Can positioning a cannabis banking bill as explicitly not a cannabis bill give it a shot in the new Congress?
That’s what Montana Sen. Steve Daines attempted to do with his short speech during the American Bankers Association (ABA) Washington Summit on Tuesday, telling the thousands of bankers tuning in that he hopes to “unleash an army of you all in this room on Capitol Hill” to drum up support.
While the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Act, known as the SAFE Banking Act, a bill that could eliminate hurdles the industry faces in accessing the services of financial institutions, picked up more steam than ever before at the tail end of 2022, it wasn’t enough to get the bill its long awaited Senate vote. In the previous Congresses, the Act cleared the House several times.
The debate last year culminated in and came down to the so-called “Plus” aspect of the “SAFE Banking Plus” package, with a great deal of last-minute negotiations happening over added language, ranging from cannabis consumer gun rights to expungements.
The SAFE Banking Act conversation has not yet been formally picked up in the new Congress this year, though a revised version is expected soon. And with the retirement of longtime cannabis banking champion Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Daines has picked up the baton.
It’s against this backdrop that Daines spoke during Tuesday’s ABA Summit, framing the SAFE Banking Act as less of a cannabis bill, and more of a “public safety bill.”
“I do think there’s a chance we can move it in regular order this year. This bill’s been out there a long time,” Daines said. With each passing year, Daines said, “there is a greater number of people who understand that the problem of forcing legitimate, legal businesses to operate in all cash is only getting worse.”
In the meantime, key supporters of cannabis law reform in Congress have told Cannabis Wire that the late winter months have been spent, in part, talking to new members about the legislation and assessing where they stand on the spectrum of support for reform. Republicans took control of the House after the last Election Day, which will play a role in this year’s discussions about cannabis law reform.
Regarding education, a handful of cannabis industry groups have planned an “educational briefing” on Capitol Hill for March 29 in an effort to give a “collaborative introduction to the cannabis industry and the most impactful federal policy priorities for new congressional offices as federal cannabis reform continues to be debated” this Congress, according to the groups organizing the event, which includes the National Cannabis Roundtable, the National Cannabis Industry Association, the US Cannabis Council, and the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp.
Daines repeatedly emphasized the need for education on the topic.
“I think this is a lot about educating folks on an issue. This is not about whether you support legalization or not. This is not some kind of proxy vote for endorsing federal legalization of marijuana,” Daines said, a concern that has arisen among some members of the Republican party. “It’s totally unrelated. What this is about is solving a problem that’s facing our financial service businesses, our legal cannabis businesses” and the “many” businesses that serve them, from brokers to electricians, for example.
Daines said that supporters of the SAFE Banking Act should try to build coalitions on their local level with members of law enforcement, including sheriffs and attorneys general.
“Setting aside cannabis, this is about safe banking. It’s about public safety. This is the message that we need to convey,” Daines added.
The SAFE Banking Act became a more frequent talking point last year as violent robberies at cannabis shops became more frequent. The reality that cannabis businesses are often cash-intensive, and that a patchwork of legal access still exists, makes dispensaries more of a target than many other types of businesses.
“We need to be very clear,” Daines said. “This is a public safety bill, and the longer we go without addressing this issue, the worse the situation on the ground becomes.”
Also on Tuesday, a group of cannabis industry advocates sent a letter to Congress, urging the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to “act to address the continued lack of equitable access to banking and capital for cannabis related businesses.”
The groups included the National Cannabis Roundtable (NCR), the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the US Cannabis Council (USCC), the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), and the National Hispanic Cannabis Council (NHCC).
“As you know, at the end of 2022, the Senate made monumental progress in bipartisan negotiations to move forward the SAFE Banking Act of 2021,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, the 117th Congress came to a close without a Senate vote on this vital measure, leaving domestic cannabis companies and the hundreds of thousands of jobs they support nationwide at severe risk of being continually targeted by criminal activity.”