Cannabis legalization advocates must be feeling a sense a deja vu. Today, the House of Representatives approved legislation (again) that would provide safe harbor for financial service providers to work with cannabis businesses that are in compliance with state laws. Called the SAFE ACT, (Secure and Fair Enforcement) Banking Act, or H.R. 1996, was reintroduced in March by Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Steve Stivers (R-OH), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), and Warren Davidson (R-OH), and had 177 total cosponsors by the time of the vote. The legislation was approved by a vote of 321-101, including a majority of voting Republicans.
Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project said, “This vote marks a meaningful first step in establishing a more equitable cannabis industry and improves the likelihood that other cannabis legislation will advance at the federal level. Restricting cannabis businesses from accessing financial services creates an unnecessary burden for the industry and limits economic growth. If enacted into law, the SAFE Banking Act would strengthen efforts to increase the diversity of the cannabis industry by providing resources for those with limited access to capital and increasing the chances of success for state-level social equity initiatives. Further, it would protect the 321,000 employees directly affected by the cannabis industry’s lack of access to financial services.”
The SAFE Banking Act previously cleared the House in 2019. The language of the bill was also included in two rounds of COVID-19 relief packages that were approved by the House. This is the fourth time that the House has approved the language of the SAFE Banking Act, initially as the first standalone cannabis policy reform bill ever passed by either chamber of Congress in 2019 and two more times last year as part of pandemic relief packages that were not approved in the Senate.
“We are incredibly grateful to the bill sponsors who have been working with us for the last eight years to make this sensible legislation become law and have shepherded it through the House time and again,” said Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “The SAFE Banking Act is vital for improving public safety and transparency and will improve the lives of the more than 300,000 people who work in the state-legal cannabis industry. It will also help level the playing field for small businesses and communities with limited access to capital. It is time for the Senate to start considering the companion legislation without delay.”
Advocates are hopeful that Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-OH) will take up the bill in the near future so that it can begin to move through the upper chamber as soon as possible and become law before the end of the year. The SAFE Banking Act would protect financial institutions from federal prosecution for providing banking and other services to cannabis businesses that are in compliance with state law, as well as help address serious public health and safety concerns caused by operating in predominantly cash-only environments. The legislation would improve the operational viability of small businesses by helping them reduce costs associated with lack of access to banking and increasing options for traditional lending that many small businesses in other fields rely upon. It would also mandate a study on diversity in the cannabis industry.
“For the first time since Joe Biden assumed the presidency, a supermajority of the House has voted affirmatively to recognize that the legalization and regulation of marijuana is a superior public policy to prohibition and criminalization,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “However, the SAFE Banking Act is only a first step at making sure that these state-legal markets operate safely and efficiently. The sad reality is that those who own or patronize the unbanked businesses are themselves criminals in the eyes of the federal government, which can only be addressed by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.”
Separate from advocacy groups, corporate cannabis was encouraged as well. Medical Marijuana, Inc. (MJNA) CEO Dr. Stuart Titus said, “Though the cannabis industry has been deemed ‘essential’ during the pandemic, it still mainly operates as a high-liability, cash-only business. We’ve been looking forward to the passage of the SAFE Banking Act for nearly a year but with Democrats now in control of the House, Senate and White House, it’s finally happened. While we have generally resolved the majority of our banking and merchant processing issues that we saw when we began selling CBD throughout the US in 2012, we have done so at tremendous ongoing legal expenses and efforts. We hope that this bill can help other leaders in the overall cannabis industry avoid such hurdles and that it leads to expanded access to cannabis, hemp and CBD across the nation. We’ve seen that the number of banks servicing cannabis businesses has decreased over the past few months and we hope that this bill encourages banks to rethink that decision.”