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.
#SAFEBanking is a big deal for the thousands of employees, biz & communities who have been forced to deal in piles of cash. Only Congress can provide the certainty financial institutions need to start banking cannabis-related legitimate businesses. It's time to pass #SAFEBanking. https://t.co/ldZRxiMHsm
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) September 25, 2019
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.”
Americans across the country are voting to approve some level of marijuana use & we need these marijuana businesses & employees to have access to checking accounts, lines of credit & more. #SAFEBanking will improve transparency & reduce the public safety risk in our communities.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) September 25, 2019
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.
The #MOREAct would legalize #marijuana, require resentencing & expungement for old marijuana convictions, & invest money in communities most affected by the failed War on Drugs. This is real reform. I’m pleased @HouseJudiciary will be considering this bill. #LegalizeIt https://t.co/szWiRdX2yz
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) September 25, 2019
“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.”
Only Congress can provide the certainty financial institutions need to start banking cannabis-related legitimate businesses.
I'm proud to support the #SAFEBanking Act today to support hard-working Coloradans and their families.
— Rep. Joe Neguse (@RepJoeNeguse) September 25, 2019
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.
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 #SafeBankingAct & will be voting for it today. https://t.co/zoiKwvUkG0
— Rep. Deb Haaland (@RepDebHaaland) September 25, 2019
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.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) September 25, 2019
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.
It’s clear #SAFEBankingAct will pass House mainly bc of support for issues added to the bill at the last minute— like repeal of Operation Chokepoint, an initiative by Obama’s DOJ to investigate banks who do business w firearms dealers
Moms and Dads are watching #PotVapingCrisis
— Kevin Sabet (@KevinSabet) September 25, 2019
“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.”
Full statement available here: https://t.co/cA1VG2wHMm
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) September 25, 2019
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.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.