Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a member of Congress since 2013 and previously a Hawaii state legislator and Honolulu city councilmember, announced she was seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on January 11, 2019 and dropped out of the race on March 19, 2020.
In her formal campaign launch speech, she criticized a criminal justice system that “puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma, who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people, to walk away scot-free with their coffers full.”
This piece was last updated on March 19, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race. It will continue to be updated on a rolling basis.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Gabbard has cosponsored a large number of cannabis-related bills during her time in Congress, and she was the lead sponsor of a measure to require the federal government to study the impact of state marijuana legalization, which she reintroduced in April 2019.
Also that month, the congresswoman introduced legislation that’s designed to end prohibition by federally descheduling marijuana.
“This is affecting those dealing with opioid addiction, this is affecting farmers, this is affecting small business owners, this affecting our veterans and those who are locked up in our broken criminal justice system because of this prohibition,” Gabbard said in an interview while discussing her bill. “That’s what my bill seeks to do: end prohibition very simply.”
Gabbard signed onto far-reaching legislation to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and withhold federal funds from states that disproportionately enforce cannabis laws in 2018 and 2019.
She also cosponsored a bill filed by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), chair of the Judiciary Committee, that would similarly deschedule marijuana but would also institute a federal tax on cannabis sales with some funds being directed toward programs to repair the harms of the war on drugs.
“Millions of Americans have fallen victim to the failed War on Drugs, tearing families apart, disproportionately harming minority communities, and overcrowding an already strained prison system. Marijuana use is a personal choice and should not be a criminal act,” she said in a press release about the legislation. “For many years I have worked to end the marijuana prohibition and am proud to push this legislation forward that will begin to right the wrongs of the past, and invest in communities who have been most harmed.”
In July 2019, Gabbard introduced a wide-ranging hemp bill that calls on multiple federal agencies to issue guidelines and encourage federal research into the crop’s many potential uses, including to clean up nuclear contamination, treat conditions that commonly afflict veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder and incorporate it into public school lunches.
“The hemp industry is poised to grow rapidly, having a billion dollar impact on the U.S. economy and creating thousands of jobs,” she said in a press release. “Hemp-based materials have the potential to transform industries from health care to domestic manufacturing to affordable, sustainable housing construction, and more.”
Other bills she’s backed would shield medical and recreational marijuana states from federal interference, legalize industrial hemp, protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, provide tax fairness for the cannabis industry, address various aspects of the federal-state marijuana policy gap, remove roadblocks to research and exempt CBD from the CSA.
She was the lead Democratic cosponsor of another measure to federally deschedule marijuana.
Gabbard, who served in a medical unit in the Hawaii Army National Guard, has also cosponsored several pieces of legislation aimed at expanding access to medical cannabis for veterans. That includes one bill that would block the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from denying benefits to patients who use marijuana, another that would require the VA to survey patients and caregivers on cannabis use and a bill that would require VA to conduct clinical trials on the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis for veterans.
She signed onto a House resolution meant to express the chamber’s sentiment that the drug war has failed and apologize to “individuals and communities that were victimized by this policy.” She also cosponsored a separate resolution calling on states to “address disparities in the cannabis marketplace participation and to address, reverse, and repair the most egregious effects of the war on drugs on communities of color, in particular to those who now hold criminal records for a substance that is now legal and regulated.”
Gabbard has also consistently voted to support marijuana amendments on the House floor. For example, she supported two measures to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference as well as a broader proposal to shield all state marijuana laws, including those allowing recreational use. She voted yes on three separate amendments to allow military veterans to get medical cannabis recommendations from their Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. A measure to protect banks from being punished for working with marijuana businesses from businesses also got an aye from Gabbard. And she supported a proposal to shield people complying with state CBD medical cannabis laws from federal enforcement, as well as four separate amendments to protect state industrial hemp programs from interference.
On The Campaign Trail
“The fact that marijuana’s still a Schedule I drug is unacceptable in the harm that it is causing to the people of our country and to taxpayers as well,” Gabbard told Marijuana Moment in a March 2019 interview.
“Regardless of who [the Democratic presidential nominee] is, this is a major issue I’m putting at the forefront of my campaign and continuing the work that I’ve been doing in Congress to bring about this change,” she said. “It’s something I’ve continued to bring up in bigger cities as well as small towns in New Hampshire and Iowa and other states, and it’s an issue that is very exciting to voters who believe, as I do, that we’ve got to make this happen.”
The candidate touted legislation she introduced to deschedule cannabis, directing supporters to contribute to her campaign.
60% of voters support marijuana legalization—great to see Florida coming around! We just introduced a bill to end federal #marijuana prohibition because American citizens should not be made into criminals for choosing to smoke marijuana. Join us https://t.co/d4qbwO4Ip4#TULSI2020
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) March 8, 2019
In January 2020, Gabbard suggested that legalizing and regulating currently illicit drugs would help people suffering from addiction get into treatment and would be a superior policy compared to criminalizing these individuals.
“I think we need to look at the model in Portugal where there has been decriminalization and in some cases legalization and regulation so we treat substance abuse and addiction as a health care issue,” she said in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity the next month.
This came months after Gabbard first indicated she’s supportive of decriminalizing possession of currently illegal substances like heroin and cocaine.
During a campaign stop in Iowa, she said, “Stop throwing people in prison for smoking a joint and instead go after those like Purdue Pharma who are proliferating their opioids on our streets and taking people’s lives.”
“Our archaic marijuana policies—based on stigma and outdated myths—have been used to wage a failed war on drugs,” she said in an interview with Cannabis Now. “The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has exhausted our law enforcement resources, burdened our criminal justice system, decimated communities, fractured families, and turned everyday Americans into criminals. Over-criminalization and mass incarceration have become the new norm.”
During a televised town hall event, Gabbard declined to rule out pushing for broader decriminalization legislation to extend to drugs besides marijuana.
“The drug pushers at Big Pharma have enough crooked politicians in their pocket to maintain the appearance of legality – that’s the only difference between them & every other global drug cartel,” the congresswoman said in a tweet in March 2019. “I’m for legalizing marijuana & holding Big Pharma accountable.”
The drug pushers at Big Pharma have enough crooked politicians in their pocket to maintain the appearance of legality – that’s the only difference between them & every other global drug cartel. I’m for legalizing marijuana & holding Big Pharma accountablehttps://t.co/V4e5ypvyKq
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) March 21, 2019
She also discussed hemp, writing that the crop “played a vital role in the American economy through the early 1900’s until it was replaced w/ fossil fuel products.”
Hemp played a vital role in the American economy through the early 1900’s until it was replaced w/ fossil fuel products. Versatile & environmentally friendly, it represents great opportunity for small farmers. It’s time to bring it back!https://t.co/rzeDH6O0Gn
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) April 11, 2019
“Versatile & environmentally friendly, it represents great opportunity for small farmers,” she said. “It’s time to bring it back!”
Gabbard sought donations with a marijuana-themed campaign email blast on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20. Supporters were given options to contribute $4.20, $14.20, $42.00 and $420.00.
“The recent arrest of a grandmother at the Dallas Fort Worth airport for possession of CBD oil—a resin from the cannabis plant used to treat arthritis and other ailments—underscores the absurdity and hypocrisy of federal laws related to marijuana,” she said in a tweet that included an accompanying video.
The recent arrest of a grandmother at the Dallas Fort Worth airport for possession of CBD oil—a resin from the cannabis plant used to treat arthritis and other ailments —underscores the absurdity and hypocrisy of federal laws related to marijuana. pic.twitter.com/SzuRNQIeNQ
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) May 30, 2019
Gabbard said her legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition would protect veterans from being “penalized or risk losing their VA benefits for working in the state-legalized cannabis industry.”
These veterans should not be penalized or risk losing their VA benefits for working in the state-legalized cannabis industry.
This must be corrected immediately by the VA, and Congress must pass my bipartisan Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. (2/2)
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) June 6, 2019
“As president I’ll end the failed war on drugs, legalize marijuana, end cash bail, and ban private prisons and bring about real criminal justice reform,” Gabbard said.
As president I’ll end the failed war on drugs, legalize marijuana, end cash bail, and ban private prisons and bring about real criminal justice reform. I’ll crack down on the overreaching intel agencies and big tech monopolies who threaten our civil liberties and free speech pic.twitter.com/jzsETuCawI
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) July 9, 2019
During a Democratic presidential debate in July 2019, Gabbard took a hit at fellow contender Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) over her record as a prosecutor who enforced marijana prohibition and once opposed legalization while later joking about her own cannabis consumption.
Gabbard said during a post-debate interview that she is “deeply concerned about this record,” referring to the senator’s prosecutorial history. “There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
At another debate, the candidate said it’s “important that we set the record straight and correct the racial injustices that exist in a very institutional way in our country, beginning with things that have to do with our criminal justice system—predominantly, the failed war on drugs that has been continuing to be waged in this country, has disproportionately impacted people of color and people in poverty.”
We must correct the institutional racial injustices in our country that disproportionately impact people of color & people in poverty. As president I will end the failed war on drugs & end the money bail system to correct injustices of the past – TULSI2020 #TulsiGabbard pic.twitter.com/Etbvbrnhpw
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) November 21, 2019
“Marijuana use is a personal choice, not a criminal act,” the congresswoman said in a campaign video.
At the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in September 2019, Gabbard also discussed her plan to end the drug war and legalize marijuana. She also talked about these policies at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and New England Council’s Politics and Eggs breakfast.
Ahead of NORML’s congressional lobbying day event that month, Gabbard spoke to advocates about the need for reform.
Today, I met with activists, small business owners, and organizers from across the country who are working to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, dispelling myths and stigma with facts, data, and their own personal experience. pic.twitter.com/XqXWa9JTLQ
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) September 11, 2019
“More than half the states across America have legalized/decriminalized marijuana in some form,” she said. “It’s time for Congress to catch up.”
She also participated in a “Rethinking Marijuana Roundtable” in New Hampshire in February 2020.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) February 1, 2020
At another event in the state that month, the candidate spoke about the failure and harms of the war on drugs.
Gabbard also said she supports allowing interstate commerce for cannabis and social consumption sites.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
After then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era Justice Department guidance on cannabis enforcement priorities in early 2018, she posted an extensive thread about why the move “will exacerbate an inhumane, ineffective system that tears families apart.
Veterans suffering from invisible wounds like Post-Traumatic Stress and chronic pain, or with addiction to opioids, deserve our commitment to researching every possible treatment to help them, and Sessions is failing them.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
Sessions’ actions to protect the bottom lines of the for-profit private prison industry, and Big Pharma whose opioids and drugs flourish in part due to the marijuana prohibition, while trampling on states' rights and turning everyday Americans into criminals is an injustice.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
States with medical marijuana have seen a correlating drop in opioid-related deaths. Sessions' decision will exacerbate an inhumane, ineffective system that tears families apart. We need criminal justice reform that reduces recidivism and the share of people that we lock up.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
Later in the year, she turned her attention on Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) after he vetoed legislation that would have made opioid misuse a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. Gabbard has repeatedly touted research demonstrating that legal access to cannabis can reduce opioid overdoses and prescriptions, potentially mitigating a national drug crisis.
Gov Ige vetoed the bill saying people need to go thru bureaucratic red-tape & apply for approval from HI Dept of Health instead – knowing DOH won't approve because they don't think there's evidence that medical marijuana can effectively help those suffering from opioid addiction.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) July 12, 2018
“With such a stark increase in prescription opioid use and dependence, heroin and synthetic drug overdose, and emergency room visits over the last decade, we must allow legal access to medical marijuana to help prevent opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths,” Gabbard said in a press release. “Understanding that people’s lives are at stake, I urge Governor Ige to reconsider and sign this legislation into law now.”
She also talked about the relationship between marijuana laws and opioid overdoses on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
“There are states that have legalized, whether it’s just medical or full legalization, there has proven to be a direct correlation to a drastic reduction in opioid-related deaths in those states where people have access,” she said. “If we know this, and every one of the leaders in this country are so concerned about this opioid epidemic, why hasn’t this been brought forward?”
As the opioid addiction epidemic continues to spread across the country, states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen addiction rates drop and opioid abuse deaths decrease by over 20%. 1/2
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) November 28, 2017
I’m calling on @HHSGov to allow medical marijuana to serve as an alternative pain management treatment to opioids to help curb the ongoing opioid epidemic. 2/2
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) November 28, 2017
In a 2017 interview with SFGate, the congresswoman discussed legislation she cosponsored to remove marijuana from the CSA, saying that current federal cannabis policies “have turned everyday Americans into criminals, torn families apart, and wasted huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate people for nonviolent marijuana charges.”
“The reality is, whether or not any individual chooses to consume cannabis is irrelevant. The important question is, should we really be sending people to jail and turning them into criminals for using a substance that is far less dangerous and harmful than alcohol? The answer is no. The fiscal and social impacts of our current policy, are having devastating effects on individuals and our communities and are only perpetuating the problem.”
Touting her Marijuana Data Collection Act on the House floor, Gabbard said “federal policies should be based on actual science and fact, not misplaced stigma and outdated myths.”
“For decades, bad data and misinformation have fueled the failed War on Drugs that’s wasted billions of taxpayer dollars incarcerating Americans for non-violent marijuana charges,” she said. “Our outdated marijuana policies have turned everyday Americans into criminals, strained our criminal justice system, cost taxpayers tremendously, and torn families apart—all for a substance that’s proven to be far less harmful and dangerous than alcohol.”
Prior to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized industrial hemp, the congresswoman spoke out in support of allowing farmers to cultivate the crop.
Hemp is an incredibly versatile and environmentally restorative crop that has great potential – to make things like clothing, paper, houses and more. We must eliminate the obstacles blocking farmers and innovators from pursuing these opportunities.https://t.co/vrSjce36Um
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) October 14, 2018
“Our nation should empower our local farmers by allowing them to grow, cultivate and research industrial hemp that will create opportunity and strengthen our economy,” she said in a press release. “The DEA must honor and uphold the Congressional intent of federal legislation that allows states, like Hawai‘i, to establish programs to research the benefits, cultivation, and market of industrial hemp.”
She also tweeted that one answer to plastic trash pollution of the ocean is to use more “biodegradable materials like hemp.”
Seeing trash in the ocean when I was out surfing as a kid was one of my first motivations to get into public service. What's happening in our oceans is devastating. One answer to plastic pollution is biodegradable materials like hemp. https://t.co/sXreSK1EnJ
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) February 9, 2019
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Gabbard told Marijuana Moment in an interview that she has not personally tried marijuana.
“I don’t smoke marijuana. I never have,” she said. “But I believe firmly in every person’s freedom to make their own choices, and that people should not be thrown in jail and incarcerated or made into criminals for choosing to smoke marijuana whether it be for medicinal and non-medicinal purposes.”
In January 2020, she again said “I’ve never done drugs in my life, and I don’t drink.”
.@TulsiGabbard yesterday on supporting legalizing marijuana
“I've never done drugs in my life, and I don't drink. That's my choice, but I don't believe that if someone else makes different choices in their lives that they should be penalized and punished and made a criminal of.” pic.twitter.com/laWiuCpb5b
— Beatrice-Elizabeth Peterson (@MissBeaE) January 5, 2020
“That’s my choice, but I don’t believe that if someone else makes different choices in their lives that they should be penalized and punished and made a criminal of,” the congresswoman said.
Marijuana Under A Gabbard Presidency
Gabbard’s cosponsorship of a long list of cannabis reform bills and continual focus on the issue in public statements and social media posts indicate she would be an especially marijuana-friendly president if she were to earn the Democratic nomination and win the 2020 election.
Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
Michigan Prosecutor Won’t Pursue Psychedelics Possession Cases Following Local Decriminalization Vote
A soon-to-be county prosecutor in Michigan said his office will not be pursuing psychedelics possession cases following a City Council vote to decriminalize entheogenic substances in Ann Arbor.
Eli Savit, who won in a three-way Democratic primary for Washtenaw County prosecutor last month and is running unopposed in the general election, said in a statement to the advocacy group Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor that he supports the measure and will extend the policy county-wide, rather than just at the city level.
“I support the decriminalization of entheogenic plants. I believe the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, and I see no reason to criminalize—or prosecute—people for their use of such plants,” he said. “That was my position before the Ann Arbor City Council resolution, and it’s true with even greater force afterwards.”
The official, who campaigned on a pro-reform platform, said that drug criminalization has “created a cruel roulette wheel of sorts” and “it’s a weighted wheel, as the data clearly shows that Black people and people of color are far more likely to face criminal consequences related to drug use than white people.”
“The Ann Arbor City Council resolution of course applies only in Ann Arbor,” he said. “But, consistent with the resolution, I do not plan to prosecute the use or possession of entheogenic plants in any other part of the county.”
The unanimous City Council vote earlier this month made Ann Arbor the third city in the U.S. to make it so enforcement of laws against a wide range of psychedelics such as psilocybin, ibogaine and ayahuasca are among the lowest police priorities. Oakland was the first to do so, followed by Santa Cruz. Washington, D.C. could be next, as activists successfully placed the issue on the November ballot.
The broader reform movement kicked off in earnest shortly after Denver voters approved a measure last year focused on decriminalizing psilocybin.
Savit’s support for the Ann Arbor policy change stands out as an example of how the messaging behind these local reforms can have an impact beyond the individual jurisdiction it directly applies to.
“While we were not surprised, we were absolutely thrilled to find out that Eli Savit supports the DNA2 resolution! This left us feeling very hopeful for the future of our county,” Julie Barron, chair of Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor, told Marijuana Moment. “Mr. Savit spoke extensively during his campaign about ending the war on drugs. It is great to know that he will continue this promise to the county with an action plan not to prosecute the possession and use of entheogenic plants/fungi.”
“We have a strong drug reform advocate here, and we cannot wait for him to take his position of Washtenaw County Prosecutor,” she said.
Several other prosecutors have similarly enacted policy changes to avoid low-level marijuana cases. For example, the top cop in Fairfax County, Virginia said in January that he “directed my office to dismiss prosecutions of adults for simple possession of marijuana.”
The top prosecutor in Baltimore is proactively closing warrants and dismissing hundreds of cases for certain offenses, including simple drug possession, that her office is no longer pursuing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Montana Marijuana Legalization Initiative Endorsed By Environmental Conservation Groups
Montana activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative are being backed by a uniquely “Big Sky Country” coalition: environmental conservation groups.
The state—widely known for its public lands and parks that attract tourists from across the country—would see a significant influx of revenue for environmental conservation programs from cannabis taxes if the legalization measure passes in November. Half of the public revenue from marijuana sales would be earmarked for such purposes.
Organized by the legalization campaign New Approach Montana, a new Public Lands Coalition (PLC) is comprised of four conservation organizations, including the Montana Conservation Voters and Montana Wildlife Federation.
“All Montanans share the values of open space, as Montanans we collectively own and steward some of the most special places on earth. We are in fact, the Last Best Place, and that’s a central part of our identity as Montanans,” Pepper Petersen, political director for New Approach Montana, told Marijuana Moment.
“The allocations in I-190 reflect our values as Montanans and you see that in the initiative,” he said. “Montanans know that marijuana revenue should be invested wisely, and our public lands in Montana are a great investment.”
The group said in an op-ed published in The Missoulian newspaper on Sunday that there is currently $60 million in “unmet conservation needs in Montana” for services such as “funding for landowners who want to offer access for hunting and fishing.” Legalizing cannabis could help fill that gap, the coalition said.
“In order to continue to offer Montanans and our millions of guests an experience worth coming back for, we need to invest in our public lands,” PLC, which also includes Wild Montana Action Fund and the Trust for Public Land, wrote. “A vote for 118 and 190 is a vote to maintain and create trails, protect land for wildlife, and fund our state parks.”
The new coalition’s website says that legalization “would provide more than $18 million per year to benefit our public lands; both maintaining current access and opening up new opportunities for recreation.”
“These additional funds would help to address the state’s backlog of repairs to campgrounds, trails, wildlife habitat, opening access and increasing maintenance on our public lands,” the groups said.
Interestingly, the campaign is also making the case that legalizing federally illegal cannabis on the state level will help open up access to additional federal funding.
“The Land and Water Conservation fund is the largest piece of federal funding for our public lands. Now that the LWCF is fully and permanently funded, there are $900 million federal dollars per year that can be leveraged with matching state resources,” the coalition website says. “Tax revenue from I-190 could allow Montana to access more of this funding through matched federal grants. Montana should take every opportunity to use this money, and I-190 represents a golden opportunity to do so.”
There will be two separate marijuana measures on the state’s November ballot.
One initiative, a statutory change, would create a system of legal cannabis access for adult-use. A separate constitutional amendment would ensure only those 21 and older can participate in the market.
If the statutory measure is approved by voters, possessing up to an ounce of cannabis would be allowed, and people could cultivate up to four plants and four seedlings at home.
The Montana Department of Revenue would be in charge of regulating the legal industry and would issue business licenses by January 1, 2022. Existing medical cannabis businesses would be first in line to enter the adult-use market.
There would be a 20 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana, while the tax on medical cannabis products would be reduced from two to one percent. Besides public land funding, those tax dollars would also go toward veteran services, substance misuse treatment, health care, local governments that allow cannabis businesses and the state general fund.
“We are excited to have the support of our neighbors and friends from the PLC,” Petersen said. “Countless Montanans will continue to enjoy this special place because of the funding I-190 is creating and because of the hard work of the folks like those who make up the Public Lands Coalition who believe and invest in Montana’s public lands and waters.”
Montana voters approved a medical cannabis legalization initiative in 2004 and later passed a 2016 expansion measure.
For the current cycle, New Approach Montana submitted their petitions for the cannabis initiatives in June. That came after they initially suspended signature gathering activities amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which they later relaunched with social distancing measures in place.
In July, the group announced that data from county officials indicated they would make the ballot. And in August, state officials officially qualified the measures.
The Montana Democratic Party adopted a platform plank endorsing marijuana legalization in June.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
House Democrats Keep Marijuana Banking Protections In Revised COVID Bill After Delaying Legalization Vote
A slimmed-down coronavirus relief bill that House Democrats released on Monday again includes marijuana banking protections.
Despite pushback from GOP lawmakers who challenged the germaneness of including the cannabis language in a prior version that the House approved in May, the text of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was again inserted into the new legislation. It could get a floor vote as early as this week—and that would mark the third time the chamber has taken up the banking measure in some form in the past year.
The SAFE Banking Act would protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, and on its own has significant bipartisan support. But its inclusion in the COVID-19 relief legislation was widely criticized by Republicans who insisted that it was part of an expansive Democratic wishlist of items not related to the health crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been particularly critical of the House proposal, specifically taking issue with industry diversity reporting provisions of the SAFE Banking Act, for example. Other vocal opponents include Vice President Mike Pence and Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and John Kennedy (R-LA).
The Senate did not add cannabis banking language to its own version of COVID relief legislation filed in July.
“We appreciate that Democratic leadership is standing firmly behind the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act, despite some Republicans in Congress preferring to treat this public safety issue like some kind of comic relief,” Steve Fox, president of VS Strategies, told Marijuana Moment. “Far from being non-germane, the pandemic has only underscored the importance of this legislation.”
“At a time when businesses all across the country are relying on electronic transactions to protect public health, cannabis businesses are being forced to exchange currency. This bill is timely and necessary,” he said.
A summary of the banking provision prepared by House leaders states that it would “allow cannabis-related legitimate businesses, that in many states have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential services, along with their service providers, to access banking services and products, as well as insurance.”
Notably, the document highlights the diversity reporting language that some Republicans have slammed, signaling that Democrats are not shying away from those components despite the criticism. It explains that the legislation “requires reports to Congress on access to financial services and barriers to marketplace entry for potential and existing minority-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
Advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers have argued that providing marijuana banking protections will mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by making it so cannabis businesses don’t have to rely on cash transactions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she agrees that the measure is an appropriate component of the bill.
“The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES 2.0 package is a positive development,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “In the majority of states that regulate the marijuana marketplace, cannabis businesses have been deemed essential during this pandemic.”
“Unfortunately, at the federal level, prohibition compounds the problems that this emerging industry faces,” he said. “Small cannabis businesses in particular are facing tough economic times and access to traditional financial tools will help ensure that they can weather this pandemic.”
While the incremental reform measure would help alleviate financial complications in the cannabis market, news that House Democrats opted to stick to their guns on the industry-focused marijuana banking legislation could frustrate advocates who were disappointed when the chamber’s leadership decided to postpone a planned vote on a comprehensive cannabis legalization and social equity bill earlier this month.
The banking provisions are generally considered industry friendly without addressing the systemic problems resulting from the war on drugs. In the past, some activists have made the case that lawmakers should’t approve the SAFE Banking Act until marijuana is descheduled and restorative justice policies are implemented.
The House was expected to hold a floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act to federally legalize cannabis last week, but leaders announced they were delaying it after certain centrist Democrats expressed concern about the optics of advancing marijuana reform legislation without first passing additional COVID relief.
All that said, others do view the banking protections as a boon for social equity in that they would help minority-owned cannabis businesses that currently struggle to get access to capital and financial services.
“Without access to much needed capital to maintain throughout the crisis, it is possible that we could see an acceleration of the corporatization of the cannabis industry in a manner that is inconsistent with the values and desires of many within the cannabis space,” Strekal said. “Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would ensure that small businesses could compete in this emerging marketplace.”
In July, bipartisan treasurers from 15 states and one territory sent a letter to congressional leadership, urging the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any COVID-19 legislation that’s sent to the president’s desk. Following GOP attacks on the House proposal, a group of Democratic state treasurers renewed that call.
The House last year approved the standalone SAFE Banking Act. For months, the legislation has gone without action in the Senate Banking Committee, where negotiations have been ongoing.