For the second time in less than two years, the United States House of Representatives has passed a bill that would protect banks and financial institutions that serve state-legal marijuana businesses.
Because of the plant's federal prohibition, much of the marijuana industry is forced to operate in cash or pay high service fees to banks willing to serve them at risk of federal enforcement actions. Again introduced by Representative Ed Perlmutter, the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would prevent federal enforcement against banks providing bank accounts, lines of credit, loans and other financial services to marijuana and hemp businesses.
"Cash-based systems are inefficient, expensive and opaque, making illicit activity more difficult to track and posing a significant risk to public safety by increasing the likelihood of crime," Colorado State Treasurer Dave Young says in an announcement from the Democratic State Treasurers, an organization of seventeen treasurers across the country, sent after the April 19 vote.
Perlmutter has been pushing the SAFE Banking Act since 2013, the year after Colorado voters approved recreational marijuana sales. The legislative language was approved in 2019 on the House floor, but failed to make it to the U.S. Senate.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, however, Perlmutter no longer has to persuade former Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell or former Senate Banking Committee chairman Mike Crapo, both of whom opposed commercial marijuana, to let the bill go to a vote in the Senate. Instead, Perlmutter will be working with current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who just recognized 4/20 while advocating for federal legalization on the Senate floor, and current Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown, who expressed support for marijuana banking earlier this year — as long as the proposed legislation includes drug-sentencing reform.
“Senator Brown supports medical marijuana and decriminalization, and while he is not a co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, he believes that we need to find real ways to allow the cannabis industry to access the banking system,” his office says in a statement released April 19. "As chairman of the Senate Banking and Housing Committee, Senator Brown will continue to look for ways to ensure that the Black and brown communities, including minority-owned small businesses, most impacted by the war on drugs are able to participate in the cannabis economy and banking systems as decriminalization efforts move forward.”
With seventeen states having already legalized recreational marijuana sales, banking access is becoming more important for small and minority-owned businesses lacking capital, according to Minority Cannabis Business Association Director Amber Littlejohn.
“From the lack of startup capital for the exhaustive application process to managing the extraordinary operational costs," Littlejohn says, "minority business owners often face the painful decision to give up or sell their interests to predatory investors who use management agreements that deprive minority operators of meaningful rights of ownership."
There's already been some groundwork laid in the Senate for the SAFE Banking Act, with senators Jeff Merkley (a Democrat) and Steve Daines (a Republican) introducing the bill there in March. It has 32 co-sponsors so far, but hasn't gotten a date for a committee hearing — and could hit another delay as Schumer pushes his own legislation that would end federal marijuana prohibition.
"After years of bringing up this issue, I’m thrilled to see overwhelming support for this bipartisan, commonsense legislation in the U.S. House once again. I feel optimistic about the path forward for the SAFE Banking Act and, more broadly, reforms to our federal cannabis laws,” Perlmutter says in a statement. “Congress needs to act in order to catch up with the will of the majority of voters across this county and to ensure we are reducing the public safety risk for our constituents and communities."
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