The most cannabis-friendly Congress in history is back from its August recess, and lawmakers are already making key moves to advance marijuana reform legislation. The immediate focus is on a proposal to let banks serve cannabis companies without fear of being punished by federal regulators—with House leaders announcing that a floor vote is expected by the end of the month.
On Monday, the Senate version of the marijuana financial services bill got its 33rd cosponsor—Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN)—meaning that virtually a third of the chamber is now formally signed onto the legislation, counting its main sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
Not to be outdone by movement in the House, where the cannabis banking legislation was approved in committee back in March, Senate Banking Committee Chairman announced last week that he plans a vote on the issue in his panel by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the idea that marijuana businesses need to be able to store their profits in banks is gaining more support outside of Congress. On Monday, the Independent Community Bankers of America and 43 state banking associations sent a letter urging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to vote on the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act “as soon as possible.”
ICBA and 43 state banking associations urged House leaders to vote on the SAFE Banking Act, which creates a safe harbor for financial institutions that serve cannabis-related businesses in states where it is legal. Read more => https://t.co/JF4srvXjCr
— ICBA (@ICBA) September 16, 2019
“The current conflict between state and federal law with regard to cannabis has created increasingly significant legal and compliance concerns for banks that wish to provide banking services to [cannabis-related businesses] in jurisdictions where cannabis is legal,” the groups, which represent community banks with more than 52,000 locations nationwide, wrote. “Legal and regulatory uncertainty has curtailed access to the traditional banking system for CRBs and forced them to operate mostly in cash. Cash-only businesses, especially those with a high volume of revenue, pose a significant risk to public safety.”
The community banking organizations join 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators in 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and the governors of 20 states in urging Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act.
While many marijuana reform advocates see passing the banking bill as the first step in what they hope will be a series of legislative victories leading to the eventual end of federal cannabis prohibition, some have expressed concerns about advancing what is seen as an industry-focused proposal prior to voting to deschedule marijuana.
In July, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed legislation to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and fund programs to repair some of the harms of the war on drugs, but he has not yet scheduled it for a markup in his panel, which has been focused on gun reform and impeachment proceedings this month.
Separate legislation that would exempt marijuana activities from the CSA without formally descheduling cannabis has bipartisan support in the Senate and House, but has also not yet been scheduled for hearings or votes.
It is expected that the House will consider the marijuana banking bill next week under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, which will require a two-thirds majority to pass the legislation. Currently there are 207 representatives who have signed their names onto the bill as cosponsors.
Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries
Less than two years after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, dispensaries made the state’s first cannabis sales to patients on Saturday.
N’Bliss Cannabis opened the doors of two separate St. Louis County locations, in Ellisville and Manchester.
I was honored to watch Larry, a cancer survivor, and his wife Sue, an RN, make the state’s first legal medical cannabis purchase this morning in St Louis. @mocanntrade @NewApproachMO pic.twitter.com/rCudrkdbfI
— Jack Cardetti (@jackcardetti) October 17, 2020
“Missouri patients have always been our north star as we work to implement the state’s medical marijuana program,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a press release. “We greatly appreciate how hard everyone has worked so that patients can begin accessing a safe and well-regulated program.”
Officials have touted the speed with which they have gotten the voter-approved cannabis program off the ground, saying it is “one of the fastest implementations of a medical marijuana program in the United States.”
“A tremendous amount of work has occurred by the licensed facilities and our team to get us to this point, and we continue to hear from more facilities that they are ready or almost ready for their commencement inspection,” Lyndall Fraker, director of the Section for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these facilities open their doors to serve patients and caregivers.”
— Mo Health & Sr Srvcs (@HealthyLivingMo) October 17, 2020
The impending launch of sales on Saturday was first announced by the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association on Friday and reported by The Springfield News-Leader.
The wait is finally over! Tomorrow morning at 9am @NBlissCannabis will open the doors to their Ellisville and Manchester locations for the first medical marijuana sales in Missouri! Congrats to the whole N'Bliss team! The #MOMMJ industry is up and running! pic.twitter.com/wyZIcoyLBv
— MoCannTrade (@mocanntrade) October 16, 2020
The state, which has so far licensed 192 dispensaries and expects most of them to open their doors by the end of the year, posted an interactive map that tracks the status of approved medical marijuana businesses.
For months, regulators have been caught up in lawsuits and appeals challenging their licensing decisions, with revenues that would otherwise go to supporting veteran services instead being allocated to covering legal costs.
Missouri isn’t the only state to see medical cannabis sales launch this weekend. Virginia’s first medical marijuana dispensary also held its grand opening on Saturday.
Meanwhile, recreational sales of marijuana rolled out in Maine last week—four years after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.
Illinois Continues Record-Breaking Marijuana Sales Streak, New State Data For September Shows
For the fifth month in a row, Illinois is again reporting record-breaking marijuana sales, the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced on Monday.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois has seen escalating cannabis sales month-over-month. In September, consumers purchased more than 1.4 million marijuana products worth a total of nearly $67 million. Almost $18 million of those sales came from out-of-state visitors.
In August, the total sales reached about $64 million—the previous monthly record. The new adult-use sales figures don’t include data about purchases made through the state’s medical cannabis program.
This latest data seems to support the notion that the state’s marijuana market is “recession-proof” and “pandemic-proof,” as a top regulator said in August.
State officials have emphasized that while the strong sales trend is positive economic news, they’re primarily interested in using tax revenue to reinvest in communities most impacted by the drug war. Illinois brought in $52 million in cannabis tax revenue in the first six months since retail sales started in January, the state announced in July, 25 percent of which will go toward a social equity program.
“We were not doing this to make as much money as fast as we possibly could,” Toi Hutchinson, senior cannabis advisor to Gov. J.B Pritzker (D), said. “We were actually doing this for people,” with a focus on supporting communities most impacted by the drug war.
In May, the state also announced that it was making available $31.5 million in restorative justice grants funded by marijuana tax revenue.
That said, ensuring an equitable market as promised hasn’t been easy. Regulators have recently faced lawsuits after dozens of would-be social equity licensees were denied an opportunity to participate in a licensing lottery over alleged problems with their applications. The state said it would approve 75, but only 21 ultimately qualified—and critics complain that the resources it takes to submit an acceptable application creates barriers for the exact people the special licenses are supposed to help.
The governor announced last month that new procedures would be implemented allowing rejected applicants to submit corrected forms. But on Monday, three investors who are finalists from the initial round filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that the administration’s decision to permit resubmissions was politically motivated and illegal.
For now, the out-of-state sales data seems to support Pritzker’s prediction during his State of the State address in January that cannabis tourism would bolster the state’s coffers.
Prior to implementation, the pardoned more than 11,000 people with prior marijuana convictions.
Over in Oregon, officials have been witnessing a similar sales trend amid the global health crisis. Data released in August reveals that the state saw about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis sales, marking the third month in a row that sales exceeded $100 million.
California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.
Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.
“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.
In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”
Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.
Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.
For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.
Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).
The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.
Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”
“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.
Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.
“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”
Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.
“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”
Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.
The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.
“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore