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Key Congressional Chair Says Marijuana Banking Vote Will Happen Over Groups’ Objections

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Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) said marijuana banking legislation will advance to the House floor despite the fact that some major advocacy groups are calling for a delay until more comprehensive cannabis reform is first passed.

The congresswoman, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Wednesday that she appreciates the concerns outlined by groups including the ACLU and Center for American Progress, which released a letter on Tuesday stating that they were worried that passing the banking bill would undermine broader reform efforts.

The problem, she said, is that Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) hasn’t yet advanced the more wide-ranging legalization legislation those groups favor, leaving House leadership in a bind as they plan out the floor calendar.

“I know that leadership is in support of the Judiciary moving as fast as they possibly can with the bill that would deal with those civil rights issues,” she said. “We just can’t get from Judiciary exactly when they are going to do that.”

“And so what’s going to happen is Mr. Perlmutter’s bill that gives safe harbor to the banks is going to move, and whenever Judiciary gets that bill done, then it’s going to move too with the same kind of support that Mr. Perlmutter’s bill is going to get,” she said, referring to the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO).

“We’ve been working on it for six years—the banks are reticent to deal with the cannabis industry. The states are moving forward very quickly to authorize and support cannabis. All this cash is piling up. And so something has to be done to give safe harbor to the banks.”

Perlmutter’s bill was approved by Waters’s House Financial Services Committee with a strong bipartisan vote in March, and certain advocates expected the full chamber to take it up before the summer recess. While that didn’t pan out, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) informed the Democratic Caucus last week that he intends to hold a floor vote by the end of the month, his staff confirmed to Marijuana Moment. A vote has not yet been scheduled, however.

That announcement came one day after Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his panel would vote on cannabis banking reform, though he declined to provide a timeline beyond saying that he wants to get it done by the end of the year.

Hoyer’s announcement took some advocates by unpleasant surprise, as they were under the impression that something like Nadler’s Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—which addresses social equity and restorative justice—would get a vote before the House worked to pass what’s viewed as a largely industry-friendly banking bill.

“I just think it’s a matter of timing. I think the Judiciary bill, whenever it’s ready, it’s going to move as quickly as they get it ready, and it will be supported,” Waters said.

Perlmutter echoed that point in an interview with Marijuana Moment on Wednesday.

“We’ve had this passed [out of committee] for six months and certainly support all of what they’re trying to do,” he said, referring to his banking bill and the groups’ call for comprehensive reform. “But we’ve got to get these things moving.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do, and I think we’re going to be successful.”

The congressman also said he agreed with Waters about the need for Judiciary to act.

“I think they’re prepared to set a markup and move it, and I’m a cosponsor of that bill. But I want to get this one going,” he said. “This sort of breaks the ice for everything else. That’s been what we’ve talked about for a long time, and this one we’ve been working on a long time.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a close ally of the Trump administration, had sharp words for groups urging a delay on a marijuana banking vote, stating that it’s “deeply disappointing that instead of adding to the coalition of the marijuana reform movement, we continue to find new and destructive ways to divide the coalition.”

“It is unfortunate that some of the most left-wing elements of our pro-marijuana reform coalition are now making demands beyond freedom,” he said. “The way we attract folks on the libertarian and right to our movement is to embrace freedom and to show it’s both popular and helpful to people in their lives.”

But while the congressman went on to say that calls for social equity and reparations “fatally divide the movement,” he’s also a cosponsor of Nadler’s MORE Act that includes such provisions.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment that while he shares the groups’ frustration over inaction on broader reform, he’s going to support the banking bill when it comes to the floor because he has “a lot of constituents who would benefit greatly if we made reform in banking.”

“It’s just hard to look them in the eye and say I’m not going to support legislation that would help you immediately so you can help patients, help people who need it,” he said. “I’m inclined this one to support if it came up for a vote, but I understand the sentiment. I’m frustrated too.”

Jason Ortiz, vice president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that while he similarly understands where groups like ACLU are coming from, the banking bill isn’t entirely about bolstering the industry and would also serve disadvantaged communities.

“SAFE banking would open bank financing sources to cannabis companies allowing approved social equity applicants to enter the market without accepting predatory terms from private investors just to open their doors,” he said. “Many entrepreneurs of color are looking to start their businesses immediately and become the success stories that will spur further support and investment in our communities.”

“While I understand and respect the position of our allies in advocacy, current social equity applicants should not be held hostage until we can enact legislation unlikely to pass under the current administration,” he said. “Doing so would give the multi-state operators even more of a head start which will widen the ownership gap in the cannabis industry.”

But Jasmine Tyler, advocacy director of the U.S. Program for Human Rights Watch, which also signed the Tuesday letter to House leaders, took a different view.

“Civil and human rights groups, criminal justice and drug policy advocates, faith leaders, and doctors have all called for the repeal of the US’s racialized marijuana enforcement and start repairing harms done to communities for decades,” she told Marijuana Moment. “For House Leadership to prioritize a bill that would advance banking rights over human rights is a travesty.”

Asked whether she had a message for the groups requesting a delay on the banking legislation, Waters said, “I don’t, except to say that the Democratic Caucus supports ensuring that minorities and others who have been disadvantaged, who’ve been unfairly incarcerated by those marijuana laws, must be supported in ways that will help them to benefit from this new industry.”

“We’re all waiting for the bill. We’re desperately waiting for that bill,” she said. “As soon as this gets ready, we’re all going to get forcefully behind it.”

Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that Waters is “one of the most effective champions of cannabis reform, from successfully moving the SAFE Banking Act swiftly out of committee earlier this year to being one of the original lead sponsors of the MORE Act.”

“After a successful vote on the banking bill, it will be time for cannabis advocates and the industry to unite behind the MORE Act to ensure passage this Congress,” he said.

“We are encouraged by the comments from Chairwoman Waters,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said. “While both industry and advocacy groups are seeking more substantial reforms, the banking issue is something that can be addressed immediately on a bipartisan basis. This is a move that should be cheered, as it will greatly enhance public safety and protect workers in states that have made the rational choice to end prohibition and regulate the sale of cannabis.”

Aaron Houston contributed reporting from Capitol Hill for this story.

This story has been updated to include comments from Perlmutter, Gaetz, Swalwell, Cannabis Trade Federation and Human Rights Watch.

Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress To Delay Marijuana Banking Vote

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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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New Mexico Governor Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In State Of The State Address

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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) on Tuesday reiterated her commitment to legalizing marijuana in the state in 2021.

During a State of the State address, the governor again discussed cannabis reform as a means to generate needed tax revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic and create jobs.

“A crisis like the one we’ve experienced last year can be viewed as a loss or as an invitation to rethink the status quo—to be ambitious and creative and bold,” she said. “That kind of thinking includes, of course, recreational cannabis and the tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in new revenue it will bring to our state.”

Watch the governor discuss marijuana reform below:

“I have no interest in another year of thousands of New Mexicans eager to get to work and make their future in this industry being told ‘no,’ just because that’s easier than doing the hard work to get to ‘yes,'” the governor said. “When we emerge from this pandemic, we can have the same old economy, with the same old boom-and-bust future, or we can roar back to life, breaking new ground and fearlessly investing in ourselves, in the limitless potential of New Mexicans. I know which future I prefer, and we can begin building it this year.”

Also during the speech, the Lujan Grisham touted the fact that her administration has issued nearly 700 hemp business licenses over the past two years.

The governor also included cannabis legalization as part of her 2021 legislative agenda that she released earlier this month. She said in a recent interview that she’s “still really optimistic about cannabis” this session.

That optimism is bolstered by the fact that several anti-legalization Democrats, including the Senate president pro tem and the Finance Committee chair, were ousted by progressive primary challengers last year.

Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where voters approved legalization in November and where sales officially launched last week.

New Mexico shares another border with Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use. Cannabis is also expected to be legalized across the southern border in Mexico, with lawmakers facing a Supreme Court mandate to end prohibition by April 2021.

A bill to legalize cannabis for adult use passed one Senate committee last year only to be rejected in another before the end of the 30-day session. Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it later died in the Senate.

At least five pieces of marijuana legalization legislation are being prepared in the legislature this year, according to a top lawmaker, and so what the program might ultimately look like is an open question.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D) said last week that he’s been having conversations with lawmakers about what needs to be prioritized in reform legislation. That includes ensuring that it promotes social equity and protects the state’s existing medical cannabis system.

Rep. Javier Martinez (D), who has consistently sponsored cannabis reform bills in past sessions, said recently that the “biggest change you’ll see in this bill, which is one of the main points of contention last year, was the creation of a number of different funds, earmarks, tax coming in from cannabis.”

In any case, there’s economic urgency to pass and implement a legal cannabis program. And while no bills have been introduced so far this session, lawmakers expect several to be released as early as this week.

Polling indicates that voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found that a strong majority of New Mexico residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support decriminalizing drug possession more broadly.

In May, the governor signaled that she was considering actively campaigning against lawmakers who blocked her legalization bill in 2020. She also said that she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change via a ballot referendum if lawmakers can’t send a legalization bill to her desk.

Lujan Grisham isn’t the only governor who’s made a point to highlight marijuana policy in their annual address.

The governor of Nevada stressed during his State of the State speech last week that his budget proposal contains provisions to keep marijuana tax revenue flowing to schools in the state.

In his address this month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) reaffirmed his commitment to passing legislation to get a legal marijuana market up and running after voters approved a legalization referendum in November.

Also, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) discussed the need to legalize marijuana in 2021 during his State of the State address.

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) similarly talked about his intent to work with lawmakers to enact legalization during his State of the State address.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said in his annual address that “it is time to legalize medical marijuana.”

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said during his State of the Commonwealth speech that cannabis criminalization was intentionally set up “generations ago” to discriminate against people of color, and he called for legalization.

Chuck Schumer Lists Marijuana As A Priority In First Post-Election Cannabis Comments

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Police In New Jersey’s Largest City Continue Marijuana Arrests At Pre-Legalization Rate

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New Jersey voters approved a referendum to legalize marijuana in November and the state attorney general is instructing prosecutors to suspend low-level cannabis cases—but the number of marijuana-related arrests in the state’s largest city have remained largely unchanged compared to last year.

That’s according to a recent analysis of crime report data in Newark by Justin Leiby, an associate professor of accountancy at the University of Illinois.

The Newark Police Department made a total of 57 marijuana-related arrests in the first 20 days of this year, compared to 63 arrests made for the same period in 2020. But more notably, that trend is driven by a spike in arrests for simple possession alone, which grew from 39 last year to 48 this year—a 23 percent increase.

This is despite the fact that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) issued guidance in November telling prosecutors not to take on low-level cannabis cases as lawmakers work to develop regulations for a regulated market. His office also recently circulated a follow-up notice extending that policy until March 31, NJ Advance Media reported.

Meanwhile, cases of possession with the intent to distribute in Newark declined 63 percent, from 24 in the first days of January 202 to just nine in the same time period this year. That activity would not be legalized under the vote-approved referendum.

What makes these statistics all the more troubling from advocates’ perspective is that the overall arrests for all crimes in Newark were lower in the first 20 days of this year compared to 2020. The numbers of busts dropped from 631 to 347, or 45 percent. Yet police are still managing to find new cases where cannabis is involved.

It should be noted that some arrests included in Leiby’s analysis are for marijuana as well as other illicit drugs. But it remains the case that people are still being criminalized and possibly getting records for possessing cannabis when the plant was legalized via referendum and legislation is actively being considered to allow for retail sales.

It’s also the case that cannabis busts may be understated in the data, as some law enforcement descriptions of the arrests generally refer to drugs but do not specify the substances.

When asked about the cannabis arrest data, the Newark Department of Public Safety (NDPS) conducted its own analysis and found that arrests for possession alone were seven percent lower in the first 20 days of January 2021 compared to 2020 (55 versus 59 arrests).

That’s based on the department’s “preliminary numbers for possession of marijuana.” It’s unclear why there are minor discrepancies in the figures provided by Leiby, which is based on publicly available city data, and those from NDPS.

Either way, a minor single-digit reduction in cannabis arrests is probably not what most voters had in mind when they approved legalization at the ballot box in November.

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose defended the enforcement actions in a statement to Marijuana Moment.

“The state of New Jersey has laws that are currently in place that make marijuana a criminal act,” he said. “The current law does not reflect the referendum. Until the laws are changed, we have to abide by the current law. Also, most of the people arrested were given summonses. They were not a criminal matter.”

Leiby said the departments defense of the arrests “is pretty thin given that the New Jersey Attorney General has told prosecutors to stop prosecuting possession cases and delay cases in which there are other pending charges in addition to marijuana possession.”

“What’s the point of arresting people for something prosecutors have been ordered to ignore?” he said. “Note that I am not criticizing the officers doing the arrests, or really even the Newark Police Department. Officers are doing their jobs. If you tell them it’s not their job to arrest people for marijuana possession, then most if not all of them would stop the arrests.”

This analysis may come as an unwelcome surprise to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D), who is a strong proponent of cannabis reform with an eye toward racial justice.

In 2019, he and several other New Jersey mayors called for automatic expungements of low-level marijuana possession and distribution convictions if the state ultimately moved to legalize cannabis. The previous year, he criticized legalization legislation that was in the works because he felt it didn’t do enough to ensure social equity.

Baraka’s office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment for this story.

For police departments that are waiting on enabling legislation for legalization to be enacted before easing off cannabis cases, it may still be a while, as lawmakers have been stuck in a back-and-forth with the governor over a bill that they began crafting after the voter referendum was approved.

Both the legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy (D) are in favor of legalization, but there’s been disagreement over a particular provision related to penalties for underage people who violate the law. The governor wants underage possession to continue to be met with some penalty, but leading lawmakers say it is not their intent to criminalize such activity.

“clean up” bill was expected to get a floor vote this month, but it was postponed after key legislators pulled their support.

“The continued arrests of New Jersey residents, overwhelmingly people of color, for marijuana possession represents a moral and political failing of state lawmakers,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment. “If the leadership of the Garden State is truly as concerned with justice, the governor would immediately sign the depenalization bill into law and end the draconic policy of putting otherwise law-abiding citizens in handcuffs for the possession of a plant that 67 percent of the voters say should be legal.”

DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the Newark arrest numbers “represent the unfortunate reality of the delay in effectuating legalization in New Jersey.”

“It’s disheartening to see that despite the overwhelming support of New Jersey voters for ending prohibition and cannabis-related arrests, in addition to the majority of legislators supporting cannabis reform legislation that people are still being arrested for cannabis,” he said. “It makes need for action by the Gov. Murphy and the legislature all the more direr.”

Murphy pledged in a State of the State address earlier this month that “we are on the verge of passing an innovative and groundbreaking set of laws to reform our historically unjust approach to marijuana and cannabis.”

He also recently said that he remains “optimistic” that he can reach a deal with lawmakers to revise the enabling legislation they sent him last month, but Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) said that “the ball’s in his court,” referring to the governor.

New Mexico Governor And Senate Leader Say Marijuana Legalization Can Pass This Year

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Top New York Official Responds To Marijuana Advocates’ Criticism Of Governor’s Legalization Plan

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New York activists are ready for 2021 to be the year that the state finally legalizes marijuana. But one little-noticed provision of the cannabis reform proposal introduced by the governor in his budget request last week has become a major source of contention.

That said, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) second-in-command told Marijuana Moment that the policy at issue—an increase in penalties for certain cannabis-related offenses—could change as the administration and lawmakers negotiate the finer details of the proposal.

While marijuana would be legal to purchase and possess for adults 21 and older under Cuomo’s plan, the legislative text he released also contains a section that would make it a class D felony—punishable by up to 2.5 years in prison—to sell cannabis to anyone under the age of 21.

That’s a significantly more serious penalty that what’s currently on the books. As it stands, an illicit sale to an underage person is a misdemeanor.

Advocates say this proposal runs counter to the stated intent of the legalization measure, which is to end marijuana criminalization and promote social equity. Cuomo has repeatedly recognized that people of color are disproportionately targeted by police when it comes to cannabis enforcement—and there’s no reason to believe that would be any different if this policy were to go into effect.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday that the administration remains “very concerned about making sure that no one under the age of 21 is participating” in the marijuana market, and the intent of the section at issue is deterrence.

But while the provision was included in the governor’s budget plan, she also left room for further revisions, stating that “much of it is going to be negotiated with the legislature, and all these details can be resolved with their input as well.”

Eli Northrup, a New York public defender and member of the reform coalition Smart START NY, ignited a conversation over the youth penalty provision last week, arguing on Twitter that legalization “cannot mean increased criminalization.”

The text of the proposal at issue states that a “person is guilty of criminal sale of cannabis in the second degree when he knowingly and unlawfully sells…any amount of cannabis or concentrated cannabis to any person under twenty-one years of age” and that such an offense is “a class D felony.”

Melissa Moore, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “if we’re going to legalize, that needs to mean not creating new marijuana crimes.”

Cuomo has “really acknowledged the fact that the harm of marijuana criminalization has fallen disproportionately on communities of color in New York, and we need to move out of that scenario and get it right this time,” she said.

“He said too many black and brown New Yorkers have been the target of enforcement—that there’s been this exaggerated injustice of the justice system,” Moore continued. “If that’s the case, then as we’re turning the page in the playbook and moving into a legalization framework, then why on earth would you establish really harsh penalties and create new crimes, as he’s done in his proposal?”

One of the goals of taxing and regulating cannabis sales for adults is to disrupt the illicit market and prevent youth use by ensuring that marijuana is sold at licensed facilities where there are policies in place to stop underage people from accessing those products. And to that end, there should be business-level penalties for dispensaries that violate the law such as revoking a license, Moore said.

But what the governor’s language threatens to do is further criminalize individuals over marijuana even as the state moves to establish a regulated market, advocates argue. Hypothetically, a police officer would be able to arrest a 22-year-old college student for selling a joint to a 19-year-old classmate, for instance, and giving police that latitude could lead to a continuation of discriminatory enforcement.

Beyond the underage provision, advocates also have outstanding concerns the Cuomo plan’s omission of a home cultivation option for medical patients or recreational consumers.

The lieutenant governor told Marijuana Moment that while such activity would not be allowed under the budget proposal as submitted, “everything is always on the table” as the administration works with legislators to enact legalization.

“It’s certainly something that has been brought to our attention,” she said. “I can’t say that there’s a change in that at this point, but I also have to ask advocates to recognize that this is a major societal, cultural shift for a state like New York, that we view ourselves as very progressive, but much of New York State is not New York City. There are very conservative areas of our state.”

“I know these these areas are hesitant philosophically, and in order to get their buy-in and acquiescence and acceptance of what is, in their mind, really dramatic shifts in the state policy, we have to take smaller steps,” she added.

Meanwhile, advocates have also expressed frustration over the limited amount of funding for social equity grants that’s included in the governor’s proposal.

The administration says it expects the state to bring in about $350 million in marijuana tax revenue, and the plan allocates $100 million of those funds to social equity grants over the course of four years, followed by a recurring $50 million annually.

“The parameters of that [grant program] have not been established yet,” Hochul said. “This is where we want to have input from those communities to determine, does this help businesses set up retail operations in order to be in the communities legally selling marijuana? Does this create other opportunities to address job training?”

“We want to make sure that these communities also have access to the jobs and the job training,” she added. “There are many ways that we can address this, and we’re not going to say the answers—I think the answers lie in those communities themselves.”

Activists have also pointed out that Cuomo’s proposal “seeks to enhance criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana and creates new criminal penalties for growing and selling marijuana without a license.”

All that said, the governor’s budget plan—which includes legalization language for the third year in a row—is not the finished product, as Hochul pointed out. Rather, it represents a starting point for negotiations with his office and the legislature, where other reform bills have been introduced for this session.

And unlike in past sessions, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If the governor were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.

Advocates are confident that lawmakers will recognize the potential consequences of provisions they see as problematic and will work to remove or revise them as the legislature takes up the issue.

To that end, New York’s legal cannabis market could end up looking more like what’s outlined in a bill introduced by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 cosponsors at the beginning of this month. The legislation would make it so adults 21 and older would be able to purchase cannabis and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

It would also provide for automatic expungements for those with prior cannabis convictions and it also includes low- or zero-interest loans for qualifying equity applicants who wish to start marijuana businesses.

In any case, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.

The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.

Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.

The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.

Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.

Washington Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Homegrow Bill In Committee

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