A key Senate committee has officially scheduled a hearing for a bipartisan marijuana banking bill for next week.
The Senate Banking Committee will take up the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act on Thursday, May 11 at a meeting titled “Examining Cannabis Banking Challenges of Small Businesses and Workers.”
Hours before the hearing was scheduled, the panel’s chairman, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), told reporters that senators planned to “move quickly” on the legislation from Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT).
The description of the event, which will follow an executive session on unrelated matters, says that both senators will participate as witnesses.
The SAFE Banking Act would protect banks that work with state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The latest version has been amended in several ways that have encouraged advocates, but the plan is to further revise it on the floor to incorporate additional equity provisions.
Brown recently indicated that action on the bill had been delayed because of what he described as attempts by banking industry representatives to use the legislation as a vehicle for policies that would “weaken bank rules.” It wasn’t immediately clear what he meant by that, but appears that now his concerns have been addressed.
Merkley tweeted on Thursday that he and Daines “reintroduced the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act to reform outdated laws that force legal cannabis businesses to operate entirely in cash—a dangerous system that puts employees and communities at risk.”
“We have a path to a hearing and floor vote,” he said. “Let’s get it done!”
The SAFE Banking Act is considered one of the more passable pieces of cannabis legislation this session under a divided Congress with Republicans in control of the House. A former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently wrote an op-ed for Marijuana Moment explaining how the new political dynamics could actually bolster the bill’s prospects of passage this year.
Schumer, for his part, has reiterated his commitment to advancing the marijuana banking legislation with criminal justice provisions included, calling the broader effort to repair the harms of the drug war a “moral responsibility” for Congress.
“Right now, the norm for the cannabis businesses is to operate on all cash, and that is simply not fair: it exposes them to too many risks and stifles their opportunities to grow,” Schumer said in a Senate floor speech. “Congress should be in the business of promoting entrepreneurs, promoting job growth, not holding these things back.”
A vote in the Senate last month on separate marijuana legislation, however, has raised some questions about whether any modest cannabis reform is achievable under the current congressional makeup. Senate Republicans blocked a procedural motion to advance a bipartisan bill to simply require studies into the medical potential of cannabis for military veterans with chronic pain and PTSD.
The standalone SAFE Banking Act has been approved along largely bipartisan lines in the House in some form several times in recent years. But it’s consistently stalled out in the Senate under both Democratic and Republican leadership.
Last month, Schumer said that he was “disappointed” that the so-called SAFE Plus package of marijuana banking and expungements legislation he worked on last year didn’t advance, saying “we came close,” but “we ran into opposition in the last minute.” He said lawmakers will continue to “work in a bipartisan way” to get the job done.
The majority leader has been holding meetings with Democratic and Republican members in the early months of the new Congress to discuss cannabis reform proposals that might have bipartisan buy-in this year.
For his part, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said recently that lawmakers are working to “resurrect” the cannabis reform package, acknowledging that failure to advance a banking fix for the industry “literally means that hundreds of businesses go out of business.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who is sponsoring the House version of the SAFE Banking Act, said at a recent press briefing that thinks it’s important that advocates and lawmakers align on any incremental proposals to end the drug war, warning against an “all-or-nothing” mentality.
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Numerous cannabis bills have been filed in Congress in recent weeks beside the banking legislation.
For example, bipartisan lawmakers in both chambers reintroduced legislation last month to provide a safe harbor to insurance companies that work with state-legal cannabis businesses.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) introduced legislation last month to protect the Second Amendment rights of people who use marijuana in legal states, allowing them to purchase and possess firearms that they’re currently prohibited from having under federal law.
Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have filed a bill to incentive state and local marijuana expungements with a federal grant program.
Also last month, Joyce and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed a measure designed to prepare the federal government for marijuana legalization, directing the attorney general to form a commission to study and make recommendations about regulating cannabis in a way similar to alcohol.
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