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Marijuana Banking Bill Approved By Congressional Committee

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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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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Summer Dreams Of Marijuana-Infused Slushies Are Melted By Oklahoma Regulators

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Bad news for Oklahoma medical marijuana patients trying to beat the summer heat with a marijuana-infused slushy: State regulators say the icy beverages “are unlikely to meet requirements set forth in Oklahoma statutes and rules” for cannabis products.

As the weather heats up, THC-infused slushy machines have been popping up at more and more Oklahoma dispensaries. Made by companies such as Glazees, which offers flavors such as watermelon and blue raspberry, the THC-infused drinks sell for about $12-$15.

But despite their popularity with some patients, regulators say the slushies fail to comply with a number of state rules, such as a requirement that products be packaged in child-resistant containers. Dispensaries themselves also “are not allowed to alter, package, or label products,” regulators said.

State rules further require that all medical marijuana products be tested in their final form. “In this instance, the finished product is the slushy mixture to be dispensed to patients/caregivers, not the syrup,” regulators said. “If water, ice, or any other substance is added to the product, additional testing is required to ensure the product is safe for consumption and final-product labeling is accurate.”

Regulators didn’t specify how adding water or ice to cannabis products could affect consumer safety, however.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the update on Thursday in what it called a “slushy-machine guidance” memo. The office said it had received “multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries.”

The memo was silent, however, on the likelihood of enforcement. As of Friday morning, slushies still appeared on menus for some Oklahoma dispensaries.

It’s not the first obstacle encountered by Oklahoma marijuana businesses, which began popping up across the state voters passed a medical marijuana law in 2018.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging medical cannabis expansion bill, which would have allowed out-of-state residents to obtain temporary licenses, permitted licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers and eliminated jail time for for first-time possession convictions. But Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) then vetoed the bill, and lawmakers didn’t hold a vote to override the action.

Oklahoma activists also filed a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure in December, but it’s unlikely the campaign can gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this November. Their signature-gathering was largely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only last week did the state Supreme Court rule that the campaign could initiate petitioning. Supporters now have about 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters.

Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect

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Yelp Blocks Marijuana Businesses From Two Key Advertising Features

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Yelp is no longer offering two key advertising features to marijuana-related businesses, the company confirmed to Marijuana Moment.

Two cannabis businesses have shared an email from Yelp announcing the policy change. It states that the company had “unfortunate news” and that it will be removing both the “Business Highlights and Portfolio advertising options for cannabis-related businesses, effective immediately.”

“We will be removing these programs from your Yelp page over the course of the next few business days,” the email continues.

The Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), which is the longest-running cannabis dispensary in the country, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it has already seen a significant impact since receiving the notice two days earlier.

“This is yet another blow for us—amidst a devastating pandemic, no less,” BPG Director of Marketing Lauren Watson said. “Yelp was one of only a few effective advertising channels available to legal cannabis companies, and now, without warning, we’re being shut out. Just two days after the new policy was implemented, we’re seeing over a 60 percent decline in page views.”

In a tweet, the chief technology officer of cannabis delivery company Bud.com shared a screenshot of the email from Yelp.

“It’s frustrating to pay taxes and compete with unlicensed folks who can advertise digitally against you,” he said.

The Business Highlights service allows individuals to pay to feature up to six descriptors on their page showing what “makes their business unique” such as “family-owned.” The separate Portfolio option is another paid feature where businesses can include photos of projects they’ve completed “to showcase their quality of work, expertise, and specializations along with additional details such as cost and project timelines.”

A Yelp spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the company made the policy change in February—though these two marijuana businesses said they only received notice of the change this week. Just prior to when the company says it made the decision to block marijuana firms from the premium products, an NBC News investigation found that Yelp’s site included pages for unlicensed cannabis dispensaries, prompting the launch of the verification process.

The company allows “cannabis businesses on our platform in all states where it is either recreationally or medically legal, as it’s important that consumers have access to first-hand information about these businesses,” the spokesperson told Marijuana Moment.

The representative did not directly reply to a question about the reasoning for the policy change. Instead, they discussed how Yelp does not “take revenue from cannabis businesses that have not purchased our Verified License product.”

“By verifying their license to operate, Yelp is able to confirm to consumers that the business has satisfied the requirements of their local regulator to operate legally,” they said. “Once verified these businesses are then eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product only, at this time.”

Asked for clarification about whether verified marijuana businesses are eligible for the two advertising services mentioned in the email announcing the change to current clients, the spokesperson confirmed they are not.

“If a cannabis company purchases Verified License, they’re then only eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product, at this time,” they said.

The company did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about why at least some businesses were not notified about the policy change until this week even though the company says it made the decision four months ago.

“This is just one more example of prohibition discouraging companies from working with legal cannabis businesses, depriving them of the basic and vital services enjoyed by every other industry,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Given Yelp’s size and accessibility, this unfortunate decision will certainly be a blow to many cannabis businesses which are already hurting because of the pandemic, as well as lack of access to relief funds and other financial services.”

“Thankfully, there are some other services out there that can provide business information to consumers which are either tailored to cannabis or are willing to work with related businesses,” he said.

While Yelp provides the verification service for licensed marijuana businesses, the cannabis-focused directories Weedmaps and Leafly have both taken steps in recent months to prevent unlicensed shops from being advertised on their sites. WeedMaps said it removed about 2,700 listings for illegal dispensaries as of January and Leafly reported that it booted about 1,000 as of September 2019.

Nevada Pardons More Than 15,000 People With Marijuana Convictions Under Governor’s Resolution

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NBA Players Union Head Joins Marijuana Company As League Reportedly Suspends Drug Testing

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The head of the NBA’s players union is joining the board of a major marijuana company at the same time reports are surfacing that players will not be tested for cannabis and other recreational drugs when they convene to wrap up the season in Orlando next month.

Michele Roberts, who has served as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) since 2014, will be the first female board member of the national cannabis company Cresco Labs, the firm announced on Wednesday.

She said in a press release that she will help advance Cresco’s “distinctive brands of high quality products and services, particularly those focused on the promise held by medicinal cannabis to treat conditions and illnesses where more traditional protocols have not met the patients’ needs.”

Roberts added that she is committed to supporting the company’s social responsibility efforts to” better both individual lives and underrepresented communities.”

In her full-time job, Roberts has also advocated for reforming NBA’s marijuana policies, stating in 2018 that she feel “there are substantial signs that support its efficacy and the value that it has for us, especially pain management.”

“We’re in talks with the league to see where we can go with it,” she said at the time. “The obvious future is that marijuana will be decriminalized probably throughout the country in short order.”

Now it seems those negotiations are paying off, with sources telling The Athletic that the league and the players’ union have agreed to suspend testing for recreational drugs, at least for the rest of the current abbreviated season. NBA will continue to test for performance-enhancing drugs, however.

This is apparently an extension of a temporary policy, as players reportedly have not been tested for cannabis during the coronavirus pandemic that forced NBA to go into hiatus earlier this year. It’s not clear if it will be extended indefinitely following the “bubble” tournament housed at Disney World, but negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement are still in the works.

“It’s something that we are talking to Michele Roberts and the players association about, about what our policy should be,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last year. “I think it’s not as much about what guys do in the summer. If they want to smoke pot in the summer, whatever. It’s legal in a lot of states, to your point. No issue. I do think there’s a little bit of concern about some of the pot smoking in-season.”

If NBA does ultimately end marijuana testing, it would be another example of evolving drug policies within national sports leagues. Earlier this year, the MLB announced that players would not longer be tested for cannabis, though they’re barred from being sponsored by marijuana companies.

The NFL also made the decision to end suspensions for positive drug tests as well as limiting the testing window.

Colorado Marijuana Social Equity Businesses Would Be Defined Under New Bill

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

 

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