Tuesday marked the fifth time that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses. And the lead sponsor of that reform, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), tells Marijuana Moment that he does think “the fifth time is the charm” to finally get the measure through the Senate and onto the president’s desk.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act has previously passed as standalone bills and as provisions tucked into broader bills. On Tuesday, the House attached it to large-scale defense spending legislation in a voice vote, raising hopes that the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be vehicle to actually advance cannabis banking reform into law.
In a phone interview on Wednesday, Perlmutter spoke to Marijuana Moment about next steps for the legislation, the barriers that need to be overcome and even joked about how to spell “superfluous,” a term that some members said this week might apply to a marijuana banking amendment in the context of defense spending legislation.
Over the years that the congressman has sponsored this reform, he’s pushed back against criticism that it would primarily benefit industry stakeholders, arguing that it is an imperative public safety issue that would help state-legal marijuana businesses access financial institutions and stop operating on a largely cash-only basis that makes them targets of crime. And while some might question the germaneness of attaching it to NDAA, both he and even one GOP lawmaker made the case on the House floor on Tuesday that it would bolster national security by hampering international drug cartels operating in the illicit market.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
Marijuana Moment: Is the move to attach SAFE Banking to NDAA what’s finally going to get this through the Senate and onto the president’s desk? You’ve now passed the reform measure through the House five times. Is the fifth time the charm?
Ed Perlmutter: I think the fifth time is the charm. I mean, obviously, we still have to do some work to make sure that it remains part of the NDAA as the House and the Senate go to conference. So we still have work to do with the Senate to make sure that it remains part of it. But I think that it will. I mean, the fact that it deals with cartels and national security, on top of the need for the public safety piece of this thing, I think that we’ll be able to convince the conference committee and the conferees generally to keep it in. But we still have work to do.
MM: Were you surprised at all that no member demanded a roll call vote on the floor yesterday after the measure was approved by a voice vote?
EP: Yes. Yes, I was.
#SAFEBanking will strengthen the security of our financial system & keep bad actors like cartels out.
Most importantly, it will reduce the risk of violent crime in our communities.
It's passed the House 5 times. We cannot wait any longer to address this public safety threat. https://t.co/inwnn6ouR1
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) September 22, 2021
MM: Some key senators have said they aren’t very excited about moving banking reform in advance of comprehensive, equity-focused legalization. Have you been in touch with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and colleagues about their latest thoughts on moving SAFE Banking now through NDAA while their broader effort to end prohibition is still pending?
EP: I have not. I have a call scheduled with [Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA)], who is sort of my counterpart in the Senate on the Banking Committee, and he and I are going to talk about it. We’ve been in touch with the sponsors of the bill over there, [Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and [Steve Daines (R-MT)], to let them know what’s happening— and obviously with my senators from Colorado. It was just last night that we were able to add SAFE Banking as an amendment, and so no, I have not had a chance yet to talk to Senator Schumer or Senator Booker about this. I don’t think that a full [legalization] bill has been prepared yet. I don’t know where they are on tracking votes. But I do feel pretty strongly that SAFE Banking has substantial support in the Senate, and this gives another chance to have it heard.
MM: House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) said in the Rules Committee earlier this week that there’s a need to have buy-in from bipartisan leaders of the committees of jurisdiction in both chambers to get something that seems “superfluous” to NDAA in conference. Some leadership in those committees, both Democrats and Republicans, have been less enthusiastic about the legislation. What’s the plan to get them on board with including this in the conference report?
EP: Well, I first I’d say [House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC)] actually, in some ways, has been helpful. I know he’s opposed to the bill generally, but as the ranking member, he hasn’t thrown roadblocks in our way in terms of bringing the matter to the floor for the vote that we had in the spring. He didn’t throw any roadblocks in the way of us adding it as an amendment. So I think, on principle for his own particular vote, he’s not been in favor of the bill. But he also has not been really adamant in opposing it, if that makes sense.
With respect to [Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH)], he and I have had conversations about it—and obviously, I know Senator Schumer and Booker are interested in a much bigger package, and I appreciate that. To the degree they can get that passed where it decriminalizes, deschedules, has criminal justice reform components, has taxation portions and provisions, that’s great. I don’t know that they have the votes for that. And so Senator Brown and I have had some good conversations, and we will have more now as the National Defense Authorization Act moves forward to conference committee.
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MM: Some activists have expressed frustration that the House this Congress has now twice passed what they see as the industry-focused banking reform while there has been no movement on broader legalization during the 117th Congress. Are you expecting to see something like the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act move again soon this Congress?
EP: I expect it to move, yes. And I don’t know what activists you’re talking about because we’re working with a lot of activists on this bill. In fact, this bill was generated by activists, not the business community. We’ve had to bring the business community along to be part of this. And I think everybody now understands, you know, when you get these huge piles of cash, there is danger. There is danger in the form of robberies, assaults and murders, which we’ve seen.
And so when you say activists are kind of opposed to it, I can tell you, I’ve been working on this thing for eight years now and it was activists that started this. It was dispensary owners who were being robbed. I want to dispel that. This is not an industry bill. This is something we developed over the years when we couldn’t get the White House, either under Obama or Trump, to deschedule it.
MM: President Joe Biden obviously remains opposed to adult-use legalization. But do you feel he’d be supportive of a more modest reform like cannabis banking? And are you hopeful he will eventually come around on broader legalization anytime soon?
EP: So the first question with respect to SAFE Banking, I know that [Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen] is somebody I’ve talked to about this bill for years, and she knows the issues around it and the accumulation of cash and the need to be able to provide legitimate banking services—from credit cards, to payroll accounts, to checking accounts—and she’s supportive.
The president, I think, because this is really narrowly tailored to get the cash off the streets, to provide a higher level of public safety, I think he’s going to be supportive. We’re at 47 states, all the territories and the District of Columbia, have some level of marijuana use now. This is something that cannot be ignored any longer. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the Senate, the House or in the White House.
Now, your question about will the president support a broader piece of legislation? I don’t know. And we’ve not had that conversation. The SAFE Banking Act has been around, and the outline of it occurred during the Obama-Biden administration when we got the Cole memo and the [Financial Crimes Enforcement Network] guidance, not to get too deep into the weeds. But basically, the Cole memo, as you may recall, was revoked by [Attorney General Jeff Sessions], but [former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] and now Secretary Yellen have maintained the FinCEN guidance. This incorporates that guidance. So we know, starting with the Obama-Biden administration, this is something that the administration was comfortable with. Now, we need to make it legislative and put it in statute.
MM: Now this might be “superfluous” to a conversation about marijuana banking, but broader drug policy reforms seem to be gaining momentum—including in your home state of Colorado.
EP: You want me to spell “superfluous”? [laughs]
MM: Denver voters approved a ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019, and now some are talking about putting a measure on the statewide ballot next year to decriminalize psychedelics or potentially remove criminal penalties for possessing all drugs. What are your thoughts on moves to more broadly end the war on drugs?
EP: Actually, I haven’t thought about it much. I mean, I’ve been more focused on keeping people from getting killed in dispensaries, and for dispensaries to be able to pay their employees in a normal fashion and not in cash. So I haven’t thought about the broader question you’re asking. So maybe in a month or two, we can talk about it. I want to get this thing done first.
Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill
The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.
His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.
“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.
I have filed #SAFEBanking as an amendment to #AmericaCOMPETES b/c cannabis-related businesses – big and small – are in desperate need of access to capital & the banking system in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner & compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) January 28, 2022
“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”
It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.
The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.
Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.
In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.
Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures
Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.
This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.
The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.
CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.
“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”
The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.
Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.
A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).
A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.
There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.
After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.
Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.
Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.
A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”
While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.
The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.
“The higher the content of THC, the greater the likelihood that you will become addicted to the drug… The content of THC has gone up at least 4-fold.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.
The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.
That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.
“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.
Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.
“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”
The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.
She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”
However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.
“We need to provide them [addicts] with treatment, so just to say ok we are going to liberalize everything… and not support treatment for those people under those conditions, I actually think it is quite irresponsible.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.
She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.
Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.