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September 26, 2019

House passes cannabis banking bill, but it faces uncertainty in Senate

The House of Representatives voted to pass legislation that would allow the cannabis industry access to banking and financial services, even as the substance remains illegal under federal law.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, known as the SAFE Banking Act, passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 321 to 103. Nearly half of the Republican caucus joined their Democratic colleagues in voting for the bill. Only one Democrat, Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, voted no.

The vote is a win for cannabis retailers and American banking and credit union associations, as well as a bipartisan group of attorneys general that supported the measure.

Banks providing services to state-approved cannabis businesses could face criminal and civil liability under some banking statutes, so cannabis companies resort to operating on cash.

"It's an invitation to theft, it's an invitation to money laundering already, it's an invitation to tax evasion, and it stifles the opportunities of this business," Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, a sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor Wednesday before the vote.

[Read more: As legal marijuana industry grows, access to financial services still problematic]

The bill would allow "safe harbor" for financial institutions, as well as other ancillary businesses, that might conduct business with cannabis-related companies, Perlmutter said. He also argued the bill would stifle violent crime against employees and store owners.

Small amounts of recreational marijuana is legal for adults in 11 states and Washington, DC, and the substance is decriminalized in an additional 15 states.

"If someone wants to oppose legalization of marijuana, that's their prerogative. But American voters have spoken and continue to speak, and the fact is you can't put the genie back in the bottle," Perlmutter said Wednesday. "Prohibition is over."

Steve Hawkins, the executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project, said Wednesday's vote is an "indication that Congress is more willing than ever to support and take action on sensible cannabis policies."

"The passage of the SAFE Banking Act improves the likelihood that other cannabis legislation will advance at the federal level," Hawkins said in a statement Wednesday.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-North Carolina, opposed the bill, arguing that Congress should have a larger debate on the "underlying issue" of whether or not cannabis should be a schedule 1 substance.

He commended Perlmutter for working with Republicans to include a number of GOP priorities in the bill, but argued, "We do not fully understand the sweeping implications of this legislation. We do not yet know what the resulting regulatory regime will look like, nor do we have any assurance it will not expose the current financial system to illicit activity."

"This bill doesn't change the fact that cannabis remains a prohibited schedule 1 substance under the controlled substances act. To that end, if we seek to give financial institutions certainty, we should deal with the listing of cannabis as a schedule 1 substance, not debating a partial solution for financial institutions to what is a much larger problem and a larger societal issue that we must wrestle with," McHenry said.

A companion bill in the Senate, introduced by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado in April, has yet to be voted on by the Senate Banking Committee, which held a hearing in late July on the issue.

Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, who chairs the banking committee, told Politico earlier this month that he will hold a vote on cannabis banking legislation but was unclear on whether he would work off Merkley and Gardner's bill.

"We're working to try to get a bill ready," Crapo told Politico, adding, "We may craft our own bill or we may work with them to craft any amended legislation."

Neither Crapo nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell support the federal legalization of marijuana.

While Democrats supported the SAFE Banking Act, several reiterated their calls for the legalization of the drug.

"This bill is but one important piece of what should be a comprehensive series of cannabis reform bills," Rep. Maxine Waters of California said Wednesday on the House floor, adding that "it's long overdue that Congress to address the unjust criminalization of marijuana use."

She urged the House Judiciary Committee to pass chairman Jerry Nadler's bill, the MORE Act, that would decriminalize marijuana on the federal level, remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, and re-sentence and expunge past and pending convictions.

Ahead of the vote, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement that he's "proud" to bring the SAFE Banking Act to the House floor, "but I believe it does not go far enough."

"This must be a first step toward the decriminalization and de-scheduling of marijuana, which has led to the prosecution and incarceration of far too many of our fellow Americans for possession," he argued.

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