The U.S. Senate Banking Committee has added new witnesses who will testify at a hearing on bipartisan marijuana banking bill this week.
In addition to the top bipartisan sponsors of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, an equity-focused cannabis reform activist, a union representative, a cannabis financial services company executive and a leading prohibitionist advocate will also share their perspective on the legislation and underlying financial services issues in the cannabis industry at Thursday’s hearing.
Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said last week that senators planned to “move quickly” on the legislation from Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT).
Beside Merkley and Daines, here are the witnesses that have been added to testify at the committee hearing:
Cat Packer, Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) and Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)
Packer is a former Los Angeles cannabis regulator who now serves as vice chair of CRCC and director of drug markets and legal regulation at DPA.
Following the reintroduction of the SAFE Banking Act last month, she applauded “technical” changes that were made to promote equity. She has emphasized the need to resolve marijuana banking issues, but to do so in a way that specifically supports communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.
CRCC released a paper last year that proposed several changes to the SAFE Banking Act that members said would sharpen its equity impacts and help make the bill more acceptable to those who’ve insisted that sweeping justice-focused legalization must be prioritized ahead of modest financial reform.
One of the organization’s recommendations—to extend protections to Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs) and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs)—was incorporated in the latest version of the bill.
DPA has also advocated for equity language as part of the banking reform legislation.
Ademola Oyefeso, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW)
Oyefeso is the director of UFCW’s legislative and political action department. The union organization, which represents over one million workers, has routinely advocated for cannabis reform—including urging President Joe Biden to support legalization alongside other advocacy groups.
UFCW, which has been working to organizer marijuana sector workers in legal states, has also pushed for specific priorities in state-level reform, such as labor peace agreement requirements as part of legalization legislation.
Michelle Sullivan, Dama Financial
Sullivan is the chief risk and compliance officer at Dama Financial, which provides services to state-licensed marijuana businesses, working to navigate the tricky federal regulations on behalf of companies that are seeking banking services.
Kevin Sabet, Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM)
Sabet is the CEO of SAM, one of the leading figures working to defeat legalization efforts.
SAM has opposed the SAFE Banking Act, arguing that it would enrich the industry and that it’d potentially be abused by bad actors. The organization has also maintained that, contrary to what the bill’s advocates say, that it would exacerbate inequities in the cannabis market.
Make that Thursday. And here I was, on the way to the airport…
— Kevin Sabet (@KevinSabet) May 9, 2023
Senators on both sides of the aisle have been pushing for urgent action on the standalone SAFE Banking Act, which would protect banks that work with state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The latest version has been amended in several ways that have encouraged advocates, the plan is to further revise it on the floor to incorporate additional equity provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said at a cannabis rally in New York City on Saturday that he would bring the bill to the floor after it clears committee, and he emphasized that it would be revised to include expungements provisions.
The bill is considered one of the more passable pieces of cannabis legislation this session with Republicans in control of the House. A former top aide to Schumer recently wrote an op-ed for Marijuana Moment explaining how the new political dynamics could actually bolster the bill’s prospects of passage this year.
Schumer has emphasized his commitment to advancing the marijuana banking legislation with criminal justice provisions included, calling the broader effort to repair the harms of the drug war a “moral responsibility” for Congress.
A vote in the Senate last month on separate marijuana legislation, however, has raised some questions about whether any modest cannabis reform is achievable under the current congressional makeup. Senate Republicans blocked a procedural motion to advance a bipartisan bill to simply require studies into the medical potential of cannabis for military veterans with chronic pain and PTSD.
The standalone SAFE Banking Act has been approved along largely bipartisan lines in the House in some form several times in recent years. But it’s consistently stalled out in the Senate under both Democratic and Republican leadership.
Last month, Schumer said that he was “disappointed” that the so-called SAFE Plus package of marijuana banking and expungements legislation he worked on last year didn’t advance, saying “we came close,” but “we ran into opposition in the last minute.” He said lawmakers will continue to “work in a bipartisan way” to get the job done.
The majority leader has been holding meetings with Democratic and Republican members in the early months of the new Congress to discuss cannabis reform proposals that might have bipartisan buy-in this year.
For his part, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said recently that lawmakers are working to “resurrect” the cannabis reform package, acknowledging that failure to advance a banking fix for the industry “literally means that hundreds of businesses go out of business.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who is sponsoring the House version of the SAFE Banking Act, said at a recent press briefing that thinks it’s important that advocates and lawmakers align on any incremental proposals to end the drug war, warning against an “all-or-nothing” mentality.
The American Bankers Association (ABA) also recently renewed its call for the passage of the legislation.
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Numerous cannabis bills have been filed in Congress in recent weeks beside the banking legislation.
For example, bipartisan congressional lawmakers filed a bill to mandate the automatic sealing of criminal records for certain non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
House and Senate lawmakers also reintroduced legislation last month to provide a safe harbor to insurance companies that work with licensed marijuana businesses.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) introduced legislation last month to protect the Second Amendment rights of people who use marijuana in legal states, allowing them to purchase and possess firearms that they’re currently prohibited from having under federal law.
Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have filed a bill to incentive state and local marijuana expungements with a federal grant program.
Also last month, Joyce and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed a measure designed to prepare the federal government for marijuana legalization, directing the attorney general to form a commission to study and make recommendations about regulating cannabis in a way similar to alcohol.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.