Momentum Builds For Major Cannabis Bill

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.): "Fighting every which way". Photo: Shutterstock

Senators on both sides of the aisle are throwing support behind a proposal to tuck key marijuana banking legislation into a larger package aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness, increasing the odds that a significant cannabis bill gets through the upper chamber this year.

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the No. 3 Senate Democrat, is leading a push to pass the SAFE Banking Act, which would enable cannabis firms to use banking services, as part of a sweeping package lawmakers are hashing out in both chambers that is intended to bolster the country’s supply chains and manufacturing.

While the cannabis measure was not included in the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act that passed the Senate, the legislation was featured in the House’s version of the bill, known as the Competes Act, that passed in February.

Murray says she is “fighting every which way” to get the cannabis legislation included in the final bill. She noted that federal law currently forces weed dispensaries to use cash, making them prime targets for robberies.

“This is a cash-only business right now. It’s dangerous for the employees,” Murray, a member of the Senate conference committee heading negotiations for the final version of the bill, told The Hill. “It’s dangerous for the patrons, and it can be fixed.”

Several senators are pushing to include the bill, which has passed the House six times and has dozens of Democratic co-sponsors in the upper chamber, in the broader competition bill.

“The bottom line is that banking bill’s been out there for a long time. It’s ready to go. It needs to pass,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the conference committee and a co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told The Hill.

Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), one of nine Senate Republican co-sponsors of the bill, told The Hill that he thinks other Republicans could get behind the idea.

“We’ve got nine Republican co-sponsors officially on it, close to 50 Democrats,” Daines said. “There are some other Republicans that I’m confident, if we had a vote, would vote for it. So, we’ve got the votes to pass the SAFE Banking Act as a standalone, if we’d like to.”

Conferees are expected to complete a compromise China competitiveness bill that could win the support of 60 senators before the August recess, when Congress shifts its focus to the November midterm elections and legislation slows to a crawl.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who previously blocked the SAFE Banking Act over concerns that its passage would hurt the prospects of wider reforms, hopes to unveil the text of his comprehensive bill to legalize marijuana and expunge federal pot convictions, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity (CAO) Act, around the same time.

“Clearly it’s not aimed for passage this Congress if it’s coming out in August,” said Steven Hawkins, president of the U.S. Cannabis Council, an industry group, referring to Schumer’s bill. “Even if it comes out sooner than that, it’s too late in the calendar year. So what that means is we really have an open playing field to push for passage of SAFE.”

Schumer and other Democrats pushing for pot legalization have said that they’d be open to passing the banking bill if it is coupled with provisions to expunge marijuana convictions and repair damage done by the war on drugs.

“I think to not include restorative justice provisions is something I just can’t support,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is helping craft the CAO Act with Schumer, told The Hill when pressed about the SAFE Banking Act’s inclusion in the larger bill.

But under conference committee rules, lawmakers cannot modify the SAFE Banking Act to add additional social equity or criminal justice reform provisions, complicating its chances of winning Schumer’s approval and making it into the final package that goes to President Biden’s desk.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could also play a role in blocking the SAFE Banking Act’s inclusion. He didn’t nominate any of the bill’s nine Senate Republican co-sponsors to the conference committee, and in a statement he attacked House Democrats’ efforts to include “marijuana banking” in the package.

K Street lobbyists expect that around a dozen GOP senators would vote for the bill, which passed the House last year with the support of every Democrat and 106 Republicans.

Still, Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.) and Roy Blunt (Mo.), two of the banking bill’s GOP backers, told The Hill that they aren’t sure whether it’s a fit for the China competitiveness legislation.

Industry lobbyists are citing a wave of robberies targeting cash-only pot dispensaries to pressure lawmakers to pass the banking bill sooner rather than later. An employee at a Washington state dispensary was shot and killed during an armed robbery in March, and a burglar shot the owner of an Oakland, Calif., dispensary last month.

“I think there needs to be more concern because right now this is an untenable situation,” Hawkins said. “People should not be in a position where they go to work and are not certain they’re going to come home to their families, and that’s what we’re faced with right now.”

Advocates have sought to convince Schumer and other wary Democrats that the banking bill’s passage would boost momentum for further cannabis reforms, not weaken it.

“My experience has been that every time you get somebody who’s not quite comfortable with broader reform, but is potentially swayable on incremental measures, once you get them to vote for those incremental measures, it becomes much easier to get them to support future and much broader legislation,” said Morgan Fox, policy director at marijuana advocacy nonprofit NORML.

The American Bankers Association and bankers groups from all 50 states urged Senate leaders to include the banking bill in the conference report last week, stating that the “urgently needed” legislation would address the recent wave of robberies and improve transparency and tax collection among cannabis businesses.

“The inability of the state-licensed cannabis industry to access safe and regulated financial services is a pressing concern for so many of our nation’s communities and the banks that serve them,” the banking groups wrote in a letter to top senators.

Senators are being inundated with similar messages from state officials. Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser (D) and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) wrote a letter to Senate leaders last month warning that the current system encourages crime and “prevents proper tracking of billions of dollars” in marijuana sales.