Senate leadership unveiled their latest round of coronavirus relief legislation on Monday—and unlike the version approved by the House, it does not include provisions protecting banks that service the marijuana industry from being penalized by federal regulators.
Reform advocates are disappointed but not necessarily surprised. After all, GOP senators lobbed seemingly coordinated attacks at House Democrats after they included the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in their COVID-19 legislation in May.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took issue in particular with cannabis industry diversity reporting requirements in the House banking language, leaving some level of hope he would at last sign off on amended marijuana banking language with the diversity provisions removed—but that didn’t happen.
While Republicans have questioned the germaneness of the marijuana reform being included as part of a coronavirus relief bill, industry advocates argue it would provide critical funding and also mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing alternatives to cash transactions in the cannabis market.
“Unfortunately, Senate Republicans and their Leader Mitch McConnell continue to refuse reality in nearly all of the legislative dealings when it comes to cannabis,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “At a time of a national credit crunch and coin shortage both providing them cover to include this minor but important policy change, their intransigence and desire to see lives ruined by prohibition holds.”
There was some hope that the Senate would put the bipartisan banking language in their version—at the very least to secure a victory for its sponsor, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who is trailing in his reelection race against former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). The House sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), said in May that he felt there was a 50-50 chance the Senate would adopt it as part of their COVID-19 bill.
In the end, that did not materialize. It remains to be seen whether there will be another push to add the language in bicameral negotiations that must take place merge the chambers’ differing versions into a single bill to send to the president. Meanwhile, the standalone SAFE Banking Act has continued to sit in the Senate Banking Committee without action in the months since the House initially approved it.
“Since the HEROES Act passed the House in May, we’ve been hard at work (from home!) talking to House and Senate leadership, as well as other key Senate offices,” Michelle Rutter Friberg, deputy director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Those conversations have been overwhelmingly positive and we feel incredibly hopeful that the discussion about SAFE Banking will continue to be a part of the conversation as negotiations progress.”
Steve Fox, strategic advisor at the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that it is “very disappointing that Senate leaders are working so hard to block legislation with such strong bipartisan support. At a time when businesses are trying to reduce cash transactions, forcing cannabis businesses to operate primarily with cash is illogical.”
“It is detrimental to public health and insensitive to the safety needs of both workers and customers,” he said. “We hope House leaders will push hard during negotiations to ensure the SAFE Banking Act is included in the final bill.”
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.