Op-Ed: Marijuana Banking Is a Self-Serving Path to Victory

Many dispensaries are still cash-only because cannabis is federally illegal.
Many dispensaries are still cash-only because cannabis is federally illegal. Scott Lentz
The marijuana industry recently scored a huge victory with the passage of the SAFE Banking Act. Not only was this a win for America's new multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry, it's also historic in the sense that it's the first time for the United States House of Representatives to approve marijuana-focused legislation. While many believe the recent action by Congress signals a shift in support for more comprehensive legislation that will remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and more, I remain skeptical of the ripple effect.

While the recent victory for the marijuana industry is deserving of celebration, we cannot forget that federal marijuana prohibition continues to rage on, as data in the latest FBI arrest report indicates. With federal lobbying priorities shifting away from descheduling marijuana to a strategy that condones the practice of parceling out different policy areas to benefit wealthy investors and shareholders of corporations, marijuana-related arrests will certainly continue.

I am not opposed to the passage of the SAFE Banking Act. As a matter of fact, it's quite the opposite. I worked extensively on the first rendition of the banking legislation introduced by Colorado Representative Ed Perlmutter in 2014. In addition to personally meeting with the Congressman and his staff to discuss the need for access to financial services and lobbying members of Congress in support of his bill, I worked with Denver City Councilman Chris Nevitt to pass the nation's first resolution calling on the federal government to provide access to banking services for marijuana businesses.
click to enlarge Kevin Mahmalji - MARIAH MIRANDA/MARIAHMIRANDA.COM
Kevin Mahmalji
Mariah Miranda/
That being said, I am opposed to a strategy that prioritizes the financial needs of an industry that generated an estimated $26 billion in sales between 2016 and 2018 while ignoring the fact that more than 2 million Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses during this same time period.

To put things in perspective, in 2018, 663,367 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, most of which were for simple possession. That's roughly one arrest every 48 seconds. The recent committee hearing to debate the SAFE Banking Act lasted approximately one hour and twenty minutes. That's eighty minutes, or 4,800 seconds. This means roughly one hundred people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses while Congress focused on the needs of marijuana companies.

While we can agree that the SAFE Banking Act was a monumental victory for the marijuana industry, we'll have to disagree that responsible consumers or patients in America are somehow in a better position today than they were prior to the passage of the SAFE Banking Act out of the House in September. Arrests for marijuana-related offenses have persisted regardless of the marijuana industry wielding its lobbying power and influence on Capitol Hill.

At the end of the day, passage of the Safe Banking Act is good public policy, but we must remain unwavering in our commitment to end the human impacts of marijuana prohibition, including the harassment, arrest and incarceration of responsible marijuana consumers — not advancing the financial interests of the marijuana industry.

Kevin Mahmalji is the former director of outreach and engagement for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and founder of political and nonprofit consulting firm Two Rivers Consulting.

Westword occasionally publishes essays and op-eds on matters of interest to metro Denver readers; find out more at [email protected]
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.