Depending on who you ask, the SAFE Banking Act is either a public safety bill, a cannabis industry win, an equity measure, or all three. If you ask the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition, it is certainly not the latter, at least not in its current form.
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Drug Enforcement and Policy Center hosted a discussion on Wednesday called “Not a SAFE Bet: Equitable Access to Cannabis Banking” during which panelists focused on what they argue is a canyon between the narrative around the bill and the reality of what it would achieve.
Panelists included Cat Packer and Shaleen Title, both Distinguished Cannabis Policy Practitioners in Residence at the Center, and former cannabis regulators in Los Angeles and Massachusetts, respectively; Rafi Aliya Crockett, member of the Washington, D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board; and Dasheeda Dawson, Cannabis Program Manager, City of Portland, Oregon. All of the panelists are part of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition.
The SAFE Banking Act, which would provide protections for financial institutions that want to work with cannabis businesses, has passed out of the House several times, including this year, either as a standalone bill or as part of a package. The narrative around the Act has evolved since it was first introduced in 2017. Most recently, lawmakers have focused on increasing robberies at cannabis businesses, including one in Washington state during which a dispensary worker was killed.
However, groups like the Drug Policy Alliance have argued since 2019 that the bill would “undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws” and “would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition.”
Still, at an event last month, as Cannabis Wire reported, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, lead sponsor of the Act, argued that it’s an achievable step toward broader reform, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer argued that banking hurdles are an equity issue. One compromise that’s been floated is what Perlmutter called “SAFE Banking Plus,” which would include some broader reform provisions, but Sen. Jeff Merkley raised concerns at the event about losing Republican support.
That topic emerged during Wednesday’s panel.
“Anything involving equity and Black and Brown people typically loses Republican support,” Dawson said. “So, I anticipate there will be some pushback.”
Maritza Perez, who serves as the director of the Office of Federal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that “many lawmakers have joined advocates in calling for the bill to be amended to intentionally address equity in the industry, particularly because this may be the only marijuana bill that moves this Congress.”
Perez also pushed back against the narrative that the bill, as is, helps to pave the path to broader reforms.
“If the goal is, in fact, to take a small step in the right direction, the best way to create an incremental measure toward justice is to ensure that the direct beneficiary of the law, the banks, only receive the benefit of safe harbor if they demonstrate compliance with existing anti-discrimination laws, and make an effort to build an equitable industry.”
Dawson said that the reluctance of the Cannabis Regulators of Color to support the SAFE Banking Act in its current form has “surprised” some people.
“We felt that the marketing plan for the bill was misaligned with the details of the actual bill in terms of the impact,” Dawson said. “There was a lot of use of Black and Brown bodies to tell the story around SAFE as a bill. But, the bill itself is one for institutions, and the benefit is actually mostly for the financial services industry, and not for the individuals.”
Packer spoke as both a former organizer and former regulator and said that the “claim” about the SAFE Banking Act that has “frustrated” her most, so far, is that the Act is “being passed for equity,” as if it’s a “goal” of the legislation.
“It does not mention the word equity. Not once ,” Packer said.
Title said that she once supported the SAFE Banking Act, when she was a regulator in Massachusetts. She said that she helped create tax collection counters around the state to “collect these piles of cash” that people often mention when arguing for the Act. Wondering how much cash was collected over time, Title recently filed a public records request to learn more.
“No piles of cash, not even one penny,” Title said. “Sometimes you just hear these narratives, and you have no reason not to believe them. And I think that’s a lot of where this idea that SAFE is going to lead to equitable access to banking is coming from. But in fact, the problems have not even been vetted, let alone the solutions.”
While much of the discussion was focused on potential pitfalls of passage of the SAFE Banking Act as written, Title said she’s cautiously “optimistic” about the future form that the legislation could take.
“Both legislators and their staff, and the public, seem to have shifted on this,” Title said.
The second half of the webinar focused on recommendations made in a white paper that the four panelists recently published.
One recommendation echoes Perez’s point, that as a “condition of safe harbor” from prosecution by the Department of Justice, banks and other financial institutions should be required to “demonstrate compliance with anti-discrimination laws” like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
Other recommendations include a push for research to identify hurdles to enter the cannabis industry “by including barriers experienced before, during, and after the licensure process.”
Crockett said that, even if the SAFE Banking Act was signed into law, banks could easily engage in “existing patterns and practices,” perhaps through the charging of higher fees for certain categories of businesses and people, which would continue to “disproportionately aid large , well-resourced businesses, rather than those owned by Black, Brown, and Indigenous persons.”
“Increased access to banking does not mean equitable access to banking,” Crockett said.