President Biden’s decision to reconsider marijuana’s legal status and pardon federal marijuana convictions has reignited calls for congressional action to help the struggling cannabis industry.
The lame-duck session is seen by lawmakers as their best chance yet to pass the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for cannabis businesses to access banking services and loans.
The bill, which would benefit cash-only dispensaries plagued by robberies and high banking fees, has already passed the House six times in recent years. However, it has stalled in the Senate due to concerns from top Democrats that it does not go far enough to help communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the nation’s drug laws.
Public pressure is mounting on Congress to address marijuana reform, and lawmakers are showing signs of optimism that a bipartisan marijuana banking bill addressing those systemic issues will reach the president’s desk this year.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who first introduced the bill in 2019, told The Hill on Tuesday that there is “a lot of activity” around the legislation, which he said some senators have referred to as “SAFE Banking Plus” while negotiations are ongoing.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) told NJ.com earlier this week that there’s a “good chance” Congress can reach a bipartisan compromise on marijuana reform and banking legislation.
While it is unlikely to be the comprehensive decriminalization bill, he helped draft with leadership earlier this year, Booker believes there may be an agreement on “an effort to tie in restorative justice and some fair banking provisions.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), one of the bill’s lead co-sponsors, is also optimistic about the bill’s prospects as negotiations continue.
However, negotiators face a difficult task in convincing Democratic holdouts to support the bill while also ensuring adequate support from Republicans who have opposed racial equity reforms.
Proponents are also working against a tight deadline to draft legislation and secure votes, as lawmakers return to Washington after the midterm elections.
The Senate isn’t scheduled to reconvene until Nov. 14, and with a must-pass defense bill, same-sex marriage legislation, and a December funding deadline looming, lawmakers have little time to waste before January.
According to Morgan Fox, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the national response to Biden’s recent order indicates a desire for further progress.
Biden stated earlier this month that his administration would review marijuana’s Schedule I classification, which places it on the same level as drugs like heroin and methamphetamine and makes working with cannabis businesses risky for banks.
However, the process could take years, and there’s no guarantee that the Biden administration will de-schedule marijuana entirely rather than simply downgrade it, which would be detrimental to the cannabis industry.
Small dispensaries are closing their doors every day, according to the industry, because banks charge far higher rates to cannabis businesses due to legal concerns. It is also concerned about the upcoming midterm elections, which could usher in a Republican House that is less likely to push for marijuana reform.
Restorative justice measures, such as proposals to encourage state-level weed pardons or increase lending from minority-owned banks, are supported by industry groups, but only if they garner enough GOP support for the bill to pass.
Over similar concerns, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) removed the banking bill from last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. SAFE supporters hope to include it in this year’s defense bill, which lawmakers hope to pass after the election.
According to a 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Americans were more than three times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana offenses in the United States.
However, data show that Black Americans are underrepresented in the country’s expanding cannabis industry. According to Leafly’s 2021 report, despite accounting for about 12% of the country’s population, Black Americans accounted for only 1.2 percent to 1.7 percent of all cannabis company owners.
Perez said her organization has been making progress on changes and is hoping to “see an amended bill move at some point.”