The U.S. House passed the SAFE Banking Act in an historic 321-103 vote on Wednesday. The bill would free financial institutions to work with legal cannabis businesses despite federal prohibition, and is the first-ever standalone cannabis legislation to receive a House vote.
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” said Colorado Representative Ed Perlmutter, the primary sponsor of the bill. “Prohibition is over. Our bill is focused solely on taking cash off the streets and making our community safer. And only Congress can take these steps to provide this certainty for businesses, employees, and financial institutions across the country.”
D.C. Representative Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that the SAFE Banking Act is “not only timely, but extremely necessary, adding that “the cannabis industry needs safe and effective banking immediately.”
Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, a longtime champion of cannabis law reform and the chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that the passage of the SAFE Banking Act will “provide momentum that we need for further reform.” This was perhaps in reference to recent division among legalization supporters over whether to support a narrow bill like the SAFE Banking Act, or push for a bill that includes more comprehensive cannabis law reform.
Florida Representative Matt Gaetz also said during the hearing that he hoped the vote “will build some common sense momentum for real cannabis reform.”
“I know the bill’s not perfect. I expect the bill to get better in the Senate,” Gaetz said.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where it might not face such an easy path to passage.
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said in a statement, “Now it’s time for the Senate to act. While we continue to work to address broader issues related to the harmful legacy of cannabis prohibition across the country, I am hopeful that we can get the SAFE Banking Act moving quickly through committee, to the Senate floor, and ultimately, to the President’s desk.”
However, opponents of the bill said that the real question that Congress should consider is whether cannabis should be a Schedule I drug. “We are voting to nationally legalize marijuana today throughout the banking system rather than taking the correct approach,” said Tennessee Representative David Kustoff.
North Carolina Representative Patrick McHenry said the House vote on Wednesday perhaps needed more consideration.
“The bill we are considering today is one of the biggest changes to US drug policy in my lifetime, yet it’s being done without debate,” McHenry said. (The bill, which passed out of the House Financial Services Committee in March, got an unprecedented hearing in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in July.)
But Representative Denny Heck of Washington countered that the Act is a “public safety bill.”
“You can be agnostic on the underlying policy on whether or not cannabis should be legal for either adult recreational use or to treat seizures,” Heck said. “But you cannot be agnostic on the need to improve safety.”
Kustoff and McHenry’s Republican colleague Representative Steve Stivers agreed with Heck. “The SAFE Banking Act does not change the legal status of marijuana,” said Stivers, adding that it is a “major protection for other legal businesses.”
Following the bill’s passage, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, who is now the honorary chairman for the National Cannabis Roundtable, said in a statement, “Today’s vote is a signal that Washington is beginning to catch up with the states and the fastest growing industry in our country.”
Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), however, criticized the House for putting “Big Marijuana’s demands above the interest of public health and safety,” referring to the vaping related deaths, several of which have been linked to THC-based vaping products. They called on the U.S. Senate to “protect public health and safety in the face of this crisis by blocking this addiction-for-profit legislation.”
The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing earlier on Wednesday on the vaping situation, pressing the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on their next steps. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of that hearing.)
Leading up to Wednesday’s vote, there was pushback from advocacy groups and lawmakers, who called for broader legalization legislation, like the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, to be considered before banking. (Read Cannabis Wire’s latest piece on the SAFE Banking Act, which includes lawmakers’ reactions to these concerns.)
In response to the bill passing in the House, the Drug Policy Alliance said in a statement, “We had no objections to the substance of the SAFE Banking bill. However, DPA and allies from the civil rights community sent a letter of concern because we believe it is a mistake for the House to pass an incremental industry bill before passing a comprehensive bill that prioritizes equity and justice for the communities who have suffered the most under prohibition.”