The first marijuana hearing of the 116th Congress kicked off on Wednesday. A House financial subcommittee asked witnesses about how banking access can improve public safety, how operating on a cash-only basis inhibits transparency and, at one point, whether the cash at these businesses smells like cannabis.
“The absence of a broader, permanent regulatory framework continues to keep nearly all banks out of this growing industry despite a clear interest,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), chair of the subcommittee, said at the start of the session. “Today’s hearing will allow us to begin consideration of draft legislation to bring transparency, accountability and address a major driver of violent crime in this space.”
Presiding over the Consumer Protection and Financial Services Subcommittee hearing on "Challenges and Solutions: Access to Banking Services for Cannabis-Related Businesses" pic.twitter.com/TC0soeE2RM
— Rep. Gregory Meeks (@RepGregoryMeeks) February 13, 2019
Prior to the hearing, a bipartisan group of lawmakers circulated a draft bill that would shield banks from being penalized by federal financial regulators and affirm that profits from cannabis-related transactions “shall not be considered as proceeds from an unlawful activity.”
“Today, after six years, we finally have a hearing, and it comes too late,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA), who is a cosponsor of the the legislation, said in his opening remarks. “Too late to prevent dozens of armed robberies in my home state of Washington. Too late for Travis Mason… a 24-year-old Marine veteran in Aurora, Colorado, who reported for work as a security guard and Green Heart Dispensary on June 18, 2016, and was shot dead that night by an armed robber.”
“We have the power in this committee to prevent murders and armed robberies,” he said, referring to the fact that preventing marijuana businesses from accessing banks means that they must operate on an all-cash basis. “We must use it and we must use it now because we are already late.”
We've needed banking access for cannabis businesses for the past six years. It is unacceptable for Congress to allow such a critical public safety threat to go unaddressed. We're late, and it's past time to pass the #SAFEBanking Act. pic.twitter.com/Lzcm85YgyV
— Denny Heck (@RepDennyHeck) February 13, 2019
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), another bill cosponsor, said that if lawmakers oppose legalization, “that’s their business.”
“But the American voters have spoken, and continue to speak, and the fact is you can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “Prohibition is over.”
Today’s hearing is a big deal for the thousands of employees, businesses and communities who have been put at risk b/c they have been forced to deal in piles of cash. We need #SAFEBanking to get cash off the streets & make our communities safer. https://t.co/fEmJbQc2X8
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) February 13, 2019
I appreciate the Subcommittee allowing me to testify during the hearing. This comes 6 years after @RepDennyHeck & I first introduced our #SAFEBanking legislation. I also appreciate @RepSteveStivers & @WarrenDavidson bipartisan support of solving the cannabis banking problem. https://t.co/6ChK0qVc87
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) February 13, 2019
Witnesses at the hearing included California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) Executive Director Major Neill Franklin, banking representatives, a D.C.-based medical marijuana dispensary owner and the chair of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).
“The Committee is undoubtedly aware that cannabis businesses are not alone in struggling to gain access to banking—even though theirs is the most difficult situation. Any business that handles significant amounts of currency is also subject to greater scrutiny by the financial services industry for all of the reasons that are well understood by members of this committee,” Ma said in written testimony.
“W/o a bank account, legal #marijuana businesses must operate on a cash basis, making them targets for robberies, supporters of the legislation testified. In CA, cannabis dispensaries have dropped off duffel bags & suitcases full of cash to pay their taxes…" @fionama @FSCDems
— CA State Treasurer (@CalTreasurer) February 13, 2019
She said “an effective safe harbor mechanism in federal law promotes the safety of the public, improves the efficiency of collecting the taxes and fees we use to regulate the industry, and does not allow the banks and credit unions to totally abdicate their responsibilities to know their customers and avoid illicit money laundering.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said he was glad to see Ma testify. Legal marijuana “is here to stay & entrepreneurs & consumers deserve safe banking options,” he wrote on Twitter.
Glad to see @CalTreasurer @fionama as one of the witnesses in today's @FSCDems hearing on access to banking services for cannabis-related businesses. Legal #cannabis is here to stay & entrepreneurs & consumers deserve safe banking options. Watch LIVE here: https://t.co/KfPk9zVpaE
— Rep. Ted Lieu (@RepTedLieu) February 13, 2019
Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) echoed that point and said that Nevada “is proof that the era of marijuana prohibition is over” and that it’s “time for the federal government to start acting like it.”
The first ever Congressional hearing on marijuana banking is taking place right now. Nevada is proof that the era of marijuana prohibition is over. It's time for the federal government to start acting like it.
— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) February 13, 2019
Franklin, a retired Maryland police officer, said that current laws “encourage tax fraud, add expensive monitoring and bookkeeping expenses and—most importantly—leave legitimate businesses vulnerable to theft, robbery and the violence that accompany those crimes.”
“I’m not one for fear mongering—what I testify to here today is rooted in experience and research,” he said. “Any police officer who has worked the street, or investigated enough robberies, will testify to the same regarding any business forced to handle large amounts of cash.”
He told members of the subcommittee that the “safety of thousands of employees, business owners, security personnel, police officers and community members is in your hands.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), chair of the full House Financial Services Committee, thanked Meeks for making this the first subcommittee hearing of the session and called the issue “so important.”
“So many people have been waiting on it,” Waters said before the subcommittee broke for a recess. “I appreciate it so much.”
The hearing was well-attended, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) highlighted in a tweet showing a line of people holding places in line for lobbyists and “those who can afford it pay people to hold their spot.”
Apparently this is a normal practice, and people don’t bat an eye.
The first few people in line are guaranteed a seat in a given hearing.
This was the hearing for marijuana banking laws. Lobbyists and those who can afford it pay people to hold their spot so they get in 1st.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) February 13, 2019
During the hearing, Ocasio-Cortez asked whether providing banking access to the marijuana industry would be “compounding the racial wealth gap right now,” giving an advantage to mostly white, wealthy business owners over individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.
Corey Barnette, the DC marijuana business owner, said he agreed that the industry as it exists today is not reflective of society as a whole, but he also argued that banking access can provide even smaller prospective business owners with means “within reach” to start a cannabis company.
During one of the lighter moments in the hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) asked Barnette whether the cash at his dispensary smelled like marijuana.
“I heard it’s true,” Tlaib said. “The money does smell, correct?”
“That has been the case in some instances,” Barnette replied.
While SAM board chair Jonathon Talcott was seldom addressed by members throughout the hearing, Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) asked the witness whether it was “a universally accepted fact that marijuana is not a gateway drug and has no negative negative impacts to public health.”
Talcott claimed that cannabis “is very clearly a gateway drug” and peddled anecdotes about “marijuana-induced psychosis” in states that have legalized.
At the Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions Subcommittee hearing where we're discussing the challenges and solutions concerning cannabis-related businesses and their access to banking services. pic.twitter.com/MCjOwlyNOf
— Rep. Jennifer Wexton (@RepWexton) February 13, 2019
Heck, one of the banking bill cosponsors, addressed what’s motivated him to be an advocate for legislation on financial services solutions for the marijuana industry. He said it was his brother, who died after being exposed to herbicides while serving in the Vietnam War.
“Toward the end of his life, the only relief he could find was from the illegal consumption of marijuana,” Heck said. “I’ve always thought and lived with the irony that the same nation that asked my brother to put on a uniform and put his life at risk—in an activity that eventually did in fact take his life—held him to be criminal when he found the relief in the only way he could.”
And if creating a safeguard for banks makes it easier for marijuana businesses to provide that relief to patients, then that’s reason enough to fight for reform, Heck said.
“Congress has an opportunity to make a simple policy change that will greatly benefit communities and small businesses by approving cannabis banking reform,” Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a press release. “Representatives Perlmutter and Heck should be commended for pushing for this hearing so that this issue can get the attention it deserves and we can move toward a sensible policy that will increase public safety and transparency in this burgeoning industry.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who released a blueprint outlining the legislative path to marijuana legalization, said in a press release that tackling “the access to banking issue” is “one of the first dominos that should fall.”
The hearing shows that Congress is “finally making progress toward addressing the irrational, unfair, and unsafe denial of regular banking services for state-legal marijuana businesses around the country,” he said.
“Today’s hearing was a big deal for the thousands of employees, businesses and communities across this country who have been put at risk because they have been forced to deal in piles of cash while Congress sticks its head in the sand,” Perlmutter, the other bill cosponsor, said in a press release. “The American voters have spoken and continue to speak, and the fact is you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The SAFE Banking Act is focused solely on taking cash off the streets and making our communities safer, and only Congress can take these steps to provide this certainty for businesses and financial institutions across the country.”
I appreciate today's first-ever hearing on #cannabis banking & I encourage all my colleagues to consider the #SAFEBanking Act as a way to get cash off the streets and make our communities safer. Only Congress can provide certainty for these businesses and financial institutions. pic.twitter.com/o1fHWXNOcr
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) February 14, 2019
47 states plus the District of Columbia have spoken & legalized some form of recreational or medical marijuana, including CBD. 318.2 million people live in these 47 states – that’s 97.7% of the population. Time to align state and federal law on this issue with #SAFEBanking.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) February 13, 2019
“We listened to hours of testimony today about the dangerous position we put store owners and employees in by forcing them to do all of their business in cash. We can fix this. We don’t have to force them to operate in a way that makes it difficult to secure and track their funds,” Heck added. “Regardless of our views of marijuana use, the voters have decided in states all over this country that they want recreational and medicinal markets. To continue to do nothing to protect public safety would be negligence.”
Photo courtesy of the House Financial Services Committee/YouTube.
Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A Full House Floor Vote This Month
A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service marijuana businesses will get a House floor vote by the end of the month, the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed to Marijuana Moment on Friday.
House leadership announced the decision to Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting on Thursday.
“Mr. Hoyer said at the Whip meeting yesterday that he intends to move it this month,” a Hoyer staffer said in an email. “We’re discussing it with Members, but it hasn’t been scheduled just yet.”
Prior to confirmation from Hoyer’s office, four sources initially described the development to Marijuana Moment, with some saying the vote would be made under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.
Voting on suspension would require two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to vote in favor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in order for it to pass. The bill, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, currently has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans.
No amendments would be allowed to be added on the floor under the suspension process.
Problems could arise if lawmakers aren’t able to rally additional votes from conservative members or if there’s pushback over the strategy from progressive lawmakers, though it is unlikely Democratic leadership would advance the bill if they didn’t believe they have the votes for passage.
While interest in resolving the banking issue is generally bipartisan, it’s within reason to assume that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might have wanted the opportunity to offer provisions such as extending protections to hemp businesses or adding language promoting social equity policies. That said, it is possible that leadership could file an entirely new piece of legislation that is similar to the SAFE Banking Act but contains modified provisions negotiated with key members and use that as the vehicle for floor action.
Many expected cannabis banking legislation to receive a floor vote before the August recess, but that did not come to fruition.
In any case, the development comes as the Senate Banking Committee is also preparing to hold a vote on marijuana banking legislation, with Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) announcing on Thursday that his panel is “working to try to get a bill ready.” He didn’t offer a timeline, however, other than saying he hoped to advance the legislation by the end of the year.
While sources told Marijuana Moment that Hoyer made his decision to allow cannabis banking vote following an earlier Wednesday meeting on the issue, it is likely that building momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate added to pressure on the House to act so that Democrats wouldn’t be seen as lagging behind Republicans on cannabis reform, an issue the party has sought to take political ownership of.
Following Crapo’s statement on advancing the banking legislation, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment that he welcomes the senator’s “commitment to resolve the banking conflicts that have been created by the misalignment in state and federal law on the issue of cannabis.”
“I remain focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act out of the House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate as they take up the SAFE Banking Act or work to develop and pass similar legislation,” he said.
Banking access is largely seen as one of the most achievable pieces of cannabis legislation that stands to pass this Congress. Advocates and reform-minded lawmakers view it as one of the first steps on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.
“We are seeing the blueprint in action and moving forward on critical legislation to protect state legal cannabis banking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment, referring to a memo he sent to House leadership last year outlining a committee-by-committee process for passing incremental cannabis bills leading up to major legislation to end federal prohibition. “Earlier this summer, the House passed protections for state and tribal cannabis laws. In the most cannabis friendly Congress in history, we need to keep up this momentum. There is still much to be done.”
There has been some disagreement within advocacy circles about whether it’s prudent to pass legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry before advancing comprehensive legislation that deschedules cannabis and takes steps to repair the harms of prohibition enforcement.
“It is our hope that after the successful passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, we will be able to advance legislation that ends the federal criminalization of cannabis once and for all,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Now is our time to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is both good policy and good politics.”
“We will not stop until otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer discriminated against or criminalized due to the past or future choice to consume cannabis,” he said.
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “delighted that the U.S. House of Representatives is on the brink of passing a landmark piece of cannabis policy legislation that modernizes our antiquated banking laws to reflect the will of the people.”
“This is welcomed and long overdue news for the over 200,000 employees that work in the industry, cannabis businesses, and for public safety in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “Once the SAFE Banking Act passes the U.S. House, we call on the U.S. Senate to move quickly to protect our businesses and our workers.”
Pressure has been building all year from stakeholders and policymakers alike to get the legislation passed. Endorsements aren’t just coming from reform groups, either; 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states have also voiced support for the SAFE Banking Act.
Earlier this month, the head of the American Bankers Association predicted that the bill would be passed in the House “as early as September.”
This story was updated to add comment from Perlmutter and Hoyer’s office.
New ‘Marijuana 1-to-3 Act’ Would Reclassify Cannabis Under Federal Law
Another bill to reschedule marijuana was filed in Congress on Thursday.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced the legislation, which is titled the “Marijuana 1-to-3 Act.” True to its name, the bill would simply require the attorney general to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act, with the aim of increasing research on the drug’s effects.
“As marijuana is legalized for medical and recreational use across the United States, it is important that we study the effects of the substance and the potential impacts it can have on various populations,” Steube said in a press release. “By rescheduling marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule III controlled substance, the opportunities for research and study are drastically expanded.
Today, I introduced a bill to reschedule marijuana from a schedule I to a schedule III controlled substance. The Marijuana 1-to-3 Act will allow additional research to be done on the benefits of marijuana by removing bureaucratic red tape. https://t.co/w45WAKHBr9
— Congressman Greg Steube (@RepGregSteube) September 12, 2019
“With this rescheduling, researchers can now access federal funds to research this substance and determine its medical value,” he said.
The press release came hours after a bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced separate legislation to reschedule marijuana, also to Schedule III.
That bill contained additional provisions that would require federal agencies to develop research agendas for marijuana within one year of its enactment and also establish a system whereby universities could be designated as “Centers of Excellence in Cannabis Research” if they conducted comprehensive studies on issues related to marijuana.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is a sponsor of the broader research bill, is also cosponsoring Steube’s more focused rescheduling proposal.
It’s not clear why Steube chose to file his own reclassification bill or whether the other legislation’s additional provisions were a factor.
The congressman’s two-page bill states that “the Attorney General of the United States shall, by order not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this section, transfer marijuana…from schedule I of such Act to schedule III of such Act.”
“We hear every day about the positive health benefits of marijuana,” Steube said. “Whether it’s young children with seizure disorders, or veterans suffering from chronic pain, it is clear that there are medical benefits to marijuana and I think it’s time we remove the bureaucratic red tape that prevents us from thoroughly studying this substance.”
While he emphasized that the intent of his legislation is to encourage research into marijuana, placing cannabis in Schedule III would also have implications for marijuana businesses, who are currently ineligible for federal tax deductions under an Internal Revenue Code section that applies to anyone “trafficking in controlled substances” in Schedule I or II.
Read the full text of the bill below:
Photo by Ndispensable.
GOP Senate Chair Says He Plans Marijuana Banking Vote
The Republican chair of the Senate Banking Committee said on Thursday that his panel will hold a vote on legislation allowing banks to service state-legal marijuana businesses this year.
Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) told Politico that while he doesn’t support ending federal cannabis prohibition, his committee will take up the industry’s banking issues, which was the subject of a hearing the panel held in July. Because marijuana remains federally illegal, many financial institutions remain wary of taking on cannabis business clients—forcing them to operate on a cash-only basis—and there’s a growing bipartisan call to resolve the problem.
Crapo doesn’t support cannabis legalization. But he says he’s been compelled to act bc cannabis businesses w/o bank access are forced to transact in cash and there are issues surrounding transactions with businesses like plumbers, hardware stores, etc that serve the industry
— Zachary Warmbrodt (@Zachary) September 12, 2019
“We’re working to try to get a bill ready,” the senator said. “I’m looking to see whether we can thread the needle.”
Legislation to provide financial services to marijuana businesses—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—already exists and was approved by the House Financial Services Committee in March. That bill has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans. The companion Senate bill has nearly a third of the chamber signed on.
It’s not clear what changes Crapo is hoping for, but there’s been talk of adding hemp-specific banking protections, or including language to prevent activities such as Operation Choke Point, an Obama-era policy that conservatives view as biased against certain industries such as gun manufacturers, in order to bolster the proposal’s GOP appeal.
This development comes as Congress returns from a summer recess. Cannabis reform advocates hoped that the Democratic-controlled House would put the SAFE Act to a vote before August, but that window passed.
There have been renewed rumors that House leadership is planning to schedule a vote on the SAFE Act soon, but some dispute has broken out among cannabis reform supporters about the notion of passing a bill seen as industry-focused prior to moving broader legislation to deschedule marijuana and repair the harms of past prohibition enforcement.
Many supporters of more far-reaching moves have zeroed in on a bill House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed, but it’s unclear when that legislation would be able to see a markup by the panel, which for now is focused on issues such as gun reform and the prospect of impeachment proceedings.
If the Republican-controlled Senate were to pass marijuana banking legislation soon, it could increase political pressure on House majority Democrats to follow suit lest they be seen as lagging on an issue on which their party has increasingly sought to lead.
Don Murphy, federal policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that polling in Crapo’s home state of Idaho—one of only three states that currently have no legal cannabis laws on the books—shows that voters in the state support cannabis reform and that “it appears Chairman Crapo is seeing similar results.”
“Apparently MPP hasn’t done the only marijuana poll in Idaho recently,” he said. “Idaho voters support marijuana policy reform and with his support of the SAFE Act the Senator is moving in their direction. What took years to develop could end up in a photo finish as each chamber attempts to beat the other to a floor vote. If true, this is a very good news.”
Idaho activists are working to place a medical cannabis measure on the state’s 2020 ballot.
While it’s not clear Crapo that endorses the SAFE Act as written or that he would use an amended version of the existing bill as the vehicle to advance the issue, he’s made several statements indicating that he’s interested in a legislative fix on cannabis banking.
“We may craft our own bill or we may work with them to craft any amended legislation,” he told Politico.
“It would be terrific for the Senate Banking Committee to hold a markup on The Safe Banking Act, which we believe would result in a favorable bipartisan vote,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “Now more than ever, members of Congress spanning all types of geographic and political diversity recognize the need to amend existing law and move us towards ending federal prohibition.”
Crapo told Politico that he’s particularly interested in passing cannabis banking reform legislation because of the negative impact of the ban on ancillary businesses like plumbing and hardware companies that work with such businesses but don’t deal directly with marijuana.
The head of the American Bankers Association (ABA) predicted last week that the House would vote on the legislation before October.
THIS is a very important development- thank you @MikeCrapo for helping advance this legislation that will allow people and businesses access to the banking sector in states that have legalized cannabis and address the state/federal law inconsistency https://t.co/GzHo5cXuxA
— Rob Nichols (@BankersPrez) September 12, 2019
“THIS is a very important development- thank you [Sen. Crapo] for helping advance this legislation that will allow people and businesses access to the banking sector in states that have legalized cannabis and address the state/federal law inconsistency,” he wrote in response to the senator’s latest comments.
Politically, passing the banking bill in the Senate could give Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), its chief GOP cosponsor, a much-needed win heading toward next year’s election. Democratic candidates, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) are targeting the seat, and Gardner has made much of his work to support the state’s legal cannabis market.