Bipartisan congressional lawmakers are stepping up the push to pass a marijuana banking bill this year at the same time cannabis business leaders are descending upon Washington, D.C. for lobby days organized by a leading cannabis industry association. And at a press briefing on Wednesday, a senator gave updated details about possible additions to the legislation.
As Senate leadership works to finalize a package of marijuana reforms that’s expected to include banking provisions, the bipartisan and bicameral sponsors of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act say it’s time to take action on the House-passed standalone legislation.
The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) ramped up its advocacy for the bill this week, bringing in more than 100 stakeholders for two days of lobbying on Capitol Hill involving more than 100 meetings with lawmakers and staff to drive home the point that they want to see the SAFE Banking Act enacted in 2022. The bill has passed the House in some form seven times now, but it’s stalled in the Senate under both Democratic and Republican control.
At a press conference on Wednesday, sponsors of the standalone banking bill reiterated the urgency of enacting reform this session, reiterating the public safety imperative of giving the cannabis industry access to the financial system.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) talked about examples of violent crime targeting marijuana businesses and workers, as well as the bipartisan support the standalone legislation.
“It’s a political positive. It’s good policy and good politics,” he said. “So we’re here today to say it’s way past time to get the SAFE Banking bill done.”
He also outlined additional provisions under consideration to build upon the financial services reform as part of a broader package that’s being called “SAFE Banking Plus.”
The forthcoming legislation “might” include funding for Community Development Financial Institutions, expungements for prior cannabis convictions and a “process of no job discrimination” for people with marijuana-related criminal records in now-legal states, he said.
It’s not exactly clear what kind of job-related protections might be involved, as the senator suggested. That detail hasn’t been previously reported. But he signaled that workplace policies may be part of the “Plus” plan alongside other much-discussed components such as research- and veterans-focused provisions.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said SAFE Banking “obviously is a public safety issue. It is a tax issue. It is an issue of civil justice.”
“We can get this done. We will get this done. We need some more Republican cosponsors” that the congressman expects will join them “soon.”
“I know, in the House, that whatever they pass in the Senate, we will get passed in the House. And this will be law by the end of this year, with your help and your hard work,” he said.
The congressman also said that he’s increasingly tempted to “go to the nuclear option” in the House Rules Committee of “holding up” separate legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—where cannabis banking provisions are included in the House version.
“My time is short here, alright? And with each passing day, I’m more likely to do the nuclear option of trying to hold something up,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going to need to do that.”
Perlmutter also said talked about a legalization bill filed by Senate leadership in July, saying it’s a “great” and “very sweeping piece of legislation,” but the political reality is it doesn’t have enough support to clear the Senate.
Nine years after first introducing this legislation and the industry is still forced to operate primarily in cash. That’s not right.
We need to save lives and create a more equitable industry, and in order to so, the Senate needs to act.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) September 14, 2022
“Every legal business deserves the same access to the same resources as any other—resources like bank accounts, loans, payment processing, and so much more,” Merkley separately said in a press release on Wednesday. “When it comes to cannabis, the country is changing fast and it’s long past time that our federal laws caught up.”
“With more and more states across the country voting to change their cannabis laws, we cannot keep forcing these legitimate businesses to operate entirely with cash. This is a nonsensical rule that is an open invitation to robbery and money laundering. Let’s make 2022 the year that we get this bill signed into law so we can ensure that all legal cannabis businesses have access to the financial services they need to help keep their employees and communities safe.”
Merkley also recently gave additional details about the state of negotiations for SAFE Banking Plus, the cannabis omnibus legislation that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has been working on with members in both parties and both chambers.
Merkley said last week that “it’s time to close the deal” on the measure, the text of which has not been released yet. Beside protecting banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses, he said that package is likely to include provisions to facilitate expungements of cannabis convictions and fund community grant and reinvestment programs.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the GOP lead on the standalone legislation, wasn’t present at the press conference on Wednesday, but he stressed in a press release that this is a “public safety issue—when legal Montana cannabis businesses don’t have a way to safely conduct business and are forced to operate in all cash our communities become vulnerable to crime.”
“Our bipartisan bill provides the needed certainty for Montana businesses to freely use banks, credit unions and other financial institutions without worrying about punishment,” he said. “I stand with the attorneys general across America that want to increase public safety and reduce crime—it’s time we pass our bipartisan SAFE Banking Act.”
Perlmutter added in the press release that “we need to save lives and create a more equitable industry, and in order to do so, the Senate needs to pass SAFE Banking.”
“From now until the end of the year, there’s a real opportunity to take a meaningful first step in enacting some sort of commonsense cannabis reform,” the congressman said, seemingly acknowledging the plans to expand on the standalone banking bill. “I implore my colleagues in the Senate to do so.”
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Previously, Perlmutter and Merkley laid out next steps for the cannabis banking reform at a briefing organized by the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC) in July.
While key Senate Democrats like Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have maintained a firm position that cannabis banking should not advance without equity components, it remains to be seen whether enough Republicans would embrace that approach to secure the required 60 votes to pass in the chamber.
The three senators separately filed a large-scale legalization bill in July, but it’s all but certain that there’s not enough support to push that through the Senate.
Accordingly, Schumer and Booker have more openly embraced the idea of a “compromise” as the leader has worked to build consensus on the alternative package of incremental reforms. Those talks have included lawmakers like Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), a Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair.
While Merkley seemed to be optimistic about SAFE Plus at last week’s PBC Conference, others are less confident that there’s enough time left to pass the package this session.
For example, Rodney Hood, a former chairman of the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and current board member of the agency, said at the conference that he’d “be surprised if Congress moved on this issue this year.”
“It’s not impossible, but the available time grows short,” he said. “We’re just a few weeks away from midterm elections, so we’re very likely looking at next year, at the earliest.”
Meanwhile, the Senate came back into session last week following the August recess. At a recent press briefing, Schumer talked about plans to advance certain bills in the coming weeks, but he did not specifically mention any cannabis-related legislation.
While lawmakers have been discussing plans to pass some kind of cannabis standalone legislation to resolve the banking problem, another option that’s still on the table is enacting the SAFE Banking Act as a provision of a large-scale defense bill. The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains the banking language, though it was not in the Senate version, and it remains to be seen whether it will be included in the final, must-pass package sent to the president’s desk.
According to a poll from Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) that was released last week, a majority of American voters (65 percent) support allowing banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses—and most people believe it will both improve public safety and promote social equity.
The survey results are consistent with the findings of a separate poll from the American Bankers Association (ABA) that was released in March. It also showed that 65 percent of Americans back the marijuana banking reform.
Separately, the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recently voted to adopt a revised policy directive that expresses support for federal marijuana descheduling and cannabis banking reform amid the state-level legalization movement.
Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) released a paper last month that outlined what they view as shortcomings of the standalone SAFE Banking Act and recommended several amendments to bolster its equity impact.
Booker said at an event organized by CRCC last month that the standalone legislation “requires changes” if it’s going to advance before cannabis is federally legalized.
The senator initially signaled that he was coming around to marijuana banking reform (contingent on equity provisions) at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in July that he convened as chairman.
Meanwhile, Perlmutter also said in a recent interview that he feels the introduction of the Senate legalization bill alone means that lawmakers have overcome a legislative “hurdle” that’s kept SAFE Banking from advancing in the chamber.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.