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.
Oregon Marijuana Sales Spike Could Continue As Consumers ‘Permanently Adjust Their Behavior’ Following COVID
Record-setting Oregon marijuana sales continue to be a bright spot in the state’s coronavirus-slowed economy, state analysts reported this week, but a convergence of unknowns—including the end of federal coronavirus relief and a possible rise in cannabis prices due to devastating wildfires—could still mean a rocky road ahead for consumers.
“Marijuana sales continue to be strong,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis wrote in a quarterly revenue forecast published on Wednesday. “Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”
The increase tracks with other more established cannabis markets, such as those in Colorado, Washington and Nevada, which have also seen “strong gains” since the pandemic, the office said. “There are a number of likely reasons for these higher level of sales and expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”
Analysts also expressed a rosier outlook on the future of the state’s marijuana market than they did in last quarter’s report, which acknowledged a spike in sales since the pandemic began but concluded that business was eventually “expected to mellow” as incomes fell and bars reopened. Officials now forecast Oregon will see “somewhat more” in sales than previously projected.
The state has recently seen a string of record-setting months for cannabis sales. Over the summer, monthly cannabis sales had averaged more than $100 million, according to an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) report.
The projected uptick in sales will mean an extra $30 million in marijuana tax revenue for the state during its two-year budget period ending in 2021. Total adult-use cannabis taxes for that period are now forecast to end up at more than $276 million.
“Factors leading to increases in sales include higher incomes due to federal support, increased stressors in everyday life, reductions in other forms of entertainment or recreational opportunities, and simply more time on one’s hand be it due to a COVID-related layoff, or increased working from home,” the report said.
“A key question is now that the federal aid is gone and other entertainment options return in the months ahead, will some of this increase in sales in recent months subside?” the Office of Economic Analysis wrote in the new report. “In a recent meeting of our office’s marijuana forecast advisory group, the broad consensus was that yes, some of these sales will come off, but not entirely so. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely customers will permanently adjust their behavior as they become accustomed to their new routines and buying patterns.”
For now, the bulk of the increases appear to be driven by existing consumers. While “indications are that the customer base is broadening some as the market grows due to more users trying an increasingly socially acceptable product and ongoing converts from the black market to the legal market,” the report said, the increase “is more likely to be due to larger or more frequent sales to existing consumers than due to more consumers alone.”
“One item to watch moving forward are prices,” analysts wrote. “In recent years the supply of marijuana has greatly outstripped the demand, leading to lower prices. This is great news for consumers. Given that marijuana is a normal good, lower prices have led to larger quantities sold. But now that demand has increased, while supply has held steady, and with the potential impact of the wildfires right as growers are prepping for harvest, this balance in the market may shift… As such, it may be that prices rise, or at least not decline like they have in recent years.”
As far as tax revenue goes, any price increase would likely lead to more money for the state, “as the decline in quantity sold is not large enough to outweigh the price impact,” the report said.
How cannabis revenue is spent would also be affected by a drug decriminalization ballot proposition, Measure 110, that voters will decide in November. While the initiative isn’t expected to change the amount of taxes collected, it would redirect marijuana tax funds to expand drug treatment programs. “Whether current programs receiving marijuana tax revenue would ultimately see budgetary impacts,” analysts said, “would remain up to the Legislature should voters approve the measure this fall.”
Measure 110, which broadly seeks to reframe problem drug use in medical rather than criminal terms, is one of two key drug-reform measures on Oregon’s ballot in less than six weeks. The other would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. That measure would be the first of its kind in the U.S., although Canada has recently granted some patients immunity from that country’s prohibition on psilocybin.
Texas Ban On Smokable Hemp Lifted Until 2021, Judge Rules
A Texas ban on smokable hemp products hit another roadblock in court last week when a state judge barred officials from enforcing the prohibition until an industry challenge can be heard in court.
A group of four hemp producers sued the state last month over the ban, which began when lawmakers passed a hemp legalization bill last year that explicitly forbade the production of products intended for smoking or vaporization. State health authorities extended its reach earlier this year to prohibit the sale and distribution of such products made outside Texas, a move the hemp companies claim was an unconstitutional overreach of their authorities.
In a ruling issued Thursday, Travis County Judge Lora Livingston wrote that the hemp companies may have a point. Writing that the plaintiffs “have demonstrated a probable right to relief,” Livingston granted a temporary injunction that effectively voids the ban on production, distribution and sale of the products until the conclusion of a trial set to begin in February.
Livingston had previously issued a temporary restraining order in the case last month that had a similar but shorter effect, preventing the state from enforcing the ban for a matter of weeks. The new ruling freezes the ban for at least four months, and potentially longer.
Opponents of the ban said that while the issue is far from over, Livingston’s recent decisions are a sign the challenge could ultimately succeed.
“So far, the rulings relating to this lawsuit are very encouraging,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, which opposes the ban and has organized hundreds of supporters to submit comments to regulators.
“Advocates in Texas have remained vigilant, with both legislative engagement and regulatory oversight,” Fazio said in an email to Marijuana Moment. “Now, Texas businesses are challenging our state’s poorly designed policies in the courts. And they’re winning!”
Plaintiffs are challenging both the legislature’s initial ban on production and processing of smokable hemp as well as the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) added ban on distribution and sale, which they claim violate the state constitution’s protections for economic freedom. They also maintain that DSHS lacked the authority to extend the production ban to retail sales.
The companies also point to logistical problems caused by the ban. Because smokable hemp flower is indistinguishable from hemp grown for other purposes, they argue, the ban will encourage bad actors to mislabel products in order to avoid the prohibition. That could put consumers at risk by exposing them to chemicals and other adulterants not intended for consumption.
Banning smokable hemp would also hurt the state economically, the producers claim, as Texas hemp companies wouldn’t be able to compete with out-of-state producers that can already make and sell anything from hemp joints to CBD vape cartridges.
“The law does not ban the use or consumption of smokable hemp products. As such, Texas consumers will simply buy smokable products made out-of-state,” the lawsuit says. “If Texas had banned the processing and manufacture of cheese in Texas, Texans wouldn’t stop eating cheese.”
Meanwhile, the state’s legalization of hemp for other purposes has caused headaches in the criminal justice community. Because hemp looks and smells similar to marijuana, law enforcement agencies have struggled to know whether individuals have a banned substance until they can chemically analyze a seized product. But state testing labs are overburdened, and in February the state Department of Public Safety said it would “not have the capacity” to perform testing in misdemeanor cases. Prosecutors as a result have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases.
Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, recently released state data shows, and that trend seems connected to hemp legalization.
Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay
Federal Workplace Drug Testing Proposal Could Discriminate Against People Of Color
A newly proposed federal rule would expand workplace drug testing programs by allowing certain employers to collect and analyze samples of workers’ hair, a move critics say would lead to disproportionate job-related punishments for people of color.
Federal agencies can already test workers’ urine and saliva, which provide evidence of more recent drug use, but “hair testing potentially offers several benefits when compared to urine, including directly observed collections, ease of transport and storage, increased specimen stability, and a longer window of drug detection,” the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) argued in a notice of proposed rulemaking published in the Federal Register on Thursday.
If adopted, the change would affect thousands of government employees as well as private workers in certain federally regulated industries such as those who work in transportation or at nuclear power plants.
Drug reform advocates are skeptical about the move.
“It’s shameful that these harmful federal drug testing guidelines are even being considered again,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment. “Not only is hair follicle testing discriminatory against people of color due to its sensitivity to melanin and darker hair, it gives no indication of someone being impaired on the job. This just goes to show how far behind the federal government is on cannabis policy.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director for the advocacy group NORML, said it is “mind-boggling that, in 2020, SAMHSA is considering expanding federal drug testing guidelines.”
“Hair follicle testing is highly problematic,” Armentano said. “A positive test, even when confirmed, provides neither evidence of behavioral impairment nor recent drug exposure. Moreover, the sensitivity and accuracy of the test is highly variable.”
Because hair exists outside a person’s body, for example, it’s more vulnerable to contamination—including secondhand smoke and other chemicals—than other sample types. That can put workers at risk of false positives unless results are checked through another testing method.
“Arguably most problematic,” Armentano said in an email, “is the reality that these tests discriminate against certain ethnicities because it is influenced by melanin content and is thus more sensitive to those with darker hair—while far less sensitive to those with gray hair.”
Other factors, such as humidity and hormones, could also affect test outcomes, Armentano added.
SAMHSA in its proposal acknowledges that numerous studies “provide scientific evidence that melanin pigments may influence the amount of drug incorporated into hair,” as well as that hair products more commonly used by people of color could lead to false positives. “As noted,” the filing says, “the Department wishes to solicit feedback on scientific studies comparing drug results and hair color and comparing urine to hair.”
The proposal is the latest effort by SAMHSA to expand federal drug screening to include specimens besides urine, including hair, saliva and even sweat. SAMHSA initially floated the idea of hair-based testing in 1997, and the agency put forward a rulemaking proposal along those lines in 2004. Regulators ultimately rejected that proposal amid concerns over accuracy, but SAMHSA has pursued the plan ever since. In recent years, the agency expanded testing to include saliva.
Unlike urine and saliva, hair can take up to a week to show evidence of drug use, rendering it especially useless as a measure of a worker’s immediate impairment. SAMHSA is proposing that hair testing be used only in pre-employment drug screening and random testing—not in cases where workers are suspected of recent use.
In an effort to protect workers from false positives and ensure that hair tests hold up in court, the proposal includes a directive that an alternate specimen, such as urine or saliva, be collected in order to verify a positive hair-test result. “This two-test approach,” SAMHSA’s summary says, “is intended to protect federal workers from issues that have been identified as limitations of hair testing, and related legal deficiencies.”
Marijuana-related cases, however, may not qualify for that additional layer of scrutiny. “The Department is specifically requesting comments, including support from the recent scientific literature, on whether hair tests that are positive for the marijuana analyte, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol-9-carboxylic acid (THCA), should be excluded from the requirement to test an alternate authorized specimen,” the proposal says.
Workers, some labor unions and even a Federal Drug Testing Advisory Board (DTAB) member have criticized the SAMHSA proposal as misguided, warning that the proposal is getting away from the science.
As reported in the trade publication Freight Waves, which covers the shipping and logistics industries, independent truck drivers are opposed to the rule, citing bias toward hair color and texture as well as a general lack of evidence that hair testing would improve driver safety. Major trucking companies, however, generally support the change.
DTAB member Michael Schaffer criticized the rulemaking process as “fatally flawed” because the board was left out of discussions.
“This means that these proposed guidelines were developed without the expertise needed to ensure that they are scientifically accurate and defensible,” said Schaffer, a toxicologist at a drug-testing lab, according to a Freight Waves report. “I fear that these proposed guidelines are going to unnecessarily restrict the use of hair drug testing, an incredibly effective tool at detecting drug use, for reasons which have no scientific basis.”
Armentano at NORML said that doubling down on a testing procedure that could exacerbate racial disparities simply doesn’t make sense, especially given today’s political climate.
“Given the heightened awareness surrounding the need for social and racial equity,” he said, “the idea of proposing a testing procedure that will inherently deny more people of color opportunities than it would others who have engaged in exactly the same activities is beyond tone deaf and counterproductive.”
SAMHSA estimates that about one percent of the 275,000 drug tests it expects federal agencies to do every year will be for hair specimens. When it comes to workers in jobs regulated by the Department of Transportation, the agency anticipates that 1.53 million of a total 6.1 million drug tests will be hair-focused. For nuclear workers, 15,000 of 150,000 total tests would be of hair specimens.
“These projected numbers are based on existing annual pre-employment testing that currently occurs in the regulated industries and current hair testing being conducted,” SAMHSA wrote
The agency is accepting public comments on the proposal through November 9.
This story was updated to add comment from Lee.
Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske