The lead sponsor of marijuana banking legislation made one final symbolic push for his measure on Friday in his last committee meeting as a member of Congress before he retires.
Frustrated that the Senate has consistently failed to take up the bill even after it has passed the House several times, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) filed the text of his Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—with two key additions—as an amendment to large-scale omnibus appropriations legislation.
The amendment included not just the banking language of his standalone legislation but also contained the provisions of two separate measures on expungement of prior marijuana convictions and gun rights for cannabis consumers. Together, the reforms made up a “SAFE Plus” package that advocates hoped could be included in the omnibus bill, but that didn’t happen.
The congressman called the exclusion of cannabis reform one of a handful of “glaring omissions” from the legislation, but he did not end up forcing a vote on the issue, saying that “there is not a lot of latitude to be making big amendments and sending things back to the Senate” in light of a looming storm as well as what would be a government shutdown if the spending bill is not enacted in short order.
“We passed it to the Senate seven times to watch it go nowhere, under Democrats and Republicans, so the blame goes across both sides,” the congressman told fellow members of the Rules Committee, which prepared the Senate-passed omnibus legislation for a last-minute House floor vote before members head home for the Christmas holiday.
Even though key legislators agreed on the framework of the SAFE Plus marijuana reform deal, they couldn’t push past opposition from Republican leaders who refused to allow it to be attached to the legislation.
Perlmutter said senators played a “chess game” that led to that chamber being in control of what got included in the year-end government funding bill.
“I feel like they’ve played the game by delaying up to a Christmas holiday, and you jam it down the House members’ throats,” he said. “It puts a lot of power into the Senate and to our leadership.”
Perlmutter’s amendment on cannabis banking, expungements and gun rights consisted of virtual identical text to the corresponding standalone bills on each issue and did not contain changes to the financial services components that have reportedly been agreed up on by Senate leaders in recent weeks to address concerns from equity advocates and from the Department of Justice.
Other members of the Rules panel, which began considering the omnibus on Thursday evening before finishing up on Friday, cheered Perlmutter, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, for his longstanding efforts on cannabis banking.
“On the SAFE Banking Act, you have so imprinted in our brains that legislation that even in your absence we will continue to offer those amendments, because it’s the right thing to do,” committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said.
“I’ve had people come up to me who run cannabis businesses who say that because people can’t use credit cards, because people can’t use checks, people wait in line with lots of cash,” he said. “There’s a public safety issue here, and it makes no sense. If states have already moved ahead, why is it taking the federal government so long to make the necessary adjustments so that these businesses can operate like any other business? We will get there, I hope sooner rather than later.”
McGovern also joked that the the panel should adopt a “bipartisan resolution naming your chair the SAFE Banking chair, so that whoever sits there can know that that’s their job” to push the marijuana reform in the future.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the GOP ranking member of the Rules Committee, said that Perlmutter “even finally beat me into submission on SAFE banking,” noting that he has ended up voting for the legislation several times.
“Whether I agree with legalization or not, I talk to many law enforcement professionals and people in the financial services industry and they tell me about the hardships that this creates and frankly the opportunities for criminals because they know these are cash-heavy enterprises and the difficulties that can be associated with money laundering,” he said. “All those things would be improved enormously if we passed your legislation.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had worked in recent weeks to craft the SAFE Plus compromise, but it faced opposition from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other Republicans.
McConnell’s opposition has also been cited as the reason the reform wasn’t included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) earlier this month.
A Senate source had said last week that Schumer was “making a last ditch effort” to attach the cannabis banking language to the spending bill—but the majority leader wasn’t able to get the deal done. He said the issue would need to wait until the next Congress, which will see Republicans in control of the House.
It’s clear that negotiations were sensitive around adding anything new to the spending bill, and drug policy reform suffered as a final deal was forged. In addition to the lack of SAFE Banking or SAFE Plus language, the legislation also omitted several other reform proposals that were attached to spending measures approved in the House and Senate earlier this year. The final bill also maintains a rider that blocks Washington, D.C. from implementing a system of regulated cannabis commerce—another major setback for advocates.
Advocates will now look ahead to 2023 and the possibility of advancing the reform in a divided Congress.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) had signaled that he viewed cannabis banking as a likely 2023 issue, though a staffer said last week that he was still be open to passing it through the spending package if it contained broader provisions.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who will serve as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee in the next Congress, recently indicated that he similarly feels the issue will need to be decided after the lame duck. The congressman said that he remains opposed to SAFE Banking, but he left the door open to advancing it if that’s the will of his Republican colleagues.
“What I’ve pledged is having an open process. I told my members my view of it,” he said. “Members are able to come to their own conclusion about the bill. It’s so variable state by state.”
For his part, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has also pinned blame on McConnell, saying that his vocal opposition to cannabis reform has had a chilling effect of GOP members who might otherwise be amenable to passing legislation that contains SAFE Banking language.
“They’re dead set on anything in marijuana,” he said, referring to Republican leadership. “That to me is the obstacle.”
“The caucus is clearly divided but the people in power in their caucus are clearly against doing anything on marijuana,” he added.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.