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Marijuana Banking Measure Rejected By Congressional Committee

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A powerful congressional committee voted on Wednesday to reject a measure to protect banks that open accounts for marijuana businesses from being punished by federal financial regulators. Supporters then scrambled to craft a more limited measure focused on medical cannabis businesses, but it was ultimately withdrawn before a vote could take place.

The broader measure would have prevented the U.S. Department of Treasury from taking any action to “penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana or marijuana products” in accordance with state or local law.

After a lengthy and impassioned debate during which at least 19 lawmakers spoke, it was defeated on a voice vote by the House Appropriations Committee.

Despite the fact that a growing number of states are legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use, many financial institutions have remained reluctant to work with cannabis businesses for fear of running afoul of money laundering laws under ongoing federal prohibition.

As a result, many marijuana growers, processors and retailers operate on a cash-only basis, which can make them targets for robberies.

The issue is “not whether or not one approves of marijuana,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), the chief sponsor of both banking amendments, before the vote. “This is about public safety and financial transparency.”

Either rider, if it were successfully attached to legislation to fund the Treasury Department for Fiscal Year 2019, would have provided added assurance to banks that federal officials won’t close them down for working with the cannabis industry.

A similar measure was approved by the full House of Representatives in 2014 by a margin of 231 to 192, but was not included in final spending legislation that year, and congressional Republicans have since blocked floor votes on most cannabis measures.

In the lead up to the Wednesday banking vote, several advocates and Capitol Hill staffers expressed confidence in interviews that the measure would pass. But a number of likely Republican supporters were absent during the debate, and others who are sympathetic to marijuana law reform expressed varying concerns about the specific proposal. As a result, supporters did not force a roll call tally following the defeat on a voice voice.

Joyce then went back to the drawing board and crafted the narrower medical-focused amendment, which he hoped would find enough support to pass. But after a brief debate on the second proposal, Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asked Joyce three times to withdraw the amendment instead of forcing a vote. The Ohio congressman twice pressed ahead and said he wanted the committee to weigh in on the measure, only to give in at the last moment and pull the measure.

By seeking to adopt the language in the appropriations panel, before the overall spending bill heads to the Rules Committee, which is where marijuana amendments have gone to die for the past several years, advocates were attempting to circumvent an effective blockade that has prevented progress on cannabis reform in the House.

In a similar move last month, the Appropriations Committee approved a measure to protect state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department interference following several instances of that measure being blocked by the Rules Committee.

In a separate sign of the mainstreaming of marijuana politics on the other side of the Capitol, on Wednesday the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies included that far-reaching medical marijuana language in the initial version of the Justice Department funding bill as introduced by Republican leaders, meaning that no vote or amendment will even be necessary to advance the provision in that chamber this year.

The Senate panel is scheduled to take up its version of the Treasury Department funding bill, which is called the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, next week.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which opposes legalization, sent a letter this week urging House lawmakers to reject the cannabis banking move.

While U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January rescinded Obama-era guidance that generally protected state marijuana laws from Justice Department interference, Treasury Department officials have for now kept in place a separate memo that provides some direction and limited protection to banks that work with cannabis businesses.

Also on Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell was asked about cannabis banking issues during a press conference.

“This is a difficult area, because many state laws permit the use of marijuana and federal law still doesn’t,” he said. “So it puts federally chartered banks in a very difficult situation.”

The Fed chairman implied that he would like the issue to be resolved with a change in policy.

“It would great if that could be clarified,” Powell said. “Our mandate has nothing to do with marijuana, so we just would love to see it clarified.”

Another top Trump administration official, Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin, has indicated on a number of occasions that he sees the importance of allowing marijuana businesses to store their profits in banks.

“I assure you that we don’t want bags of cash,” he testified before a House committee in February. “We do want to find a solution to make sure that businesses that have large access to cash have a way to get them into a depository institution for it to be safe.”

In a separate House appearance the same month, he testified that fixing cannabis banking issues is at the “top of the list” of his department’s concerns.

Prior to his confirmation by the Senate last year, Mnuchin said in response to written questions from a senator that marijuana businesses’ banking and tax issues are “very important.”

President Trump himself last week indicated that he supports broader changes to federal marijuana prohibition so that states can set their own legalization laws without interference.

“I really do. I support Senator Gardner,” the president said when asked by a journalist if he supports the legislation, filed last week by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The Treasury Department legislation, which also covers funding policy for the District of Columbia, contains provisions that prohibit the city from spending local or federal funds to enact a broader system of legal marijuana sales and from using federal monies to support supervised drug consumption facilities.

Meanwhile, separate standalone bills to permanently solve the marijuana industry’s financial services issues have record levels of support. House legislation filed by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) has 94 cosponsors and a companion Senate bill  sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has 18 lawmakers signed on.

The marijuana banking amendment, as proposed before the House Appropriations Committee, reads:

“None of the funds made available in this Act may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or Guam, to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana or marijuana products and engages in such activity pursuant to a law established by a State or a unit of local government.”

The medical cannabis banking amendment reads:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or Guam, to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling medical marijuana or medical marijuana products and engages in such activity pursuant to a law established by a State or a unit of local government as it pertains to medical marijuana. Any entity that engages in any activity involving marijuana that is not exclusively for medical purposes shall not be covered by this provision.”

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 15-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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Number Of Banks Working With Marijuana Businesses Levels Off, Federal Data Shows

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The number of banks and credit unions that service the marijuana industry largely leveled off in the last quarter, according to new federal data released late last week. And that market trend could reflect shifting expectations among financial institutions about the likelihood of Congress approving cannabis banking legislation.

While the House did eventually pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would shield banks that accept marijuana business clients from being penalized by federal regulators, that vote happened just five days before the end of the fourth quarter of the federal fiscal year and not prior to the summer recess weeks earlier, as had previously been expected.

Marijuana Moment first reported that a vote was imminent about two weeks prior to the House action.

It’s possible that banks were waiting to see the congressional action before further servicing the market and were disappointed that the Democratic-controlled chamber did not act on the legislation before lawmakers broke for the summer break. Previous quarters have seen significant upticks in the number of banks and credit unions working with marijuana businesses, especially since the end of 2018.

But this last quarter, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) reported that 563 banks and 160 credit unions were serving cannabis companies as of September 30, compared to 553 banks and 162 credit unions at the end of the previous quarter. That’s a small increase for banks and a slight dip for credit unions, signaling a shift in pace as lawmakers work to get the bipartisan banking bill to the president’s desk.

Via FinCEN.

But now that the House has acted, and signals point to the Senate following suit, industry watchers are bullish about getting the key reform across the finish line this Congress.

“I get the sense that people in the financial community are optimistic about the chances of cannabis banking reform happening in the near future from our work with groups like the [American Bankers Association] and [Credit Union National Association] on the SAFE Banking Act,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment.

FinCEN also said that short-term declines in these numbers “may be explained by filers exceeding the 90 day follow-on Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) filing requirement,” a process that banks are mandated to follow in accordance with 2014 cannabis banking guidance issued under the Obama administration.

“Several filers take 180 days or more to file a continuing activity report,” the agency said. “After 90 days, a depository institution is no longer counted as providing banking services until a new guidance-related SAR is received.”

Those caveats were also included in previous quarterly reports that had shown increases in the number of financial institutions working with the cannabis industry, however.

The latest update also contains data on the number of marijuana-related SARs that have been filed, which exceeded 100,000 for the first time as of the quarter’s end. (There appears to be a mistake in the narrative of FinCEN’s report, as it states the numbers reflect SARs filed by the end of June instead of September.)

FinCEN also placed the SARs in one of three categories: marijuana limited, marijuana priority and marijuana termination.

Via FinCEN.

As usual, most (76,203) were considered “marijuana limited,” which refers to cannabis businesses that seem to be operating in compliance with state law, and therefore meet the agency’s standard for being serviceable under existing federal guidelines.

The second largest category was for “marijuana termination” SARs, or marijuana businesses that violated at least one federal enforcement priority or state regulation and so “the financial institution has decided to terminate its relationship with” the firm.

About 7,800 SARs fit the definition of “marijuana priority,” which is defined as a business that “may raise one or more of the red flags” under federal guidelines, or they “may not be fully compliant with the appropriate state’s regulations” and so they’d be under investigation.

Whether the leveling off trend will continue is yet to be seen. However, if the Senate does advance the SAFE Banking Act and it is enacted, advocates expect a surge in banks embracing the cannabis industry. The chair of the Senate Banking Committee has said that his panel will vote on marijuana banking legislation before the year’s end, though he suggested he’d like certain changes from the House-passed version.

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Head Of Nation’s Only Federally Legal Marijuana Farm Develops THC Eye Drops

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The head of the nation’s only federally approved marijuana farm has revealed that he is developing cannabis eye drops to treat glaucoma.

In a podcast interview, pharmacologist Mahmoud ElSohly, director of the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Research Project, discussed the history of how an eye doctor discovered that cannabis can relieve the interocular pressure associated with glaucoma. But while the THC in the plant treated the symptoms, it also means patients experience the high.

“The best way to treat glaucoma is not to take a drug that will affect your brain, affect your ability to function, the whole rest of your body just to lower the pressure inside the eyes,” ElSohly argued. “The way to do this is to develop, let’s say, eye drops, eye drops from marijuana.”

Both his lab and a separate, unnamed company that licensed the idea are looking into the eye drop possibility, with the company having already begun clinical trials, ElSohly said. It’s a notable advancement because THC is lipophilic, acting like an oil, and so “it doesn’t penetrate into the inner compartments of the eye to lower the pressure.”

“Therefore, only if you take systemically—meaning if you inhale it or swallow it or something—but then you deal with all the side effects of THC,” he said in the interview, which was recorded in February and published this month. “Now we’re developing a pharmaceutical product, and it’s been licensed by the way now, that we take the THC molecule and we modify it in a certain way to allow it to go inside the eye, and once inside, it breaks off and releases THC just in the eye to lower the pressure.”

“You don’t feel any psychological activity, it doesn’t even get into your blood. It’s all localized in the eye,” he said. “We have this product now that is being licensed and being developed as an eye drop.”

Listen to the conversation about the THC eye drops, which begins around 15:40, below: 

“That’s the way to develop pharmaceuticals based on cannabis but not cannabis, based on marijuana but not marijuana,” he added during the appearance on the podcast of anti-legalization organization National Families In Action, for which ElSohly serves as a scientific advisory board member. “That’s the way to do it and develop the medicine.”

The targeted treatment of glaucoma using the novel delivery method that ElSohly described is noteworthy, but it also underscores the potential for the development of other valuable treatment options derived from marijuana that’s being inhibited under prohibition. One barrier that researchers and lawmakers alike have identified is the substandard quality of cannabis produced at ElSohly’s farm.

Currently, the University of Mississippi is the only federally approved source of research-grade marijuana, but scientists have complained about the cannabis supply, which one study found is genetically closer to hemp than products available in state-legal markets. That raises questions about the validity of studies that rely on the government’s marijuana.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said in September that it is taking steps to approve additional marijuana farms beyond ElSohly’s Mississippi operation, three years after the agency initially invited applications for such facilities.

In an earlier podcast segment released in September, ElSohly made a series of remarks that some viewed as reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of marijuana issues.

The director characterized cannabis containing eight percent THC as “extremely high potency” and expressed confusion as to why individuals would seek out varieties in the commercial market that contain “20 percent or 15 or 18 or any of those high amounts.”

But ElSohly was thinking about marijuana consumption in the context of standardized clinical trials, where individuals would have to consume an entire joint in one sitting in order to compare the effects of a controlled dose with other subjects. Others have pointed out that consumers might prefer higher concentration products because they can achieve the desired effect without having to smoke as much.

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SXSW Announces Two Dozen Marijuana Panels For 2020 Festival

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South by Southwest (SXSW) revealed the festival’s 2020 lineup this week, and it includes 24 panels dedicated exclusively to cannabis issues.

The sessions are part of SXSW’s “Cannabusiness” convergence track, which will invite attendees to learn about “the technological, cultural, financial, legal and political ecosystems that are defining the cannabis-focused enterprises of both today and tomorrow,” according to a description on the event site.

In July, the Austin-based festival announced that it was soliciting panel ideas from the public. More than 150 marijuana-related panel proposals were submitted—more than double the submissions for this year’s event—and SXSW invited individuals to vote on their top choices throughout August. Ultimately, 24 cannabis-focused panels made the final cut, including one that isn’t in the Cannabusiness Track.

Here are some examples that stand out: 

Descheduling Cannabis: Be Careful What You Wish—Leading cannabis industry stakeholders discuss how removing cannabis from the list of federally banned substances could be destructive to the market as it exists today by allowing for a corporatized marijuana model. Panelists including The Arview Group CEO Troy Dayton will address how descheduling could “decimate the dispensary system and see the destruction of millions of dollars of investment.”

Duty Bound: Why the DoD Should Embrace Cannabis—Active duty military members and veterans stand to greatly benefit from marijuana, this panel argues, by “alleviating both mental and physical traumas” while at the same time saving tax dollars. “During our panel we’ll dive into the specific individual, national, and even global benefits of allowing for active duty cannabis use in the US military,” a description states.

Featured Session: Cat Packer—Top Los Angeles marijuana regulator Cat Packer will talk about her role in the “licensing and regulation of commercial cannabis activity” as well as managing “the implementation of the City’s cannabis related policies and programs.”

Cannabis in Canada: What We’ve Learned—Panelists from Leafly, Spiritleaf, Tilray, 48North and Hill+Knowlton will discuss the impacts of marijuana legalization in Canada, including talks about the impact on local economies and industry innovation.

Can Social Equity Help Heal The War On Drugs?—This panel will look at the disproportionate impact of cannabis prohibition on disadvantaged communities, efforts to enact restorative justice policies and how those measures have affected the business community.

The Future of the Cannabis Industry is Colored—Another social justice-focused panel, this event will look at actionable things that people can do to ensure that the legal marijuana market is equitable. “The right and just thing to do for racially equity industry is also the profitable thing to do in business,” a description of the panel states. Kris Krane of 4Front Investments, Simply Pure CEO Wanda James and representatives of the People’s Dispensary will participate.

Frenemies: Cannabis Activists & Cannabis Industry—Krane, who also previous served as executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), will also lead a session that explores the complicated relationship between the reform advocacy world and the marijuana industry. He will take a “deep dive into this relationship, examining how the two can support each other, where they clash” and why he thinks “the industry is obligated to support the drug policy reform movement.”

Boutique Cannabis Needs Appellations—Individuals fighting to get a designation for cannabis products that reflect where they were produced will discuss the importance of the business move.

Forbidden Territories: Women & Children First!—This panel will focus on the use of cannabis in the treatment of conditions that afflict women and children. “This session will explore this taboo topic, explore the science that supports the use of cannabis for these populations as well as what we as physicians have learned from our patients about cannabis.”

Hemp: Game Changers—Representatives from Canopy Growth, Vincente Sederberg LLP and outdoor apparel company Patagonia will discuss marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin, hemp, as part of a panel centered on the “rapidly evolving new industry.”

Is Cannabis Media Coverage Fair or Biased?—Panelists including Business Insider reporter Jeremy Berke and Rolling Stone contributor Amanda Chicago Lewis will look at the media landscape for marijuana coverage. “They’ll delve into how media coverage has changed for cannabis companies and discuss the high bar companies need to achieve to gain media attention,” as well as addressing “how misinformation persists and how the careful art of semantics—such as using the word dope vs. cannabis—changes reader perceptions.”

Marijuana Today: Live Podcast Recording—The weekly podcast Marijuana Today will record live for a segment that “will focus on the status of efforts to reform federal law and to promote equity in the cannabis industry.” SSDP Executive Director Betty Aldworth will participate in the event.

Medical Cannabis: From Rogue to Recovery to Riches—A Texas state senator will join a panel to discuss the evolution of the cannabis reform movement as well as future “business and social opportunities” for the industry. The panel of “government, medical and family activists will uncover the unexpected alliances formed—and strategies for collaboration for commercial success in a complex marketplace.”

Navigating an Emerging Cannabis Beverage Market—While federal regulators are playing catchup, a market for cannabis-infused beverages has exploded. This panel will explore the business and “share insights and lessons learned as they navigate the rapidly changing landscape in hopes of bringing world-class cannabis beverages to market.”

“Cannabusiness Track includes content that will appeal to more experienced professionals in this rapidly evolving industry, as well as to newcomers who are just starting to enter this space,” SXSW said.

At this year’s SXSW event, in March, social equity activists protested an appearance by former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who opposed legalization while in Congress but now sits on the board of a large cannabis company.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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