A congressional committee voted on Thursday to approve legislation aimed at increasing marijuana businesses’ access to banks.
Following multiple days of lengthy debate and consideration of several amendments, the House Financial Services Committee voted 45 to 15 to advance the legislation to the full body.
Floor action has not yet been scheduled, but cannabis reform advocates are hopeful that the committee approval of the banking bill is a sign Democrats are ready to move broad marijuana reforms this year.
Indeed, House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern (D-MA) said in a radio interview on Wednesday that he expects the chamber to vote on legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition within a matter of “weeks.”
“We will guide it to the House floor for a vote, which I think it will pass with an overwhelming vote—Democrats and I think a lot of Republicans as well,” he said. “If we have a strong bipartisan vote that will increase the pressure on the Senate to do something.”
All of the party’s major 2020 presidential candidates now support outright legalization, as do a majority of its voters, according to polls.
The banking bill “addresses an urgent public safety concern for legitimate businesses that currently have no recourse but to operate with just cash,” Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) said at the start of the committee’s proceedings, which began on Tuesday and carried over through a second Wednesday meeting to votes on Thursday morning.
“However, I also consider this bill as part of a holistic approach toward providing criminal justice reform to those who have been harmed by criminalization of marijuana, and should not by any means be the only bill the House takes up on the important issue of cannabis reform,” she said.
While some surveys also show that a smaller majority of GOP voters back ending cannabis prohibition, Republican lawmakers in Congress had blocked marijuana amendments from even being considered over the course of the past several years during their House majority.
Last week, top Republicans on the Financial Services Committee requested that Waters delay the vote on the banking legislation, writing in a letter that they had several “unanswered questions” about the measure.
“Some on my side support the measure as written. Many oppose it,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), the panel’s top Republican, said in his opening remarks at the committee meeting. “Most important for this committee, we need to ensure that we’re doing our due diligence before proceeding. One committee hearing is not enough to fully understand the consequences of this bill. It is a massive change in federal policy.”
That the vote went ahead over GOP objections is a sign that the effective marijuana roadblock on Capitol Hill has been lifted by the chamber’s new Democratic majority.
Under the approved bill, federal banking regulators would not be able to punish financial institutions just because they work with marijuana businesses that are legal under state or local laws, or those of an Indian tribe.
Currently, while a growing number of banks are opening accounts for cannabis businesses as more state policies change, many remain reluctant to do so out of fear of violating federal money laundering or drug laws. As a result, many marijuana growers, processors and sellers are forced to operate on a cash-only basis, which can make them targets for robberies.
Legally-authorized cannabis businesses are forced to operate w/ cash only, which sometimes makes them targets for violent criminals. #HR1595, the #SAFEBankingAct will address this issue by creating a safe harbor that allows banks & credit unions to provide services to these biz.
— Financial Svcs Cmte (@FSCDems) March 27, 2019
The legislation approved by the committee, the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, currently has 152 cosponsors—more than a third of the entire House, which is far more support than any previous standalone cannabis bill has earned. Twelve Republicans have cosponsored the legislation.
The SAFE Banking Act’s approval by the financial services panel is only the third time in history that a standalone marijuana reform bill has cleared a congressional committee. Last year, other committees voted to advance legislation encouraging the Department of Veterans Affairs to study medical cannabis and to require the Department of Justice to license additional growers of marijuana for research, but those proposals never made it to the House floor for action.
“It is our job to address this and no longer ignore it. I have brought this legislation up for six years,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the SAFE Banking Act’s lead sponsor, said prior to the vote. “The people of this country sort of took it into their own hands, state by state, to pass initiative for medical marijuana or for cannabis oil or fully legal.”
Committee Acts On Amendments
Prior to voting to advance the bill to the House floor, the committee took action on a number of proposed changes to the legislation.
Perlmutter put forth an amendment to his own bill, which was adopted via a voice vote. In addition to clarifying the definition of the financial services that are covered by the bill and specifying that its provisions would protect Federal Reserve banks, new additions would require the federal government to study diversity and inclusion in the marijuana industry—a key concern of legalization advocates seeking to undo the damage of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially disproportionate manner.
The new language would require federal financial regulators to publish annual reports tracking “information and data on the availability of access to financial services for minority-owned and women-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses” and to issue “regulatory or legislative recommendations for expanding access to financial services” for those populations.
In addition, the amended bill directs that the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study “on the barriers to marketplace entry, including in the licensing process, and the access to financial services for potential and existing minority-owned and women-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
Also during the committee markup, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) moved a separate amendment that would extend protections to so-called “de novo” banking institutions that are seeking charters or master accounts from a Federal Reserve bank. It was adopted via a voice vote.
My friendly amendment to the cannabis banking bill passed unanimously! Clarifies that *new* banks/credit unions are also protected by the bill. We need to level the playing field for new market entrants, in this growing industry and across our economy. https://t.co/IUYBMrszRq
— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) March 27, 2019
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), one of the bill’s lead Republican cosponsors, filed an amendment expanding the legislation’s protections to insurance companies. It too was passed in a voice vote.
An amendment from Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) directs the Government Accountability Office to study previous reports that banks are required to file on their marijuana business customers to understand how effective they are in identifying bad actors. It was supported by the bill’s sponsors and approved on a voice vote.
Tipton filed an another amendment aimed at making sure drug cartels and organized crime networks aren’t able to benefit from the bill’s provisions, but he withdrew it instead of forcing a vote.
Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI) moved to delay the bill’s effective date until marijuana is federally descheduled, but withdrew the amendment rather than force a vote.
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) sought to attach an amendment that would add “legal entities operating in accordance with federal law” to those covered by the bill. In introducing the measure, he made reference to prior federal investigations of banks working with firearms dealers and payday lenders. It was ruled non-germane, however.
Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) filed an amendment that would have delayed the bill’s enactment until the Treasury secretary certifies it wouldn’t leave any financial institution more susceptible to illicit financial activity and money laundering, and that it doesn’t inhibit their ability to comply with federal regulations. It was defeated in a voice vote and then again in roll call vote by a margin of 33 to 27.
Another Barr amendment would have restricted the bill’s reach to only protect hemp businesses instead of those that deal with marijuana. It also lost on both a voice vote and a recorded vote. The latter went down 42 to 18.
An amendment from Rep. John Rose (R-TN) would have required banks to attest that they have internal controls ensuring that no funds have been deposited in their institutions that are associated with illegal organizations. It too was rejected in voice and roll call votes, with the latter tallying 33 to 27.
A second Huizenga amendment would have postponed enactment until federal financial regulators are able to issue guidance to banks. It was rejected with a voice vote, and a roll call was requested, which came out 35 against to 25 for.
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) offered an amendment to withdraw the bill’s protections from banks that serve marijuana businesses located within 1,000 feet of schools, youth centers, public parks, child care facilities, public housing, civic centers or designated drug-free zones. It was rejected via a voice vote, and then in a roll call vote by a margin of 34 to 26.
During the broader debate on the bill, Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA), who along with Perlmutter is a leading sponsor of the proposal, spoke about a Colorado marijuana dispensary security guard who was killed during an attempted robbery as an example of the public safety harms of blocking banking access. He added that allowing cannabis industry operators to store their profits in regulated financial institutions would “enhance supervision and audibility of marijuana businesses.”
Banking Is Just The First Step For Federal Marijuana Reform
The banking legislation, which was the subject of a separate lengthy committee hearing last month, is seen by advocates as just the first step in an ambitious cannabis reform agenda they want the Democratic House to pass this year. Several more far-reaching bills to change marijuana’s legal status so that states can implement their own policies without the looming threat of federal interference have not yet been scheduled for hearings. Other pending proposals seek to address medical cannabis access by military veterans, the removal of roadblocks to research and tax rates for marijuana firms.
“Congress must take the long view that all these efforts—and I will work to ensure that when it comes to passing [the banking bill] that the House does not take a ‘one and done’ approach but that we will also comprehensively work, especially with our colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, on a series of marijuana related reforms,” Waters, the Financial Services Committee chair, said prior to the vote.
This country is in need of criminal justice reform, including addressing the historic racial & social inequities related to the criminalization of #marijuana. That is why @FSCDems support the #SAFEBankingAct which complements other cannabis reforms introduced by @HouseDemocrats pic.twitter.com/tl2x97vXVl
— Financial Svcs Cmte (@FSCDems) March 27, 2019
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) said at the Wednesday meeting that she will be exploring ways to expand credit opportunities for marijuana businesses, particularly those owned by women and minorities, in her role as chair of the House Small Business Committee.
Late last year, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) authored a “blueprint” memo that lays out a step-by-step process Democratic leaders could take to federally legalize marijuana by the end of 2019. Passing a banking bill is a key part of his plan.
A good start in our blueprint to legalization, but it's just the beginning. We will continue to work so all marijuana related bills see their day this Congress. The STATES Act, Veterans Equal Access, decriminalization, industry equity, and restorative justice all coming soon! https://t.co/5P1Zt0tY4m
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) March 27, 2019
“This is a historic and critical step forward for the nation’s burgeoning cannabis industry. Lawmakers seem to recognize the urgency and public safety implications of ensuring cannabis businesses can access banking services,” Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Regardless of where members stand on legalization, they can agree that it is in the public interest to make banking available to cannabis businesses in states where it is legal.”
NORML Political Director Justin Strekal also praised the committee’s action.
“This is a positive step forward to address an untenable tension between state-legal cannabis marketplaces and federal marijuana prohibition,” he said. “Ultimately, the banking issue is just one symptom of the toxic and cruel policy of federal marijuana criminalization. In order to truly bring the vibrant marijuana economy out of the shadows, actions need to be taken by Congress to end federal prohibition and the discrimination that comes with this failed policy.”
Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) are expected to file companion legislation on access to financial services for marijuana businesses in the Senate soon. A prior bill during the last Congress garnered 20 cosponsors in the chamber but did not receive a hearing or vote.
Congressional Committee Asks JUUL For Documents On Marijuana Partnerships
Is the e-cigarette company JUUL planning on expanding its stake in the marijuana industry?
That’s one question the chair of a congressional subcommittee asked the company in a letter concerning JUUL’s role in the “youth e-cigarette epidemic” earlier this month.
Lawmakers have frequently criticized JUUL for making products—specifically flavored e-cigarette cartridges—that allegedly appeal to young people at a time when rates of cigarette use are steadily declining. But while JUUL was developed by the cannabis vaporizer company PAX, it hasn’t announced plans to further partner with marijuana companies.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, apparently sees the possibility on the horizon, though.
In a letter sent to JUUL on June 7, the congressman said his panel was investigating youth e-cigarette usage and, specifically, how the company’s marketing tactics might be exacerbating the issue. He requested documents on everything from clinical trials on how JUUL devices divert people away from traditional cigarettes to communications on the company’s rationale for the nicotine concentration of JUUL pods.
Tucked within the extensive request is a question about potential marijuana partnerships. Krishnamoorthi asked for:
“All documents, including memoranda and communications, referring or relating to proposals, plans, and/or intended partnerships or collaborations between JUUL and any cannabis-related companies, including but not limited to Cronos Group.”
It’s not clear where the Cronos-specific mention comes from, but the company has perviously caught the interest of the tobacco industry. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes, Altria Group, invested almost $2 billion in the Canada-based cannabis company in December. Two weeks later, Altria invested $13 billion in JUUL.
Marijuana Moment reached out to JUUL, Cronos and Krishnamoorthi’s office for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
If a partnership does emerge, it would likely be met with some controversy, as opponents and proponents of marijuana reform alike have long expressed concern that the tobacco industry would take over the cannabis market and commercialize it in a way that mirrors how it peddled cigarettes.
Of course, given that tobacco use is declining and tobacco companies generally have the infrastructure that would make a pivot to cannabis relatively simple, such a partnership would not be especially surprising.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made the case several times that tobacco farmers in his state could leverage the federal legalization of industrial hemp and its derivatives by growing the crop to offset profit losses from declining tobacco sales.
Read Rep. Krishnamoorthi’s full letter to JUUL below:
2019-06-07.Krishnamoorthi t… by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Google Announces Ban On Marijuana Apps In Android Play Store
Apps that help connect people with marijuana products are not welcome anymore in the Google Play store, the company announced in a policy update on Wednesday. That includes apps that facilitate cannabis transactions in states where it’s legal.
The updated policy section states that Google Play doesn’t “allow apps that facilitate the sale of marijuana or marijuana products, regardless of legality.” Previously the page didn’t include any specific mention of cannabis.
The revised guidelines go on to list descriptions of “common violations.” Apps can’t allow users “to order marijuana through an in-app shopping cart feature,” help users “in arranging delivery or pick up of marijuana” or facilitate the “sale of products containing THC.”
A google spokesperson explained the change in an email to Marijuana Moment, adding that affected companies can take advantage of a simple workaround.
“These apps simply need to move the shopping cart flow outside of the app itself to be compliant with this new policy,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve been in contact with many of the developers and are working with them to answer any technical questions and help them implement the changes without customer disruption.”
The spokesperson also said that the company recognizes the popularity of cannabis-related apps and hopes they will remain in the Play Store under the amended rules. Google is working directly with developers of affected apps, the spokesperson said.
Another new section of the policies stipulates that apps “that facilitate the sale of tobacco (including e-cigarettes)” are prohibited. Apps that help consumers purchase alcohol are apparently allowed, but not those that “encourage the irresponsible use of alcohol or tobacco.”
The update was first reported by Android Police, which also noted that Apple has previously banned marijuana-related apps such as the social networking platform MassRoots. But Apple lifted that ban in 2015 and has since taken a relatively hands-off approach to the issue.
Some of the best-known cannabis apps—Weedmaps and Eaze—are still available for download on Google Play as of the time of publication. But insiders believe that their essential functions (i.e. the ordering services) will have to be deactivated. Weedmaps alone has been installed more than one million times to date, and more than 50,000 users have downloaded Eaze.
Android Police reported that Google will be working with affected app developers to resolve any compliance issues over the next month.
In a blog post on Wednesday, Google said that it was generally making a series of policy changes to ensure that its app store serves as “a positive, safe environment for children and families.” As TechCrunch pointed out, this comes about five months after Google Play was the subject of an FTC complaint, which alleged that the company wasn’t doing enough to vet apps that appear in the kids section.
The tech industry has had a strained relationship with marijuana businesses, even as a growing number of states have decided to legalize and regulate the sale of cannabis.
Facebook, which recently showed off its artificial intelligence technology that’s capable of identifying images of marijuana, continues to prohibit the commercial advertising of cannabis products, regardless of the legality of the business under state law.
Noncommercial cannabis news sites such as Marijuana Moment and state regulatory bodies like the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission have also been caught up in the anti-marijuana policy despite the fact that they do not promote or sell cannabis products. In some cases, it appears these organizations have been hidden from appearing in search results—a practice known as “shadowbanning.”
The online shopping site eBay also gave cannabis consumers some bad news this week, clarifying that CBD products will continue to be banned globally regardless of individual country laws on the compound.
“Eaze connects adults only to licensed, regulated cannabis retailers,” Elizabeth Ashford, senior director of corporate communications for Eaze, said in an email. “Google’s decision is a disappointing development that only helps the illegal market thrive, but we are confident that Google, Apple and Facebook will eventually do the right thing and allow legal cannabis companies to do business on their platforms. We regret any inconvenience this may cause for customers and patients.”
“Prohibition is over,” she added. “Voters across the country have legalized cannabis.”
Marijuana Moment also reached out to Weedmaps for comment but the company has not yet provided a statement reacting to the Google policy change.
On the flip side, at least one major tech company is testing the regulatory waters after hemp and its derivatives were legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. The payment processing service Square announced last week that has launched a pilot program designed to give businesses that sell hemp-derived CBD products access to credit card processing services as an alternative to traditional financial institutions that remain wary of working with the industry.
Marijuana might be banned from Google’s app market, but just last year it seemed the company’s executives were pretty bullish about loosening cannabis laws. Google co-founder Sergey Brin joked about supplying employees with joints at a post-election meeting in September.
“I was asking if we could serve joints outside on the patio, but apparently these things take a little while to take effect,” Brin said, referring to the implementation of California’s cannabis legalization measure. “It was a huge, huge disappointment. I’ve been bemoaning that all week, I’ll be honest with you.”
Disclosure: Weedmaps and Eaze are Marijuana Moment advertisers/sponsors.
This story was updated to include comment from Google and Eaze.
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor.
eBay Says It Will Continue To Ban People From Selling CBD Products
The massive online shopping site eBay says CBD products will continue to be banned globally on its platform, even as other companies like the payment processor Square are working to make it simpler to market hemp-derived goods.
In response to a tweet complaining about cannabidiol oil being removed from the site, the company said last week that the “sale of CBD products is highly regulated in many countries,” and while “they may be legal to buy and sell in some countries, they are regulated by the FDA and enforced by some law enforcement agencies.”
The sale of CBD products is highly regulated in many countries. While they may be legal to buy and sell in some countries, they are regulated by the FDA and enforced by some law enforcement agencies. For this reason, we have decided to prohibit the items globally. Mary
— Ask eBay (@AskeBay) May 24, 2019
“For this reason, we have decided to prohibit the items globally,” an eBay representative wrote.
Compare that stance to the recent announcement from Square, which said last week it has launched a pilot program designed to give CBD businesses access to credit card processing services—something that some companies say they continue to struggle with even though hemp was federally legalized via the 2018 Farm Bill.
A quick search of eBay does turn up several listings for CBD products, including oils, gummies and lotions. But as far as the company is concerned, those sellers are violating a policy that has been a source of frustration for CBD consumers for years.
Community forums discussing the platform’s CBD ban go back to at least 2015, with many challenging eBay’s rationale. But it is the case that while Congress and President Trump acted to legalize hemp and its derivatives late last year, FDA does maintain regulatory authority over CBD and has said it’s currently unlawful to market the cannabis-derived compound as a food item or dietary supplement.
However, FDA is holding a public meeting on Friday to further discuss alternative regulatory pathways that may eventually allow people to sell hemp-derived CBD products. Former FDA Administrator Scott Gottlieb has indicated that the issue may have to be resolved through further congressional action.
But until then, large companies are testing the waters, with companies like CVS Pharmacy saying they will begin selling CBD products in spite of existing federal restrictions.
It doesn’t appear that eBay competitor Amazon has commented on their policy on selling CBD products, but again, a search of the site reveals thousands of hits for a wide range of hemp-based items.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.