Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.
The House of Representatives passed a standalone marijuana reform bill for the first time in history on Wednesday.
The chamber advanced the legislation, which would protect banks that service the cannabis industry from being penalized by federal regulators, in a vote of 321-103.
For six years, lawmakers have been pushing for the modest reform, which is seen as necessary to increase financial transparency and mitigate risks associated with operating on a largely cash-only basis — something many marijuana businesses must do because banks currently fear federal reprisal for taking them on as clients.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was sponsored by US Representative Ed Perlmutter. It cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March and was officially scheduled for a floor vote last week. The vote was held through a process known as suspension of the rules, meaning it required two-thirds of the chamber (290 members if all were present) to approve it for passage.
While the House has approved historic cannabis amendments in the past, including one this summer that would protect all state marijuana programs from federal intervention, those have had to be renewed annually. This is the first time a standalone reform bill was approved in the chamber, and the policy will be permanently codified into law if the Senate follows suit and the president signs it.
“If someone wants to oppose the legalization of marijuana, that’s their prerogative, but American voters have spoken and continue to speak and the fact is you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Prohibition is over,” Perlmutter said in a floor debate prior to the vote. “Our bill is focused solely on taking cash off the streets and making our communities safe and only congress can take these steps to provide this certainty for businesses, employees and financial institutions across the country.”
US Representative Denny Heck made an impassioned case for the bill, sharing an anecdote about a cannabis shop security guard who was killed on the job. He emphasized that the legislation would mitigate the risks of violent crime at these businesses.
“You can be agnostic on the underlying policy of whether or not cannabis should be legal for either adult recreational use or to treat seizures, but you cannot be agnostic on the need to improve safety in this area,” he said.
“This bill is not only timely, but extremely necessary,” US Representative Barbara Lee said. “Right now the cannabis industry needs access to safe and effective banking immediately.”
US Representative Patrick McHenry, ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, raised concerns about the legislation and suggested that the bill would provide drug cartels with access to financial services. He was one of just three lawmakers who rose in opposition to the bill.
The proposal hasn’t been without controversy, even among pro-reform advocates. After Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced his intent to put the bill on the floor by the end of the month, several leading advocacy groups including the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, and Center for American Progress wrote a letter asking leadership to delay the vote until comprehensive legalization legislation passed.
The groups have expressed concerns to Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters that approving the banking bill first could jeopardize the chances of achieving more wide-ranging marijuana reform that addresses social equity issues, like legislation introduced by Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler. They said they were caught off guard when Hoyer announced the vote.
But as the vote approached, advocates and lawmakers wasted no time emphasizing the need to go further than the banking bill.
“I have long fought for criminal justice reform and deeply understand the need to fully address the historical racial and social inequities related to the criminalization of marijuana,” Waters said in a Tuesday statement. “I support legislation that deschedules marijuana federally, requires courts to expunge convictions for marijuana-related offenses, and provides assistance such as job training and reentry services for those who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.”
She reiterated that point during debate on the floor, stating that the banking legislation “is but one important piece of what should be a comprehensive series of cannabis reform bills.”
Nadler also released a statement stating that while he would vote yes on the SAFE Banking Act, he is “committed to marking up [his legalization bill] and look[s] forward to working with reform advocates and my colleagues in this important effort going forward.”