Bipartisan Senate and House lawmakers have refiled a much-anticipated bill to free up banking services for the marijuana industry.
Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT), along with Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), reintroduced the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in their respective chambers on Wednesday.
The legislation, which has been slightly revised since last session, would protect banks that work with state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
“Forcing legal businesses to operate in all-cash is dangerous for our communities; it’s an open invitation to robbery, money laundering, and organized crime—and it’s way past time to fix it,” Merkley said in a press release. “For the first time, we have a path for SAFE Banking to move through the Senate Banking Committee and get a vote on the floor of the Senate.”
Right now, legal cannabis businesses are forced to operate entirely in cash. It’s a dangerous system—ripe for robbery, assaults, tax fraud, and money laundering. If you care about public safety, cash is a terrible system.
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) April 26, 2023
“Let’s make 2023 the year that we get this bill signed into law so we can ensure that all legal cannabis businesses have access to the financial services they need to help keep their employees, their businesses, and their communities safe,” he said.
Cannabis reform needs to be rooted in restorative justice. The SAFE Banking Act of 2023 includes expanded equity provisions, and I’m going to be pushing to pair it with funding for states that choose to expunge cannabis records as part of a final package. #SAFEBankingAct
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) April 26, 2023
Daines said that the legislation would “provide the security and peace of mind that legal Montana cannabis businesses need to freely use banks, credit unions and other financial products without a fear of punishment” and also “help keep our Montana communities safe, keep crime off the streets, support Montana small businesses and bolster local economies.”
This latest version further makes clear that the safe harbor is extended to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs) that make commercial loans to minority-owned businesses—a new provision that advocates pushed for last Congress.
“As it stands, the federal government has denied state-legal cannabis companies the same access to financial services as every other legal business across the Buckeye State and our country,” Joyce, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said. “Not only does this distort the market in a growing industry, but it also forces businesses to operate in all cash, making them and their employees sitting ducks for violent robberies.”
“The bipartisan SAFE Banking Act will allow cannabis businesses to operate legally without fear of punishment by federal regulators, making our communities safer,” he said.
Blumenauer, founder of the Cannabis Caucus, said that the bill “will save lives and livelihoods.”
“It is past time that Congress addresses the irrational, unfair, and unsafe prohibition of basic banking services to state-legal cannabis businesses,” he said. “The House has passed the SAFE Banking Act on a bipartisan basis seven times. I am delighted that the Senate is joining us in making it a priority.”
Beside Merkley and Daines, the Senate bill has 38 additional cosponsors, including five Republican members.
Those supporters are Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Dan Sullivan (D-AK), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Rand Paul (R-KY), Angus King (I-ME), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), John Fetterman (D-PA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Peter Welch (D-VT), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), Jon Tester (D-MT), Mark Warner (D-VA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI) and Chris Murphy (D-CT).
The House version has eight additional cosponsors in addition to the two leads.
Those lawmakers are Reps. Warren Davidson (R-OH), Jim Himes (D-CT), Brian Mast (R-FL), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-OR) and Lou Correa (D-CA).
Of course, this is not the so-called SAFE Plus package of marijuana banking and expungements legislation that Senate leadership worked to advance last year but which fell short of being enacted.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said earlier this month that his panel will take up cannabis banking reform on its own, leaving equity and criminal justice proposals to other committees of jurisdiction.
Merkley and Daines released a separate joint statement on Wednesday that addressed the prospects for SAFE Plus, saying the introduction of the revised standalone bill “puts us on a path to move through the Senate Banking Committee and get a vote on the floor of the Senate,” but there will be an “opportunity to add additional regular-order passed provisions” when it reaches the floor.
The senators cited recently filed bipartisan proposals on marijuana expungements and gun rights as examples of potential add-ons to the legislation.
“This expanded ‘SAFE Banking Plus’ package will represent the largest-ever cannabis reform legislation with bipartisan support in Congress,” they said. “We are committed to making 2023 the year a bill is signed into law that ensures all legal cannabis businesses have access to the financial services they need.”
With a divided Congress that has Republicans in control of the House, the expectation is that lawmakers will need to focus on incremental marijuana measures like the banking bill, instead of broader justice-centered legalization, to get any amount of reform passed this session.
But a vote in the Senate on Wednesday has raised 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.
Advocates have been anticipating that the legislation would originate in the Senate this round, but it appears that lawmakers decided to start with a bicameral push.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) 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.
“Until we reach our goal, I promise to be in your corner and work like hell bringing federal cannabis policy into the 21st century,” he said. “We will need you, as we always do, to reach out to members of both parties, in both chambers—especially Republican—so we can make progress on cannabis reform.”
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.
Blumenauer, who filed a bill to allow marijuana businesses to take federal tax deductions last week, 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.
Meanwhile, a number of cannabis bills were filed last week leading up to 4/20, though lawmakers didn’t explicitly say that the timing was related to the unofficial marijuana holiday.
For example, Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) introduced legislation last week 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.
Earlier this 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.
On the Senate side, lawmakers are set to vote on a motion to invoke cloture on a bill to promote research into marijuana for military veterans. The procedural vote to bring the legislation to the floor is scheduled for Wednesday.
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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
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