The bill would shield financial institutions serving marijuana businesses from federal charges, a risk that currently forces the majority of state-legal marijuana transactions to be conducted in cash, because the plant is still illegal federally. Perlmutter argued that operating on a cash-only basis made the cannabis industry a target for crime, and persuaded enough House representatives on both sides of the aisle to pass the bill four separate times from 2019 to 2021. Once the Senate and the White House both turned blue, it seemed like only a matter of time before the proposal would become law.
But then politics got involved.
The swell of support for national marijuana reform has become bigger than the banking constituency alone over the past two years, with issues such as federal legalization and reparations for the War on Drugs now driving the conversation in the Senate while the SAFE Banking Act continues to wait for a vote there. It's not that Perlmutter's bill doesn't have support — 39 senators have co-sponsored the bill so far, and the SAFE Banking Act is the only marijuana bill to have passed a chamber of Congress twice in the last century — but powerful Democrat senators like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have all pushed their own forms of more aggressive pot legislation. While there's more overall support for Perlmutter's cause now, he faces more competition for floor time, as well.
We caught up with Perlmutter to see how he views marijuana's progress in Congress, and to learn how optimistic he is about banking reform in the near future.
Westword: The SAFE Banking Act has passed the House more than once. What's currently holding up the bill in the other chamber?
Representative Ed Perlmutter: The Senate is currently pursuing comprehensive cannabis reform legislation, which is important to ensure true social and economic justice is achieved following the War on Drugs. However, there is a serious public-safety threat that exists in our communities that we cannot wait to address, which is why SAFE Banking needs to move now.
At first it was hard to get support for a single cannabis reform bill, but now it looks like Senate Majority Leader Schumer wants his Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act to come first. What are the benefits to a more incremental approach?
I believe it’s important to pass the SAFE Banking Act as quickly as possible to address the public-safety risk that comes with these businesses being forced to operate cash-only. Passing the SAFE Banking Act is the first step of many federal cannabis reforms to create a safer and more equitable industry.
Some social equity entrepreneurs in the cannabis space have said that state-legal markets with more financially advanced rules, like Colorado, are hard to break into after competing with companies that have deeper pockets. How would the SAFE Banking Act impact the parity of business owners in a growing industry?
The SAFE Banking Act is not about making corporations richer; it’s about protecting employees, patients and customers of small businesses. The SAFE Banking Act also immediately removes barriers for small and minority-owned cannabis businesses to access capital. Passing the SAFE Banking Act is the first step of many federal cannabis reforms to create a safer and more equitable industry.
What are the chances of adding social equity provisions to the SAFE Banking Act? Would that help the bill's movement in the Senate?
We have intentionally kept the SAFE Banking Act narrowly focused, given the jurisdiction of the House Financial Services Committee. I believe that has also helped garner more bipartisan support in the House, as we’ve seen with the overwhelming vote margins for the bill, and would help achieve sufficient support in the Senate, as well, if it were brought up for a vote.
You've been pushing this effort for a long time and keep getting closer to the finish line. Does this recent wave of Democrat interest in cannabis reform frustrate you because it's holding up the SAFE Banking Act, or does it give you optimism for more reform in the future?
I welcome more interest and more support for resolving the misalignment between state and federal cannabis laws. Today, voters in 47 states, four U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have all spoken and legalized some form of medical or recreational marijuana. As representatives of our states and our constituents, members of Congress have a responsibility to act on this issue in order to keep their constituents and communities safe.
Update: This article was updated Friday, August 20, to correct an error stating the SAFE Banking Act had passed the House of Representatives twice. It passed two more times as part of larger legislation, first as part of the HEROES Act and then as part of a COVID-19 relief package in 2021.