Earlier this fall the US House of Representatives sent a strong message to cannabis companies from coast to coast: That they have their backs when it comes to accessing the US banking system. The 321-103 vote passing the SAFE Banking Act means there’s enough support in the House to override a potential veto of the bill, but since then there hasn’t been much action in the Senate on it. At least not in public, which a number of senators want to change sooner than later.
“We have a cash economy – billions of dollars moving around in backpacks and bags. It’s an invitation to organized crime and an invitation to cheating on your taxes… money laundering,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told Wikileaf. “This is the wild west with no good for anyone, so let's change it.”
All eyes are now on Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho – which remains one of the most anti-marijuana states in the nation, with stiff criminal penalties facing even patients who need cannabis for health reasons. Still, while the Mormon Republican is no fan of weed personally, he’s the chair of the powerful Banking Committee and that gives him a federal role that goes beyond merely one of representing his state’s formal prohibitionist position at the Capitol.
While Crapo’s now open to passing a companion bill to the House-passed SAFE Banking Act, he’s also looking to expand the scope of some of the competing banking proposals floating around. “The kinds of issues that I think we need to address are just to make sure that we adequately deal with interstate banking issues and get that right,” Crapo told Wikileaf.
“Then secondly, legacy cash. There's a lot of cash that will be moved into the banking system if this legislation passes. That creates a potential for money laundering and other issues. So we need to deal with that.” Crapo’s also throwing a potential curveball into the debate by exploring addressing cannabis regulations in the bank bill, which could prove difficult given that cannabis is still a Schedule 1 narcotic in the eyes of the federal government.
Still, Crapo says he’s wanted to address those issues ever since he held a hearing on the issue this summer. “There were health and safety issues raised at the hearing that we need to deal with in one way or another,” Crapo said. “What the banking legislation would do is to authorize the banking of this set of products and the question is, ‘What is the set of products? And how does that get resolved?’”
Senate Republican leaders, like Crapo, are now raising the bar by expanding the narrow scope of the legislation, which was initially intended to simply allow cannabis companies in states where marijuana is legal, either medicinally or recreationally, to fully access the nation’s banks, credit unions and credit card system. Even with the expanding scope of the proposal in the Senate, some supporters in the House remain optimistic about the bill’s chances.
“They're going to start with our bill, Chairman Crapo has said that, and that's all we can ask. And, you know, I believe they can improve it,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) told Wikileaf. “If they can improve it, and make sure that somebody can’t use this access to the banking system for money laundering and improve that position, I'm for that, because we're all for safety.”
Still, Stivers wants to caution his fellow Republicans not to go too far, because the limited scope of the proposal was intentional. “It's not a cannabis bill. It's a banking bill. And it's a bill about safety. And it's a bill about having access to the payment system,” Stivers said. “And so I feel pretty confident that it's going to make it through. But if it doesn't, we’ll be in the status quo, which is bad for people who want a safe environment when they walk into a dispensary.”
House Democrats are watching the changes in the Senate with a little more wariness. While pro-cannabis Democrats have a long laundry list of other proposals they want to see enacted, they purposefully left this legislation targeted on one glaring problem – and not the hundreds of other glaring problems – that stem from the lingering federal prohibition of marijuana.
“It's a commonsense bill and…people get it. You know, right now my legit cannabis businesses in my district pay taxes with cash,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) told Wikileaf. “Now the IRS takes the cash, the state takes the cash, my local municipalities take the cash, but then you can't bank it. It doesn't make sense. Absolutely illogical.” And Correa says Senate Republicans need to study state laws more carefully.
In his home state of California – where cannabis is legal for recreational use – every individual plant must be registered, and each harvested crop and then transported crops need to be accounted for too. That’s so state regulators can easily trace products sold in dispensaries – and then ingested or inhaled by consumers – all the way back to where the plants were grown in case there’s a health scare, but which also works well for tax purposes.
That’s why Correa says if Senate Republicans want to bring federal regulations into the banking debate than they should just end the war on drugs, well, at least the ongoing war on marijuana to start. “Ultimately, the bigger issue is that, you know, prohibition of drugs is just a hard thing to enforce,” Correa said.
“I mean, it's just very hard.” But even supporters of cannabis normalization in the Senate say that their colleagues in the upper chamber just aren’t there yet on decriminalization, let alone outright legalization. “It's hard because some states just aren't ready yet,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Wikileaf. He’s fully on board with the SAFE Banking Act and is working with Crapo to help try and address his concerns. “I think it'll pass over here,” Paul said.
“I think that there is a desire to fix the banking rule so that businesses that are legal in certain states can really do banking.” But there’s a new complicating factor since the House passed its banking proposal at the end of September: Impeachment. The contentious House investigation is increasingly sucking up more and more of the limited supply of oxygen in Washington, and that could imperil everything from trade to cannabis policy.
“Impeachment is having an impact on everything around here,” Banking Chair Crapo told Marijuana Moment last week. “I don’t see that it would have a greater impact on this than anything else…” but “…if there’s an impeachment trial, it’ll delay everything during the trial.” Still, Crapo wants the Senate to wrap up its cannabis banking legislation before the end of the year. “My hope is to move something soon,” Crapo said. “That’s my hope.”