Last July, in an effort to address a long-running marijuana-industry problem we've been reporting about for years, Representative Ed Perlmutter, joined by U.S. House colleagues on both sides of the aisle, introduced a bill intended to give state-legal pot businesses access to banking services.
Just over a year later, the House has voted by a 231-192 margin in favor of a Perlmutter-co-sponsored amendment on the same topic -- and while marijuana reformers understand that a lot needs to go right before the measure becomes law, they're cheered by what they see as more evidence of positive momentum on cannabis-related issues.
Last year, Perlmutter described the need for the bill like so: ""We need to address the public safety, crime and lost tax revenue associated when these legal and regulated businesses are operating in a cash-only system. We also need to provide financial institutions assurance that they can make their own business decisions related to legal, financial transactions without fear of regulatory penalties or criminal prosecution."
The bill didn't get much traction at first. However, continuing complaints from industry reps in Colorado and Washington, bolstered by a letter co-authored by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Washington Governor Jay Inslee asking for a fix, ultimately generated some action on the federal level: banking memos issued in February by the departments of Justice and Treasury that were supposed to improve the situation.
In the end, though, the memos proved less than effective. Many advocates argued that the systemic tweaks were wholly inadequate when it came to convincing financial institutions they wouldn't be cited for drug-money laundering after taking on marijuana businesses as clients. In the months since then, they've mostly been proven right.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House has become increasingly friendly to marijuana legislation. In late May, for example, reps voted to defund DEA raids on medical cannabis businesses in states where they're legal. But that measure stalled in the Senate a few weeks later, and there's currently no reliable timeline for its revival.
Something similar could happen to the current amendment, whose other co-sponsors include Washington Representative Denny Heck. But right now, progressive marijuana figures are focusing on the good news. "This is a huge victory for those who care about the smart regulation and control of marijuana," notes Major Neill Franklin, executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), in a statement. He adds, "What we're seeing is not just that one of the most gridlocked Congresses in history is able to pass marijuana reforms. We're seeing that both Democrats and Republicans think of these reforms as smart, politically viable options to a failed drug war."
Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell is equally upbeat. In an e-mail to Westword, he writes, "Combined with May's bipartisan vote to block the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, as well as two good hemp amendments that passed on the same day, it's clear that cannabis reform is having a very good year in Congress.
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"Whereas the federal government once stood in the way of marijuana reform at every opportunity," he goes on, "the changing politics of this issue are such that more politicians are now working to accommodate popular state laws so that they can be implemented effectively."
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.