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. Certain centrist Democrats reportedly convinced leadership to delay the action, citing concerns about the optics of advancing cannabis reform without first passing another round of coronavirus relief.

The research legislation is being led by the unlikely duo of pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD).

During an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing in January—which was requested by four GOP lawmakers last year—federal health and drug officials, including from DEA, acknowledged that the current supply of cannabis for research purposes is inadequate and that scientists should be able to access a wider range of marijuana products.

DEA said four years ago that it would be taking steps to expand the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers, but it has not yet acted on applications.

Last year, scientists sued the agency, alleging that it had deliberately delayed approving additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes despite its earlier pledge.

A court mandated that DEA take steps to make good on its promise, and that case was dropped after DEA provided a status update.

In March, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

The scientists behind the original case filed another suit against DEA, claiming that the agency used a “secret” document to justify its delay of approving manufacturer applications.

That was born out when the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel document was released in April as part of a settlement in the case, revealing, among other things, that the agency feels that its current licensing structure for cannabis cultivation has been in violation of international treaties for decades.

But the committee-approved bill states that international treaty obligations “shall not be construed to prohibit, or impose additional restrictions upon, research involving marijuana, or the manufacture, distribution, or dispensing of marijuana, that is conducted in accordance with the Controlled Substances Act, this Act, and the amendments made by this Act.”

The legislation has drawn support from a broad array of organizations on both sides of the legalization debate, including Smart Approaches to Marijuana, American Psychological Association, Marijuana Policy Project and American Academy of Neurology.

This story has been updated to reflect that the cannabis research bill will not receive a floor vote next week and was mistakenly included in the House schedule, seemingly due to a clerical error.

The Marijuana Election Has Already Started: Here’s What You Need To Know About Early Voting And Registration Deadlines

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Mexican Cabinet Member Accepts Gifted Marijuana Plant As Lawmakers Prepare Legalization Vote

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Marijuana is becoming something of a staple in the Mexican Congress, and not just when it comes to reform bills being considered. Actual cannabis products are regularly being exchanged, displayed and planted in and around legislative chambers as lawmakers work to legalize the plant.

On Wednesday, a top administration official was gifted a marijuana plant by senator, and she said she’d be making it a part of her personal garden.

Interior Ministry Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero said that by the time she plants the cannabis gift from Sen. Emilio Álvarez Icaza, she’ll be “fervently hoping that the law [to legalize cannabis] is already passed,” referring to reform legislation that the legislature has been working on the past couple years.

“The medicinal use of marijuana has been a revelation for the world, and second because hemp is industrially interesting from clothes, energy, paper, construction materials, stronger than any other construction material,” she said, according to a translation. “In other words, there is enormous potential with hemp and also the recreational use of marijuana, respecting the principle of the autonomy of the will and the free development of the person.”

Last year, a different lawmaker gave the Sánchez Cordero a marijuana joint on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies.

“I bring you a gift as a reminder of that proposal you made at the beginning, because that goes to be the way to help us build peace. Let’s regulate the use of drugs,” Deputy Ana Lucía Riojas Martínez said at the time.

Cannabis made another appearance in the legislature last month, when Sen. Jesusa Rodríguez of the ruling Morena party decorated her desk with a marijuana plant.

Drug policy reform advocates have also been cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants in front of the Senate, putting pressure on legislators to make good on their pledge to advance legalization.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently said that marijuana reform legislation will advance in the new session.

A legalization bill was approved by several committees earlier this year, but the reform effort has been stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The nation’s Supreme Court—which deemed the country’s prohibition on personal possession and cultivation unconstitutional in 2018—is currently giving lawmakers until December 15 to enact the policy change.

The legalization bill that’s set to advance this coming session was revised during a joint meeting of the Justice, Health, Legislative Studies and Public Safety Committees in March.

The proposal would allow adults 18 and older to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use. Individuals could grow up to 20 registered plants as long as the total yield doesn’t exceed 480 grams per year. Medical patients could apply to cultivate more than 20 plants, however.

Personal possession would be capped at 28 grams, but possession of up to 200 grams would be decriminalized.

The Mexican Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis, a decentralized body established under the measure, would be established and responsible for regulating the market and issuing licenses for marijuana businesses.

The bill proposes a 12 percent tax on cannabis sales, with some revenue going toward a substance misuse treatment fund.

Public consumption would be permissible, except in spaces designated as 100 percent smoke-free. Hemp and CBD would be exempt from regulations that apply to THC products.

An earlier version of the legislation was approved by Senate committees last year ahead of the court’s previous October deadline.

Sen. Julio Ramón Menchaca Salazar, also of the Morena party, said in April that while legislators must still resolve certain disagreements about the legislation, legalizing cannabis could fill treasury coffers at a time when the economy is recovering from the pandemic.

While advocates are eager to enact reform, they’ve also raised several concerns with the legislation as drafted, particularly as it relates to restorative justice.

Zara Snapp, a legalization activist with the Instituto RIA and the coalition #RegulacionPorLaPaz, told Marijuana Moment on Friday that while it’s “concerning” that committees haven’t yet scheduled time to take the legalization bill back up, she’s had conversations with senators from all political parties and “they all tell me this will happen this legislative session.”

“We’re going to take them at their word that they will be approving this in the next two to three months,” she said.

Vermont Democratic Party Platform Calls For Decriminalizing Drugs And Legalizing Marijuana Sales

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Vermont Democratic Party Platform Calls For Decriminalizing Drugs And Legalizing Marijuana Sales

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The Vermont Democratic Party formally adopted a platform this month that calls for bold drug policy reforms, including legalizing marijuana sales, promoting equity in the cannabis industry and decriminalizing possession of all currently illicit substances.

During a virtual meeting on September 12, about 100 local delegates from across the state approved the platform. Beside marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization, the party further called for a process to automate expungements and reassess sentencing guidelines more broadly.

All this came together as legislators worked to send the governor a cannabis tax-and-regulate bill and separate legislation that would provide automatic record clearing for prior marijuana convictions.

The party released the final language of its positions this week. Here’s how the drug policy-related planks were written:

-Adopt an approach to the possession and misuse of drugs that is motivated solely by the principles of public health and harm reduction, rather than punishing undesirable private behavior, while avoiding the criminal justice system altogether.

-Ensure that cannabis is appropriately regulated and taxed in a manner that rights the historic wrongs of the War on Drugs and that recognizes the disproportionate impact prohibition has had on minority communities.

-Expand access to expungement, including by enacting a system to automatically expunge criminal records, so that those who have repaid their debt to society can make a fresh start.

-Re-examine existing prison sentences in light of our current knowledge of how systemic bias has led to disparate outcomes based on race and socio-economic status, and give State’s Attorneys greater authority to take a second look at and reduce existing sentences where these biases are found, and otherwise are in the interest in justice.

“This platform reflects a continuing shift in attitudes among Vermont Democrats when it comes to drug policy,” Dave Silberman, a pro bono attorney and reform advocate who led the drafting of the platform’s criminal justice provisions, told Marijuana Moment. “As a party, we’ve fully recognized that the War on Drugs has completely failed to reduce problematic drug use, and in fact fuels the racial biases we see in policing today, all without contributing to public safety.”

“Even a few years ago, these statements would have been controversial, but today they are the consensus view,” Silberman, who is running for the elected office of high bailiff in Addison County, said. “I’m excited to work with Democratic elected officials in 2021 and beyond to turn these principles into law and policy.”

The Vermont Republican Party didn’t respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for reaction to Democrats’ drug policy positions by press time.

Legalizing marijuana sales in Vermont has been a priority for activists since the governor signed legislation in 2018 allowing adults to possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to two plants.

After both chambers advanced the marijuana commerce bill earlier this session, it was sent to a bicameral conference committee to resolve differences. Those negotiations resulted in a finalized bill this month, which the House and Senate then approved, putting it on its way to the governor’s desk.

While Scott hasn’t said whether he will put his signature on S. 54, he noted last week that he’s been impressed with how the legislative process unfolded for the measure and would take that into account.

The expungements bill that also cleared the legislature this month would allow records to be cleared systematically and also people to possess and grow more cannabis without the threat of jail time than is currently allowed.

Outside Vermont, the Oregon Democratic Party this week formally endorsed statewide initiatives to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes and decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.

Read the Vermont Democratic Party’s platform below: 

VDP 2020 Platform by Marijuana Moment

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