Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says that passing a marijuana banking bill is one of his legislative priorities for the remainder of the year as Congress is set to return from the August recess—but he’s “under no illusion” that the cannabis reform and other wins can be achieved it without bipartisan buy-in.
In a Dear Colleague letter circulated on Friday, Schumer touted various Democratic achievements in the first half of the year and said that the recess afforded lawmakers the opportunity to “talk directly with our constituents” about their progress. But once Congress reconvenes this month, the work continues.
“In the remaining months of this year, we also have an opportunity to advance legislation on a number of critical issues,” the majority leader said. He cited 10 specific priorities, listing “safeguarding cannabis banking” as second, right after “lowering the cost of insulin and prescription drugs.”
He is, of course, referencing the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, a bipartisan bill that is awaiting committee action before potentially advancing to the floor.
Possibly adding momentum to the reform as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is now recommending that marijuana be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)—a move that would, among other things, free up state-licensed cannabis businesses to take federal tax deductions.
People who’ve followed the issue will likely find Schumer’s latest letter familiar, as he similarly described it as a priority in a separate Dear Colleague letter in July when he laid out the summer agenda. But efforts to advance the SAFE Banking Act fell short at the time amid disagreement between key senators over a single section of the bill concerning broader banking regulations.
At a press conference in late July before lawmakers broke for recess, Schumer said that senators were “making good progress” in bipartisan negotiations over the legislation and predicted a a “very, very productive fall in the Senate.”
The bill “has always been a priority for me,” he said. “So there’s a lot to do when we get back.”
The commonality between the two Dear Colleague letters is an emphasis on the need for bipartisan support in order to move the measure.
“Finding compromise is never easy, but our efforts to do precisely that have led to significant accomplishments under this majority,” Schumer wrote in the newest message to colleagues. “I thank all of you for your diligent work so far on such a wide range of issues… We must keep working in good faith to achieve even more.”
At this point, the SAFE Banking Act has 42 cosponsors—nearly half of the Senate—and that includes eight Republicans and three independents. So there is a level of bipartisanship to the reform, earlier versions of which have cleared the House multiple times. The problem at hand is Section 10, which certain Democrats believe would undermine banking regulations and are seeking to amend or remove.
Republicans have said they view that option as a “non-starter,” however. And it’s unclear if any progress was made over the recess to reach an agreement that would allow the bill to move through the Senate Banking Committee and onto the floor.
As a standalone in its current form, insiders say the measure has enough Republican buy-in to reach the 60-vote threshold needed for passage in the Senate.
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Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and lead SAFE Banking Act cosponsor Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) sparred over next steps for the bill in the lead-up to the August recess. Brown has insisted that Daines needs to secure more GOP cosponsors, but Daines argued that Republicans are already prepared to move the legislation as previously agreed to through the floor.
Daines has also previously cautioned against attempting to expand the measure with social justice reforms that progressives would like to add, though his office has told Marijuana Moment that the senator is “open” to adding expungements language, as proposed by Schumer.
Meanwhile, the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp (ATACH)—along with trade groups representing marijuana businesses in 16 states plus Washington, D.C.—sent a letter to Brown and Banking Committee Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-SC) in July, imploring them to pass the cannabis banking bill “without further delay.”
Schumer also spoke with a cannabis industry leader earlier this summer after being approached at an unrelated event, and according to that entrepreneur, the Senate leader is feeling “confident” about the prospects of passing the cannabis banking bill.
As its currently drafted, the measure would protect banks and credit unions, as well as depository institutions, from being penalized by federal regulators for working with state-licensed cannabis businesses.
Others have also floated other changes that they’d like to see incorporated into the cannabis bill such as expanding protections to free up marijuana industry access to all forms of financial services, including representation on major U.S. stock exchanges.
That request has faced some criticism from other advocates who say that would be an inappropriate move to help businesses while efforts to legalize marijuana stall in Congress.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) has also said that she wanted the SAFE Banking Act to pass with an amendment allowing cannabis businesses to access federal Small Business Administration (SBA) services.
In April, Schumer said that he was “disappointed” that a so-called SAFE Plus package of cannabis reform legislation didn’t advance last year, 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.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said 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 a lead Democratic sponsor of the House version of the SAFE Banking Act, said at a press briefing in April 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. And all 50 of its state chapters did the same, as did insurance and union organizations, in recent letters to congressional leadership.
July also marked the 10-year anniversary since the introduction of the first version of what is now known as the SAFE Banking Act.
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