A major congressional financial committee is scheduled to vote on a series of bills this week, and that includes bipartisan legislation that would protect banks from being penalized by federal regulators for working with marijuana businesses.
The bill, introduced by Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Denny Heck (D-WA), and cosponsored by more than a third of the entire House, is seen by legalization advocates as the first of several pieces of cannabis legislation that the Democratic-controlled House will take up as the debate over broader marijuana reform continues on Capitol Hill.
The Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is meant to give banks reassurance that servicing cannabis businesses will not result in federal prosecution under existing money laundering or drug laws. While more financial institutions are accepting marijuana business accounts, others refuse to out of concern about the prospect of being punished, which leaves some businesses to operate on a cash-only basis that can make them targets of crime.
Watch the House Financial Services Committee vote on amendments and passage of the marijuana banking bill below:
Watch the committee debate and vote on amendments to the marijuana banking bill during its Wednesday meeting below:
On Wednesday, the panel processed a number of amendments to the legislation via voice votes, with roll call votes and action on final passage expected Thursday morning.
Amendments adopted by the committee included one extending protections to “de novo” banking institutions seeking charters or master accounts from a Federal Reserve bank. Another successful measure expands the provisions to cover insurance companies. A third requires the Government Accountability Office to study previous reports that banks are required to file on their marijuana business customers to understand how effective they are in identifying bad actors.
Among amendments defeated by voice votes are ones that would limit the bill to cover only hemp businesses and revoke protections from banks that serve marijuana operations located close to schools. Others sought to delay enactment of the bill until cannabis is federally descheduled, until federal financial regulators are able to issue new guidance to banks or until the Treasury secretary certifies the legislation wouldn’t leave any financial institution more susceptible to illicit financial activity and money laundering.
The banking bill “addresses an urgent public safety concern for legitimate businesses that currently have no recourse but to operate with just cash,” Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) said at the start of the committee meeting on Tuesday. “However, I also consider this bill as part of a holistic approach toward providing criminal justice reform to those who have been harmed by criminalization of marijuana and should not by any means be the only bill the House takes up on the important issue of cannabis reform.”
Members of the committee also discussed the bill during portions of their Tuesday meeting:
Last week, Republicans on the Financial Services Committee had requested that Waters delay the vote on the banking bill, writing in a letter that they had several “unanswered questions” about the measure.
“Some on my side support the measure as written. Many oppose it,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), the panel’s top Republican, said at the meeting. “Most important for this committee, we need to ensure that we’re doing our due diligence before proceeding. One committee hearing is not enough to fully understand the consequences of this bill. It is a massive change in federal policy.”
Currently, the bill has 152 cosponsors, including 12 Republicans. That’s the most support that a standalone piece of marijuana legislation has ever received in Congress.
The committee held a hearing last month to discuss banking issues in the cannabis industry and the SAFE Banking Act specifically. There, lawmakers heard testimony about the need to change existing laws in the interest of transparency and public safety.
Since then, Perlmutter has floated an amendment, which he’s expected to introduce when the bill comes before the committee, that would require the government to study and issue recommendations about diversity in the cannabis market and expanding banking access for minority-owned and women-owned businesses, among other changes.
Anniversary Of Alcohol Prohibition’s End Is A Good Time To Legalize Marijuana, Presidential Candidate Castro Says
Former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro marked the 86th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. on Thursday by calling for the legalization of marijuana.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate tweeted about Repeal Day, a commemoration of the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which ended federal prohibition of booze.
It’s #repealday, the day the United States ended the prohibition of alcohol.
86 years later, it’s time we end the federal prohibition of Cannabis once and for all.
Legalize it. Regulate it. Expunge the records of the victims of the war on drugs.
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) December 5, 2019
“86 years later, it’s time we end the federal prohibition of Cannabis once and for all,” he said. “Legalize it. Regulate it. Expunge the records of the victims of the war on drugs.”
Castro, who included proposals to legalize marijuana and expunge prior cannabis convictions in a criminal justice reform plan he released in October, isn’t the only one calling attention to the ongoing prohibition of the plant on Repeal Day. Several other Twitter users, including a congressional candidate, have made similar points.
In honor of #RepealDay, we should legalize marijuana and expunge criminal records.
It's wayyyyyyy overdue.
— Eva Putzova For Congress (@CongressEva) December 5, 2019
— Tom Wark (@tomcwark) December 5, 2019
Prohibition is a radical, expensive, big government, nanny-State program. Repealing alcohol prohibition was the right policy shift. It’s time to do the same with cannabis. #repealday #endprohibition https://t.co/SMgAijwVQs
— PA Republicans for Legalization (@PLegalization) December 5, 2019
Prohibition ended 86 years ago today, but our racist drug laws are still being used to disproportionately criminalize people of color. It’s beyond time we end the War on Drugs, legalize cannabis, and give back to our overpoliced communities. https://t.co/lJBTocs8r2
— New York City DSA 🌹 (@nycDSA) December 5, 2019
— Brian Allman (@BrianAllman) December 5, 2019
While Castro hasn’t been quite as vocal about marijuana reform in his campaign as some of the other candidates, he has recently expressed openness to even broader drug policy initiatives such as decriminalizing possession of all drugs.
During a forum hosted by the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition last month, Castro said “I do think though that it’s worth taking a look at that and understanding where are those opportunities, either to decriminalize or at least deemphasize enforcement so that we’re not penalizing individuals who should instead be getting the treatment that they need.”
He also said he supports communities establishing safe injection sites where individuals can consume illicit drugs under medical supervision to reduce the risk of overdose deaths and help people get into treatment.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), rival presidential candidates, are in favor of drug decriminalization, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) back safe consumption facilities. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang says he would decriminalize opioids and invest federal resources into opening safe injection sites across the country.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/IHRC.
Hemp Businesses Need Clarity On Credit Card Processing, GOP Congressman Tells Federal Regulators
One day after federal financial regulators issued guidance relaxing requirements for banks doing business with hemp companies, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) called for further input on how financial institutions can work with the industry—particularly when it comes to credit card processing.
“I have heard from Kentucky bankers about this. They welcome this guidance, and it will go a long way to help the hemp industry thrive,” Barr said on Wednesday at a House Financial Services Committee hearing.
But after thanking witnesses—including Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC) Chairwoman Jelena McWilliams and National Credit Union Association (NCUA) Chairman Rodney Hood—he reminded them that there is still much work to be done to give hemp businesses fair access to financial services.
Specifically, Barr called credit card processing services for Kentucky hemp companies “unreliable” and “unavailable” while pointing out that Tuesday’s hemp banking memo failed to clearly address the problem.
“I’ve read the guidance closely, as you can tell, and I didn’t see that in there,” Barr said. “That’s the financial service that has really been unreliable and spotty, so if you need to update that guidance to give more clarity to card processing businesses, that might be in order.”
It represents an understanding by our federal regulators that hemp is a LEGAL product.
— Rep. Andy Barr (@RepAndyBarr) December 4, 2019
McWilliams replied that her agency would “certainly take a look” at the issue and offered that “to the extent that we need to do additional explaining, we are more than happy to engage in that process.”
In response, Barr reminded her of the broader goals of congressional action to legalize hemp products under the 2018 Farm Bill.
“Congressional intent is not only that the regulators confirm the legality of industrial hemp and hemp related retailers under the Farm bill, but that those retailers and merchants can use card processing services to sell the product itself,” he said.
Watch Barr press federal regulators on hemp business credit card processing below:
This isn’t the first time Barr has raised the issued of hemp businesses’ ability to accept payments with cards.
“I’ve had constituent businesses tell me that their access to financial products, specifically card services, have actually deteriorated since we descheduled industrial hemp in the Farm Bill,” he said at an earlier hearing in May. “This obviously conflicts with congressional intent.”
The congressman’s questions and comments at the most recent hearing are emblematic of a larger bipartisan push to provide updated regulations to the hemp industry and banks that work with it.
Most notably, the House overwhelmingly approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in September. The legislation would protect banks and credit unions from being penalized by federal regulators for working with marijuana businesses, and Barr added an amendment clarifying that the protections also apply to hemp companies.
However, the vote came later than some observers expected, which may help explain why the growth in the number of financial institutions working with cannabis companies seems to have slowed down in the prior quarter of the fiscal year.
NCUA’s Hood, whose agency’s earlier hemp guidance released in August was among the first federal clarifications on the issue after the Farm Bill became law, testified on Wednesday about the steps NCUA is taking to open up access to financial services for companies in the industry.
“We are continuing to work with the industry to provide training to our examiners,” Hood said. “We will now be working with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and other related parties to ensure that we get it right. We will be hosting a series of roundtables to gain insights from entities around best practices.”
In submitted testimony, he wrote that NCUA expects “to continue updating the credit union community now that the USDA has published its interim final rule [for hemp]” and said the agency has “received interest from credit unions eager to know the rules of the road for serving hemp-related businesses in their communities, and we want to make sure those credit unions have what they need to make informed decisions in this area.”
Jospeh Otting, comptroller of the currency, also discussed the latest guidance from federal regulators in testimony he submitted to the panel, writing that the joint statement from federal regulators “provides clarity regarding the legal status of commercial growth and production of hemp and relevant requirements for banks.”
Also discussed at the hearing was NCUA’s recent regulatory action on employment at credit unions by people with criminal records. Initially proposed by the agency in July, the move to allow participation by people convicted of minor offenses like simple drug possession was officially enacted by this week.
Asked by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) “what are you doing, and what can Congress do” to assist in the advancement of the so-called “second chance” decision, Hood responded that NCUA “recognized that individuals who have committed nonviolent criminal offenses who have paid their debts to society should have opportunities to work in federal credit unions.”
SECOND CHANCE: I am glad my @theNCUA Board colleagues and I approved the final second chance rule today. This rule is more than just about regulatory relief. It is simply the right thing to do. See my full statement here: https://t.co/JV5neDqbFi pic.twitter.com/bYCnaHH6fx
— Rodney E. Hood (@Rodney_e_hood) November 21, 2019
McWilliams called the second chance decision an “important social justice issue” and said FDIC is currently seeking input on how best to move forward. “I personally believe we can go a long way to enabling those individuals to re-enter the workforce,” she said.
Watch lawmakers and regulators discuss financial services employment by people with prior convictions below:
Outside of the House Financial Services panel, several lawmakers on Capitol Hill have recently pushed to make business easier for hemp companies.
Last week, for example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on USDA to extend its public comment period for proposed hemp regulations. And in October, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to USDA asking for five specific changes in the rules.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Cory Booker’s Marijuana Agenda Highlighted In Three Super PAC Ads
A super PAC working to get Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) elected president is putting a lot of emphasis on the candidate’s marijuana reform agenda, releasing multiple new advertisements highlighting his position on the issue.
United We Win, an organization that’s not formally associated with Booker’s presidential campaign but supports his candidacy, included cannabis reform in three separate spots over the past month. Two of those ads contrasted the senator’s stance with that of former Vice President Joe Biden, a rival contender for the Democratic nomination who opposes adult-use legalization.
“Joe Biden is wrong about weed,” one ad, released on Tuesday, states. “He called marijuana a ‘gateway drug,’ but science says he’s wrong. Cory Booker knows that legalizing marijuana is the sensible, humane thing to do.”
Another, posted last week, shows a clip of Booker at the most recent Democratic debate, where Booker called out Biden over the gateway drug comment that quickly became a source of controversy ahead of the event. Booker said at the time that he was shocked to hear Biden say he doesn’t support legalization because he thinks cannabis could lead to the use of more dangerous drugs.
About one week after the former vice president made the remarks, he reversed his stance and said evidence doesn’t support the gateway drug theory. This wasn’t the first time that the senator has blasted Biden over his cannabis record, as Booker said in July that his opponent’s drug reform plan was inadequate.
“Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
The other ad, released last weekend, pits Booker against South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is also competing for the Democratic nomination. United We Win included Booker’s plan to legalize marijuana in a list of policy proposals that they said make him a more fit candidate and also noted his role in advancing criminal justice reform legislation in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Buttigieg does support legalization, so the point of bringing that position up didn’t appear to be an attempt to contrast each candidate’s platform on that issue in particular.
The super PAC’s website also prominently spotlights Booker’s marijuana record, including the issue as one of six main menu links across its top banner—alongside “criminal justice,” “gun safety” and “defeating Trump.”
There’s also an article recapping the senator’s debate attack on Biden’s anti-legalization comments.
Booker has certainly taken pains to emphasize his advocacy for cannabis reform during the campaign, and he’s the sponsor of comprehensive legislation that would not only federally deschedule marijuana but also penalize states that continue to dole out cannabis enforcement in a discriminatory manner.
While United We Win isn’t affiliated with Booker’s team, and federal law prohibits the PAC and the campaign from coordinating with one another, the strong focus on his marijuana platform reflects a growing recognition that, especially among Democratic voters, legalization is an important issue that candidates and political operatives are seeking to leverage during this election.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/United We Win.