A key Senate committee met on Tuesday to discuss legislative fixes that would allow banks to service state-legal marijuana businesses without the risk of being penalized by federal financial regulators, and the chair of the panel concluded that “a case has been made pretty strongly here” that the issue must get resolved but that it’s a “very important and complex issue that we need to get right.”
The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), announced the hearing last week, which took some advocates by surprise given the senator’s previous statement that he wouldn’t commit to examining the cannabis financial services issue while the federal government still regarded marijuana as a controlled substance.
A bipartisan bill—the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—was a main focus of the conversation. The House version of the legislation cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee in March, and while advocates hoped it would go before the full chamber ahead of the August recess, expectations have shifted toward the fall for floor action.
When a Marijuana Moment reporter asked Crapo after the hearing if he’s spoken to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) about the bill, the chairman replied that he’s “spoken to almost all of our colleagues about this.”
In response to questions from other reporters about next steps, he said that the committee is “trying right now to see if we can find a way to address the various issues” ahead of a potential markup on the cannabis banking legislation and that he doesn’t “intend to hold additional hearings on the issue.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), ranking member of the panel, said in his opening remarks at the hearing that “the legal cannabis industry is one of the fastest growing in the United States and employs hundreds of thousands of people.”
“No matter how you feel about marijuana itself, we have a duty to look about for the workers who work in this industry and the communities they represent,” he said.
Witnesses who testified before the Senate committee included SAFE Banking Act sponsors Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Credit Union National Association (CUNA) representative Rachel Pross, American Bankers Association (ABA) representative Joanne Sherwood, Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM) Vice President of Government Affairs Garth Van Meter and LivWell Enlightened Health CEO John Lord.
Watch the Senate’s marijuana banking hearing below:
Advocates argue that providing banking access to cannabis businesses will increase financial transparency and mitigate safety risks, since such companies are currently largely forced to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime.
Gardner said in his testimony that “the states are leading on this issue, and the federal government has failed to respond. It has closed its eyes and plugged its ears and pretended the issue will go away. It won’t.”
“Keeping those dollars out of banks means we lose the ability to trace where the dollars go,” he added. “It also makes it harder to ensure all taxes are being paid. It makes it easier for criminals in the illicit market to pose as legitimate. And it leaves hundreds of millions of dollars of cash in the state.”
He recognized during the hearing that this “is a difficult hearing, a difficult topic. I know that.”
“But we were sent here to deal with the difficult topics,” he said. “It’s an important step forward. First hearing we’ve had on this issue as the federal government wakes up to the reality that the cannabis issue is not going to go away and we must have action.”
Following the hearing, Gardner told reporters that he was confident that there’s enough support in the Senate to pass not only the SAFE Banking Act but also another bipartisan bill he is cosponsoring to allow states to set their own cannabis policies without the risk of federal interference.
“[I]t would pass with majority support and I think it would have a majority of Republicans voting for it as well,” he said.
Notably, the senator told Marijuana Moment that he speaks to McConnell “constantly” about cannabis issues, as recently as Monday.
“If they want me to shut up then they can just pass this and the STATES Act and that’s the way I’ll shut up,” he said, referring to the banking and broader states’ rights bills.
But GOP attendance at the meeting was lacking overall, with only Crapo and Gardner appearing from the majority, raising questions about the extent to which Senate Republicans are interested in advancing cannabis banking legislation.
Merkley said in his testimony that the “lack of availability of financial services for cannabis-related businesses in states where it is legalized has created a scenario where businesses are forced to operate in all cash, leading to unsafe environments for all parties involved.”
“Financial institutions support legal clarity and certainty and a legislative hearing would provide an opportunity to address outstanding questions and ensure a better understanding of the proposed bipartisan legislation,” he said, adding that he hopes the hearing “will give members the opportunity to hear directly from witnesses who have direct experience with the challenges facing the financial sector, the cannabis industry, and law enforcement.”
During the hearing, Merkley said there’s “nothing good about forcing the world to operate on cash.”
“It is an invitation to money laundering. It is an invitation to organized crime. It is an invitation to robbery. It is an invitation to cheat on your taxes or cheat your employees,” he said. “Let’s fix this. Let’s honor the states’ rights vision of all of the states that have said this makes sense here in our location for our citizens.”
“Although the SAFE Banking Act does not cure all of the cannabis-related banking challenges, it would help the 33 states that have legalized cannabis in some form to make their communities safer, collect their taxes, and regulate their cannabis markets effectively,” Sherwood, who is president and CEO of Citywide Banks, said in written testimony on behalf of ABA. “It would also help banks and their customers in states without legal cannabis regimes by addressing the unintended consequences for unrelated businesses that provide products and services to the cannabis industry, their employees or service providers, without undermining each state’s ability to prohibit cannabis sales and use within their borders.”
The Oregon senator also introduced into the record more than 100 stories from people who have been affected by the lack of marijuana industry banking access.
Pross, chief risk officer for Maps Credit Union, said that her association does “not have a position on the federal legalization of cannabis” but that “many credit unions operate in states and communities that have made cannabis usage or growth legal for medicinal and/or recreational purposes” and that CUNA strongly believes that “financial institutions should be permitted to lawfully serve businesses that engage in activities that are authorized under their state laws, even when such activity may be inconsistent with federal law.”
“On behalf of America’s credit unions and their 115 million members, we urge both Congress and the Administration to work towards turning this legislation into the law and providing financial institutions with the certainty needed to better serve our communities.”
Prohibitionist group SAM’s Van Meter said that members of the committee were being tasked with addressing “whether we want to promote and increase drug use during an addiction crisis or discourage drug use and help people find recovery and healing” by debating whether to provide access to banking to cannabis businesses.
“By skipping ahead to a technicality over banking rules, the marijuana industry is hoping to gain many of the benefits of federal legalization without a debate over the public health effects,” he said in testimony.
Attached to SAM’s submission is a letter expressing concern about the potential consequences of passing the SAFE Banking Act, signed by former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) spoke about research barriers for marijuana, noting that he cosponsored bipartisan legislation introduced last week that would address the issue alongside Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Van Meter jumped in to say that “if the marijuana industry was concerned about research, then I don’t think they would be selling some of these extremely high potency” products.
“Well hang on, I’m concerned about research,” Schatz said. “I’m going to allow you to answer the questions, but I’m not going to allow you to take a pot shot at the people that you’re testifying with.”
Lord, who is chairman of the industry association Cannabis Trade Federation, said that “due to the significant compliance costs associated with serving cannabis customers under existing policies, financial institutions charge cannabis businesses substantial monthly fees.”
“Our company pays in excess of $3,000 per month for the mere privilege of having an account,” he said of LivWell Enlightened Health. “The current situation is especially challenging for small businesses. While we, due to our size, are able to absorb the additional costs associated with cash management and exorbitant bank fees, many small businesses are not.”
“Furthermore, resolving the banking issue could significantly aid cannabis businesses in securing business loans. This is critical to small business owners who may not have access to other sources of capital. It should be noted that these small businesses are also being squeezed by Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, which prevents all cannabis companies from deducting standard business expenses when they calculate their taxes. If there is any hope in helping small businesses – including minority—and women-owned companies—survive and thrive, we must fix the banking situation and amend Section 280E so that cannabis businesses are taxed like any other business.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) discussed challenges that cannabis businesses face in securing loans and touted separate legislation he introduced on Monday that would give such companies access to insurance.
Federal law prevents legal marijuana business owners from getting comprehensive and affordable insurance coverage.
Without it, they can’t protect their property, employees, or customers.
— Senator Bob Menendez (@SenatorMenendez) July 23, 2019
These small businesses also need to be able to open a bank account, pay employees, take out credit cards, & write checks.
The SAFE Banking Act is a game changer. It gives cannabis businesses access to basic banking services, making the industry safer and the future brighter. pic.twitter.com/wsgVwyu1YR
— Senator Bob Menendez (@SenatorMenendez) July 23, 2019
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) argued that federal marijuana reform should not stop at banking access.
“I think we need to realize that as we’re looking at criminal penalties for involvement of businesses with marijuana, we can’t forget the thousands of individuals who have spent time behind bars for their involvement with marijuana,” she said. “Communities of color, particularly African-American men, have paid a disproportionate price for generations of aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws.”
Brown, the ranking Democrat, made a similar point, saying that the financial services hearing is “just one piece of the conversation Congress must have on marijuana policy.”
“People should not be thrown in jail or have their futures jeopardized by a criminal record over non-violent marijuana offenses,” he said.
Other topics brought up during the meeting include the lack of access to financial services for hemp businesses since the crop was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, barriers to marijuana research and how providing banking access to the industry can help regulators better identify illicit financial activity.
Banking associations representing all 50 states have voiced support for the SAFE Act. Other advocates for a legislative resolution to the banking issue include a coalition of 20 bipartisan governors, the National Association of State Treasurers, top financial regulators in 25 statesand a majority of state attorneys general.
On the House side, the legislation has 206 cosponsors. The bill has 31 cosponsors in the Senate.
The banking hearing marks the sixth congressional hearing on marijuana policy this Congress, including a historic meeting of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee on pathways to end the federal prohibition of cannabis. Another committee is scheduled to discuss hemp production on Wednesday.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.
White House Completes Review Of CBD Guidance From FDA
The White House recently completed its review of pending Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance on marijuana and CBD research—though it remains to be seen whether the draft document will ultimately be released to the public.
FDA submitted its proposed plan—titled “Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds: Quality Considerations for Clinical Research”—to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in May. Few details are known about its contents, but an FDA spokesperson previously told Marijuana Moment that it could inform the agency’s approach to developing regulations for the marketing of CBD.
OMB finished its review last week, as first reported by InsideHealthPolicy. This comes days after a spending bill for FDA was released that includes a provision providing “funding to develop a framework for regulating CBD products.”
Despite the review being finalized, however, an FDA representative told Marijuana Moment on Friday that the agency “cannot provide an update of when (or even if) this guidance will issue.”
“It will be announced via the Federal Register should it move to publication,” they said.
It’s not entirely clear why the guidance wouldn’t be published in the end, but it may take some time for FDA to implement any edits suggested by the White House over the past month, and it’s possible there are additional layers of review beyond OMB that could determine when and whether it will be finalized.
It also remains to be seen whether FDA plans to wait for this specific guidance to be finalized and for the resulting research to be completed before it gets around to issuing final rules for CBD products in general. Stakeholders have been eagerly awaiting those regulations so they can fully take advantage of the legalization of hemp and its derivatives.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in May that White House policies requiring OMB to review scientific documents in the first place represent an onerous step that’s delayed the issuance of guidance.
Beyond sending the draft research plan to the White House for review, FDA is also soliciting public input about the safety and efficacy of CBD in comment period it has decided to keep open indefinitely. The agency said in an update to Congress in March that it has several specific questions it wants answered before deciding whether the cannabidiol can be lawfully marketed. That includes questions about the impact of different methods of consumption and drug interactions.
This week, FDA submitted a report to Congress on the state of the CBD marketplace, and the document outlines studies the agency has performed on the contents and quality of cannabis-derived products that it has tested over the past six years.
In the meantime, FDA is maintaining enforcement discretion when it comes to action against companies that sell CBD products regardless of the lack of regulations and has said it is currently targeting sellers that make especially outlandish or unsanctioned claims about the therapeutic value of their products.
It sent a warning letter to a CBD company owned by a former NFL player after advertisements it displayed suggested its products could treat and prevent a coronavirus infection, for example.
FDA sent a letter warning to a company about its marketing of injectable CBD products that led to a voluntary recall in May.
The agency also publicized a voluntary recall of another CBD product from a different company, notifying consumers about potentially high levels of lead in a batch of tinctures.
FDA has previously issued warnings to other CBD companies that have made unsubstantiated claims about the therapeutic potential of their products.
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Veterans Working In Marijuana Industry Aren’t Automatically Blocked From Home Loans, VA Says
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently clarified to Congress that it does not have a policy automatically barring veterans from receiving home loans solely because they work in the marijuana industry—and now a key House committee is asking the department to better communicate that to lenders and would-be borrowers.
For the past year, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and other lawmakers have been pressing VA on difficulties some veterans have faced in securing the benefit, with at least one constituent telling Clark that they were denied a home loan because of their work in the state-legal cannabis market. That prompted the congresswoman to circulate a sign-on letter and introduce an amendment to resolve the problem.
However, in a report submitted to Congress last month that was obtained by Marijuana Moment, VA said there is no policy on the books that calls for home loan denials due to employment at a cannabis business. Instead, the department clarified that conflicting state and federal laws makes it “difficult to prove the stability and reliability of cannabis-derived income,” which are key factors in determining loan eligibility.
“VA is committed to working diligently to serve our Nation’s Veterans by providing eligible Veterans with home loan guaranty benefits,” VA said. “There is nothing in VA statutes or regulations that specifically prohibits a Veteran whose income is derived from state-legalized cannabis activities from obtaining a certificate of eligibility for VA home loan benefits. However, given the disparity between Federal and State laws on cannabis, determining whether such a Veteran is able to obtain a loan has become a complex issue.”
A person’s “reliance on [marijuana-derived] income may hinder a Veteran’s ability to obtain a VA-guaranteed home loan, a result that is consistent with other federal housing programs,” the report states. “VA also notes that many lenders have established their own income thresholds and policies on overlays, which are often more stringent than VA’s requirements, to ensure that the VA-guaranteed loan will be purchased by an investor in the secondary mortgage market.”
In other words, individual lending companies may be denying home loans to veterans because the cannabis industry-derived income they would use to pay back loans isn’t necessarily stable and reliable due to the fact that federal officials could shut down their employers at any time.
If that’s the case, then it doesn’t appear it would be necessary to pass legislation targeting the narrow issue in the way lawmakers did last year. Clark’s amendment to address the problem was approved by the House as part of a defense spending bill—though leaders in the chamber agreed to scrap it after the Senate didn’t include it in its version of the legislation.
The House Appropriations Committee also approved report language last year attached to the bill that funds VA expressing concern that the department “has never publicly stated its position on this matter, hindering Veterans’ ability to fully understand and consider how employment decisions could affect future eligibility for earned benefits.”
The newly released explanation from VA is a result of that provision.
Now, for the next fiscal year, a new report attached to the latest Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies spending bill acknowledges VA’s recent policy clarification—but lawmakers are asking the department to do more.
“The Committee understands that as directed by House Report 116–63, VA has clarified that nothing in VA statutes or regulations specifically prohibits a Veteran whose income is derived from state-legalized cannabis activities from obtaining a certificate of eligibility for VA home loan benefits,” the report states. “The Committee directs the VA to improve communication with eligible lending institutions to reduce confusion among lenders and borrowers on this matter.”
Clark told Marijuana Moment that “no veteran should be denied benefits simply because they work within the legal cannabis industry.”
“This must be crystal clear in our laws and communicated directly to both borrowers and lenders,” the congresswoman said. “By including this language, we’re eliminating any doubt about the rights of our service members and protecting their ability to access what they’ve rightfully earned.”
In other veterans and cannabis news this year, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis on a marijuana research bill for veterans and determined that it would have no fiscal impact. And a federal commission issued recommendations to promote research into the therapeutic potential of both cannabis and psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA.
Read VA’s report on its home loan policy for veterans working in the marijuana industry below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Idaho Medical Marijuana Activists Ask State For Electronic Signature Gathering Option Following Court Ruling
Idaho activists have formally requested that the state allow them to collect signatures electronically for a medical cannabis legalization initiative following a series of federal court rulings on the issue in a case filed by a separate campaign.
While the signature submission deadline passed in May, advocates for an education funding campaign filed a suit against the secretary of state, arguing that social distancing restrictions that were put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic meant the state should give them more time to digitally petition. The judge agreed and ordered the state to allow them to do so for 48 days starting Thursday.
The marijuana reform campaign feels that the same relief should be extended to them as well, and an attorney representing the group sent a letter to the secretary of state this week, asking that the Elections Division also provide cannabis activists with the digital petitioning and deadline extension concessions that the federal judge granted to the education funding group.
In one of the latest developments, the state’s request to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to temporarily force the suspension of electronic signature gathering was denied on Thursday, though the appeal on the broader case is ongoing. That’s given the cannabis activists more hope as they pursue legal routes to have the lower court’s ruling apply to them.
BREAKING: State of Idaho's request to block our e-signature drive for K-12 funding DENIED by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It's time to give Idaho voters a chance to do what those in power refuse to do: Save our schools from deep budget cuts & invest in our children. #idpol
— Luke Mayville (@lukemayville) July 9, 2020
Russ Belville, campaign spokesperson for the Idaho Cannabis Coalition, told Marijuana Moment that the group was “thrilled” to see the appeals court refuse to stay the electronic signature gathering decision.
“Our attorneys are working to convince the state to provide our Idaho Medical Marijuana Act petition the same electronic signature gathering relief, as we have suffered the same infringement of our petitioning rights,” he said. “It’s a shame it takes a pandemic to even consider allowing electronic signatures on petitions. Idaho should make every effort to make exercising our rights as easy as possible, especially for sick, disabled, elderly, infirm and rural folks without easy access to an in-person petitioner.”
In the new letter to Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, attorney Bradley Dixon said his client “has standing to pursue a remedy given the impact that the COVID-19 restrictions have had upon it.” The campaign “can show (1) they have suffered an injury in fact, which is both concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent; (2) their injury is fairly traceable; and (3) their injury will likely be redressed by a favorable outcome.”
“Moreover, just like Reclaim Idaho, as illustrated above, our client can show that it was diligent in collecting signatures and had adopted a thorough plan to achieve ballot success in advance of the unforeseeable coronavirus outbreak. Considering the merits of a possible case, our client’s First and Fourteenth Amendments rights have been harmed because the State of Idaho and its agents did not provide an alternative means to signature collection during the stay at home order, or during any of the phased reopening stages.”
The state’s stay-at-home order “made it impossible to retrieve all statutorily-required signatures because of both the reduction in time to collect such signatures, and the deadline date to obtain signatures falling on the same day as the end of the stay at home order,” the attorney said.
If the campaign is ultimately allowed to proceed with signature gathering, they will need 55,057 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Activists said they have about 45,000 unverified signatures on hand at this point, and they’re confident that can fill the gap if they get the deadline extension and electronic petitioning option.
The group has indicated it is prepared to seek relief directly from the courts if the secretary of state does not comply with their request to his office.
Under the proposed ballot measure, patients with qualifying conditions could receive medical cannabis recommendations from physicians and then possess up to four ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
Advocates say that passing medical cannabis in one of the remaining states without such policies on the books would be a significant victory for patients in its own right—but it could also have outsized federal implications. A House-passed bill to protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators is currently pending action in a Senate committee chaired by a senator who represents the state.
Creating a medical marijuana program in Idaho, which is one of small handful of states that don’t yet even have limited CBD laws, could put additional pressure on Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to move the financial services legislation in Congress.
Read the letter to the secretary state on allowing electronic signature gathering for medical marijuana below: