Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Monday condemned House Democrats for including a provision protecting banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses in a large-scale bill that advanced through the chamber last week, calling it a “poison pill.”
In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell said that the House-passed America COMPETES Act, which focuses on trade competition with China, “goes out of its way to include provisions on, listen to this, marijuana banking.”
“China has been steadily building up its military and economic might, and the Democrats’ answer is to help Americans get high,” he said, declining to note that the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to which the provision was attached would not legalize cannabis but simply prevent financial institutions that work with marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Supporters of the banking reform, which is sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), have argued that it is a critical public safety reform that has enjoyed bipartisan support. The congressman has insisted he will explore every avenue possible to get the policy change enacted before he retires from Congress at the session’s end.
But McConnell isn’t having it.
“Democrats plan to combat [fentanyl overdoses] is more marijuana on the side,” he said on the Senate floor. “Needless to say, this is not a winning strategy for global competition between great powers.”
“Any Democrats hoping to yank the bill to the far left, or insert poison pills, are badly, badly mistaken,” the minority leader said.
This isn’t the first time that advocates have heard this type of GOP narrative from legalization opponents in Congress. McConnell and other Republicans levied the same accusations one of the last time that Democrats attempted to insert cannabis banking reform in COVID relief packages last year.
The SAFE Banking Act has now passed the House six times in some form, and advocates are eagerly awaiting to see if the latest innovation and manufacturing package that it’s most recently been attached to will be a more effectively vehicle.
It wasn’t just Republicans who blocked the past attempt to pass the banking reform through broader bills, however. Perlmutter put much blame on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has insisted that comprehensive legalization that addresses social equity should pass first.
However, Perlmutter told Marijuana Moment at a recent press briefing that he’s open to adding equity provisions to his banking bill if it contains additional equity provisions that could move it through both chambers. The congressman signaled that he’s inclined to incorporate such provisions—and has been in negotiations with Senate leadership on the issue—so long as it doesn’t jeopardize key GOP support.
Schumer announced at a press conference last week that he is aiming to formally file his much-anticipated bill to federally legalize marijuana in April.
McConnell might not currently be in a position to set to legislative agenda in his chamber, but his new protest over the banking reform’s inclusion in the large-scale bill signals that SAFE Banking may well face a fight in bicameral negotiations over the American COMPETES Act.
The Senate already passed its related version of the new innovation bill, with a focus on competing with China on trade, and that legislation does not contain the cannabis banking language. It remains to be seen what will come out of the resulting bicameral negotiations to merge the two forms of the legislation into something to send to the president’s desk.
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Perlmutter was also asked last week whether he’s spoken to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about personally advocating for keeping banking in the large-scale manufacturing and innovation bill to which it was attached in bicameral conference. He said, “yes I have and yes she will.”
Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), who participated in the pen-and-pad alongside Perlmutter, said there is agreement in passing “targeted, bipartisan cannabis reforms like” the SAFE Banking Act, as well as a bill he’s sponsoring with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to incentive states to expunge marijuana records.
The reforms “can—and should—pass this otherwise divided Congress,” he said.
Other 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, too. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue in December.
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.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.