The denial of home loans by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to military veterans because of work in the state-legal marijuana industry is prompting congressional action.
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee included language in a report attached to a 2020 VA funding bill demanding clarification on the issue:
“Home Loan Income Verification.—The Committee is aware of the Department’s denial of home loan guarantees to Veterans solely on the basis of the Veteran’s documented income being derived from state-legalized cannabis activities. The Committee is concerned that the Department has never publicly stated its position on this matter, hindering Veterans’ ability to fully understand and consider how employment decisions could affect future eligibility for earned benefits. The Committee therefore directs VA to publicly clarify its position on this matter no later than 180 days after the enactment of this Act.”
Separately, Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Julia Brownley (D-CA), the chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, are also currently circulating a congressional sign-on letter to VA about the issue.
“Recently, a veteran reported that his VA home loan guarantee application was denied based on his employment in a state-legal cannabis industry. The VA’s response indicated that the Department considered the Veteran’s source of income not to be ‘stable and reliable’ enough for the purpose of mortgage applications,” the lawmakers wrote in a cover message seeking signatures from other members of Congress for the VA letter.
“Because the VA believes that this income can be forfeited or seized under federal law, they won’t deem it suitable for a VA loan,” Clark and Brownley told their colleagues in the note, which was obtained by Marijuana Moment. “The VA also explained that if VA employees were to accept this income for the purpose of a loan application, they could technically be prosecuted by DOJ for money laundering.”
The draft letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, like the appropriations bill report language, presses VA to clarify its position on the issue.
“A vast majority of U.S. states have now legalized medicinal and/or recreational cannabis in some form, giving rise to a state-legal industry that generates up to $11 billion per year in sales, creates over $1 billion in state-collected excise tax revenues, and supports the livelihood of over 211,000 Americans,” the letter to the secretary says. “A substantial number of veterans earn their livelihoods in this industry, and in coming years, that number is likely to further rise.”
“The VA must acknowledge this reality and ensure veterans who work in this sector are able to clearly understand and can equitably access the benefits they’ve earned.”
“The ambiguity under which the cannabis industry operates is unique, and we fully understand the VA’s resulting aversion to legal and financial risk,” the draft letter to Wilkie states. “Denying veterans the benefits they’ve earned, however, is contrary to the intent Congress separately demonstrated in its creation of VA benefit programs.”
While VA has provided guidance on certain related matters such as a clarification that veterans will not lose their VA benefits just for using cannabis and specifying that the department’s physicians can discuss marijuana usage with patients but not issue formal recommendation for medical cannabis, the department hasn’t put anything in writing concerning housing loan qualifications for veterans who work in the marijuana market, at least not publicly.
“Yet, the VA has not issued any policies or guidance on this topic, leaving veterans with no way to clearly and readily understand whether their choice of legal employment in this industry could result in the denial of benefits they’ve earned,” the letter says.
“We ask that you reply in the next 30 days detailing the Department’s position on loan guarantees, and that to the extent practicable, you also include information about whether a veteran’s eligibility for any other specific VA benefit is jeopardized solely on the basis of their employment in a legal cannabis industry in a given state. We also request that your reply include an assurance that you will begin the process of issuing guidance to publicly clarify the VA’s position on this matter.”
Separately, the House Appropriations Committee report attached to the VA funding bill also includes a section demanding VA explain its efforts to conduct research on marijuana’s therapeutic benefits for veterans:
“Cannabis Research.—The Committee recognizes that continued focus on the discovery of treatment alternatives for Veterans diagnosed with various conditions, such as chronic pain and PTSD, is essential to reducing the number of Veteran suicides. For this reason, the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2019 (P.L. 115– 244) urged VA to utilize funds to prioritize investments in research on the efficacy and safety of cannabis usage among the Veteran population for medicinal purposes and submit a report to the Committee no later than 180 days after enactment of that Act. The report has yet to be submitted to the Committee, therefore the Committee directs VA to provide a status update of this outstanding report no later than 15 days after the report is filed.”
Similar language was included in a report from the same committee last year, but VA apparently has not complied with the prior request to issue a report to Congress on the matter.
Veterans and cannabis issues have been front and center in the 116th Congress, with three pieces of related legislation having been discussed at a House veterans subcommittee hearing in April. Two of those bills were set to get a full committee vote on Wednesday, but they were pulled from the agenda after the chairman decided to instead hold a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing focused specifically on the marijuana proposals.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
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.