Advocates of expanding marijuana businesses’ access to banks are pursuing two new strategies: amending pending standalone legislation to broaden its GOP appeal as well as supporting a separate a rider on the issue that was recently attached to a large-scale appropriations bill.
While lawmakers have primarily focused on the bipartisan standalone bill, which would provide safeguards for banks that service marijuana businesses in states where it’s legal, House Democratic leaders released a new version of an annual spending package on Sunday that includes language providing similar protections.
The section in the appropriations bill states that none of the funds it appropriates “may be used to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, a producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana, marijuana products, or marijuana proceeds, and engages in such activity” in compliance with state law.
That’s not to say that momentum behind the more focused Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is waning. The bill cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, and it currently has 191 cosponsors, including 23 Republicans, with a floor vote expected within the next several weeks.
Despite its sizable bipartisan appeal in the House, however, its fate in the Republican-controlled Senate has been uncertain.
For one, the chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) has declined to commit to bringing a companion bill that now has 30 lawmakers signed on to a vote, though some of his Republican colleagues recently told Marijuana Moment that the chair could well come around to giving the legislation a fair hearing. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a strong proponent of hemp, he remains opposed to more broadly reforming federal cannabis laws.
To sweeten the deal, lawmakers are looking at adding at least two provisions: one would expand the banking protections to businesses marketing hemp and hemp-derived CBD products and the other would block regulators from going after certain businesses such as payday lenders and firearm dealers on the alleged basis that they’re common vessels for money laundering.
Politico first reported about the proposals that Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the chief sponsor of the marijuana banking bill, is actively discussing with Republicans.
While it’s unclear why the hemp protections would be necessary considering that the crop was federally legalized and descheduled under the 2018 Farm Bill, some lawmakers have indicated that uncertainty persists in the hemp market and have sought out added assurances on top of the agriculture legislation.
McConnell, for example, recently inserted a provision securing access to federal crop insurance for hemp farmers into disaster relief funding legislation even though similar language was already included in the Farm Bill that legalized the plant last year. It’s possible that he’d be more amenable to the banking legislation if it could help ensure access to financial services for the hemp industry, which is particularly important to Kentucky.
“While it is currently legal for banks to provide services to hemp companies as a result of the recent descheduling from the Controlled Substances Act, given the uncertainty of the marketplace and stringent definition of hemp and its derivatives, it’s understandable that increased protections would lead to a more stable economic climate,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “At the end of the day, transparency and certainty is needed, which can only be achieved through thoughtful and effective regulatory climate for both consumers and companies.”
Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), who voted against the cannabis banking bill in committee, told Politico that if the legislation did include the hemp provision, “then that helps me get to a yes.”
During a House hearing last month, Barr pressed federal financial officials about hemp businesses’ ongoing lack of access to financial services like credit card processing.
On a similar note, Crapo is strongly supportive of preventing regulators from interfering in businesses under the Obama-era “Choke Point” initiative, which many conservatives regard as a politically motivated means of punishing certain sectors—particularly gun sellers and small-dollar lenders.
Standalone legislation to block future programs along those lines passed in a 395 to 2 House vote in 2017.
“Our goal is for SAFE Banking to be a bipartisan slam dunk in the House and build a case that the Senate can no longer ignore this legislation, or this issue,” Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Successful campaigns are built on consensus and compromise, and we welcome Rep. Perlmutter’s efforts to broaden support and find a solution to this critically important safety and accountability issue.”
Another potential incentive for those on the fence about the bill comes from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO released its score of the banking legislation last month, finding that if passed, it would end up saving the federal government millions of dollars over time.
What happens in the next few weeks and months is not set in stone. But if both or either of the proposed amendments do make their way into the legislation, it’s reasonable to assume that the numbers will shift in the bill’s favor. And if all else fails, banks could get similar reassurances that they won’t be penalized for working with marijuana businesses, at least by the Treasury Department, if the appropriations legislation is approved.
Congressional Bill Requires Legal Marijuana States To Consider Impaired Driving Policies
Democratic leadership in a House committee introduced a bill on Wednesday that includes a provision requiring legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider ways to promote education about the dangers of cannabis-impaired driving while curbing such behavior.
The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee filed the legislation, which is also being cosponsored by several chairs of subcommittees under the panel. While the main thrust of the INVEST in America Act is aimed at promoting the completion of various long-term infrastructure projects, it also features language concerning cannabis policy.
Under the bill, a section of current law requiring that states establish highway safety programs would be amended to add a section stipulating that states “which have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana shall consider programs in addition to the programs…to educate drivers on the risks associated with marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.”
Reform advocates support measures to reduce impaired driving, but there may be some who take issue with the provision given the implication that legalizing marijuana increases the risk of people driving while impaired. Research isn’t settled on that subject.
A congressional research body said in a report last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
Beside that contention, the legislation seems to neglect to take into account that cannabis-impaired driving isn’t exclusive to legal states and that public education could be beneficial across all states regardless of their individual marijuana policies.
“It is somewhat absurd to draw a differentiation between states when it comes to the current legal status, because it is entirely feasible that every state will be legalized by the end of this decade,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “And regardless, I have heard rumors that some Texans consume cannabis despite its prohibited status.”
Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said in a press release that the overall bill “is our opportunity to replace the outdated systems of the past with smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits the economy of the future, creates millions of jobs, supports American manufacturing, and restores U.S. competitiveness.”
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) are also sponsoring the legislation, which is scheduled for a full committee vote on June 17.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Tuesday again stressed the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who unveiled a revised legalization bill last month and pushed legislators to promptly take it up, discussed the projected economic impact of the policy change at a revenue conference.
During the virtual meeting, he pulled up a spreadsheet that breaks down estimates for annual cannabis sales from residents and tourists, as well as potential revenue from taxes and fees.
Cruise passengers and non-resident hotel guests will make approximately $43 million in annual marijuana purchases, the estimate from an independent firm states. Residents, meanwhile, are projected to spend about $38 million on cannabis each year.
“This doesn’t include what we would call the second and third turns in the economy in term of products being bought like lamps and fertilizer, jobs being created, dispensary jobs. None of that,” the governor said.
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization’s economic impact, starting around 3:10:35 into the video below:
In terms of revenue, the territory can expect to take in about $11 million annually from tourists, who will be taxed at 25 percent for marijuana products. Residents, who will be taxed at a much lower rate, will contribute about $3 million in taxes. All told, the territory is estimated to generate nearly $18 million in cannabis sales tax revenue per year.
Additionally, the analysis projects that USVI will receive $12.1 million from licensing fees and a cultivation tax. Point of sale permits for cruises and hotels will bring in another $3.6 million.
It all adds up to “a $33 million deposit in our treasury due to cannabis sales,” Bryan said, characterizing the projections as conservative estimates.
The governor said he wanted to highlight these figures to conference attendees “to show you quickly what this could mean to the territory should we have this enacted and we go to work.”
“Of course, it’s going to take some work to get this done,” he said. “But we need to get this measure done as quickly as possible in order to start impacting our economy in a very positive way.”
Bryan has previously said that beyond helping to offset some of the financial damage that COVID-19 outbreak has created, establishing a legal cannabis market would provide funding for the territory’s retirement system for government employees.
After he first proposed the policy change and directed the legislature to take up the issue in a special session late last year, several legislators voiced opposition to specifics of the proposal.
Some questioned the notion that tax revenue from cannabis sales could make up for the significant deficits running within the retirement program, while others argued that the legislation as drafted did not adequately address social equity. Another issue that arose concerned licensing, with lawmakers worried that small businesses on the island would be left out.
The governor’s revised marijuana legalization bill, which has been transmitted to the Senate for action, would ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.
There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.
In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.
A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to fund the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.
The bill also provides for automatic expungements for prior marijuana possession convictions, encourages research into the benefits of cannabis and recognizes the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests
The governor of Virginia said on Tuesday that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans.
In a speech, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said that while he cannot personally attest to the pain that the black community is grappling with, there are steps lawmakers can take to reform policies that disproportionately harm minorities. That includes removing the threat of jail time for cannabis possession—an offense more likely to be enforced against black people despite comparable rates of use among white people.
“Through 400 years of American history—starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, massive resistance and now mass incarceration—black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms,” he said. “I cannot know how it feels to be an African American person right now or what you are going through. I cannot know the depth of your pain. But what I can do is stand with you and I can support you, and together we’re going to turn this pain into action.”
That action has meant “reforming criminal justice,” he said. “It meant decriminalizing marijuana.”
The governor, who faced severe scrutiny last year after he admitted he was in a yearbook photo showing people wearing blackface and dressed as KKK members, also cited expanding access to Medicaid and increasing the threshold for felony larceny as examples of ways the state has addressed racial inequality during his administration.
Northam signed a marijuana decriminalization bill last month and it goes into effect on July 1. Under the legislation, possessing up to one ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record. Current Virginia law makes simple possession punishable by a maximum $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record.
Later in the Tuesday press conference, Shirley Ginwright, a member of the Virginia African American Advisory Board that Northam established, thanked him specifically for approving the cannabis decriminalization bill.
“So many of our students and our young black men and women were getting caught up in the criminal justice system because of marijuana, something that wasn’t killing them,” she said.
The governor isn’t alone in connecting the outrage over police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to cannabis prohibition enforcement. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
Berner, a rapper who owns a marijuana dispensary that was looted in Los Angeles over the weekend, also seemed to echo Booker’s sentiment, stating that the damage to his shop to looting pales in comparison to the underlying racial injustices that prompted the protests.