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Marijuana Banking Protections Must Come With Sentencing Reform, Key Senate Chairman Says

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The new chairman of the Senate Banking Committee says he’s open to advancing a bill protecting banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses—but it must be passed in tandem with sentencing reform legislation for drug offenses.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who recently took the top seat in his panel after Democrats secured a majority in the Senate, told reporters that he’s “willing” to move the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, “but with it needs to come sentencing reform.”

“I don’t think we move on legalization the way that Colorado and some other states want us to, unless we really look more seriously at who’s in prison for how long for those kinds of offenses and we don’t do one without the other,” he said after having a meeting with Colorado lawmakers about cannabis issues.

Brown, in comments first reported by Cleveland.com on Friday, added that if he does move forward with the SAFE Banking Act—which would prevent banks from being penalized by federal regulators simply by working with cannabis businesses—it will be done in coordination with the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would have jurisdiction over sentencing reform provisions.

His comments seem to echo a debate that played out last year over House leadership’s decision to hold a vote on the SAFE Banking Act before first addressing those broad policy changes. There were calls from advocates and certain lawmakers to postpone action on the banking bill until comprehensive legalization legislation advanced first.

Brown isn’t known to be an advocate on cannabis issues and said late last year when asked about marijuana reform that “I just don’t think that’s a priority.” He’s consistently declined to endorse the broader policy change or cosponsor pieces of reform legislation—and has gone further by making dismissive comments about the issue.

“States that have legalized marijuana, we’ll see what happens in those states,” he said in 2018. “If that means less addiction to more powerful drugs, or if it’s a gateway. And I don’t think we don’t know that yet.”

But to advocates, advancing the cannabis banking bill would be a welcome change, as former Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) let the measure stall in his panel after it was overwhelmingly approved in the House in 2019. The SAFE Banking Act was also attached to two rounds of coronavirus relief legislation that House Democrats introduced last year that did not get Senate votes.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, said earlier this month that he will again attempt to add language from his bill to the next COVID relief package, but he noted that it would be up to the Senate to act on it, and the chamber may instead choose to “take up a broader version” of marijuana reform.

“We’ll deal with that if they could ever move something out of the Senate, which is where the roadblock has been,” he said.

Marijuana banking is lower on many advocates’ list of reform priorities for 2021, however, because they feel that broader reform is achievable under unified Democratic control of Congress and the White House. They’re making a forceful push for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill to end federal cannabis prohibition and promote social equity in the industry. If marijuana were federally legalized, the financial services issue would be automatically fixed as part of that.

In any case, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are charting a path forward on major reform. The trio released a joint statement last week previewing their plan, which will involve introducing draft legislation “in the early part of this year” and soliciting feedback from activists and stakeholders.

The senators have already put that plan into action, holding a first meeting with representatives from numerous reform groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, NORML and the National Cannabis Industry Association on Friday.

Wyden, meanwhile, recently said that his goal will be to “end the prohibition and come up with sensible tax and regulatory oversight at the federal level.”

“This is a framework that I’ve championed, and I’ll be championing it as chairman,” he said. “You do that and you take care of the banking question, you take care of the tax question, you take care of the research issue and this whole array of issues that have been gridlocked because the federal government on cannabis has been tethered to yesteryear. That has been the central problem.”

Bipartisan Marijuana Research Bill Reintroduced In The Senate

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