Future of the SAFE Act Not Looking So Safe

This year has generated increasing hope that a long-overdue bill for addressing the lack of banking options for cannabis businesses would finally be passed, thus alleviating the hassle, expense, and dangers that come with operating as an all-cash businesses.

That solution manifested as the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, AKA the SAFE Act. It has a broad bipartisan coalition of 206 House members who are co-sponsors, and is scheduled to receive a hearing this week. Passage would be great for the cannabis industry (and banks), so start chilling that celebratory champagne!

Except maybe wait, because last week a growing chorus of dissenters began making their voices heard, potentially jeopardizing the bill’s passage. And while access to banking for the cannabis industry through the SAFE Act is a well intentioned and worthy goal, those in opposition are making some valid points.

Marijuana Moment has been doing a great job tracking this story.

They list some of the groups who are opposed, which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Drug Policy Alliance, Center for American Progress, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and JustLeadershipUSA, who want lawmakers to hold off on a vote until some social justice issues are addressed. (Other cannabis advocacy groups such as NORML and National Cannabis Industry Association also support the SAFE Act.)

They sent a letter to House and Senate leaders last week, which read in part:

“We are concerned that if the House approves this bill, it will undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws…. The Congress has a unique opportunity to address the myriad injustices created by this nation’s marijuana laws. For decades, people of color have suffered under harsh and racially-biased marijuana laws. The banking bill does not address marijuana reform holistically. Instead, it narrowly addresses the issues of banking and improved access to financial services, measures that would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition.”

The letter’s writers and co-signers are in support of another bill that would address banking and the other aforementioned issues: the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, put forth by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) this past summer. As Marijuana Moment writes, the bill would 

“remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and invest money into programs aimed at repairing the harms of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially disproportionate manner.

“Individuals and communities who are still suffering from the destabilizing collateral consequences of prohibition need reform and should not be second in line behind the industry,” said the policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance. “We need to ensure that the sequencing of federal marijuana bills, especially under House Democratic Leadership, is well thought out and done in a way that centers the millions directly impacted by overenforcement. We want to avoid the banking bill becoming Congress’ only bite at the apple for cannabis reform this session.”

The MORE Act has thus far had what could charitably be called “modest progress.” None of the eight committees, including Nadler’s own, have scheduled a vote on it yet. 

The SAFE Act was recently reworked to be more palatable to Republican House and Senate members, including “banking protections (which) apply to hemp and CBD businesses, and also shields certain businesses such as firearms dealers from being targeted by financial regulators, as was the case under a 2013 Justice Department initiative that flagged various industries as higher risk for fraud and money laundering.” So, as long as we protect the firearms dealers, this should pass then?

Perhaps. Those coming out in favor of holding up a vote for SAFE include New Jersey Senator (and presidential candidate) Cory Booker, who last week tweeted:

As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://www.marijuanamoment.net/why-pro-legalization-cory-booker-isnt-cosponsoring-the-new-marijuana-bill/ …

Chuck Schumer also took this view, tweeting last week:

@RepAOC and these civil rights groups are right. Congress should not enact banking reform alone and think the job is done. We need decriminalization at the federal level, criminal justice reform, and investment in opportunity for minority & women-owned small businesses. https://twitter.com/MarijuanaMoment/status/1174121552172015617 

Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress To Delay Marijuana Banking Vote: “We are concerned that if the House approves this bill, it will undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws.”

Adding to the roadblocks, passage of the bill now faces a parliamentary rule that is being used by supporters to move it along. (Warning: Unrequested civics lesson ahead.) Per Marijuana Moment: “Leaders plan to advance the proposal under an expedited procedure called suspension of the rules, through which a two-thirds majority—or 290 votes—is needed to pass.”

Stay tuned….

Josh Taylor is a well-known and successful entrepreneur in the legal cannabis space, producing B2B and B2C cannabis events, "Backstage Budtending" and upscale concierge services through his companies OregonCannabisConcierge.com and CaliforniaCannabisConcierge.com. His weekly syndicated newspaper column and features about cannabis ran for five years until March 2020.

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