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Cannabis advocacy groups targeted the Senate on Tuesday to get the Republican leadership to take up marijuana legislation they describe as a first step toward full legalization.

A rally on Capitol Hill featured a 51-foot inflated marijuana cigarette with the label “Congress, Pass the Joint.”

The gathering marked a colorful call to action from District of Columbia Marijuana Justice and affiliates from Maryland, Virginia and Colorado to pass the Senate to pass the Secure and Fair Banking Act, or SAFE.

That measure is “like the first domino for federal legalization,” Adam Eidinger, founder of the Washington group, said in an interview. “We need federal regulations for that. We need to come up with a tax system for interstate commerce, but the Banking Act is the first step.”

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If enacted, the legislation would prohibit federal banking regulators and prosecutors from taking legal action against banks that make loans to individuals or businesses engaged in marijuana-related businesses. It would only apply to depository institutions and insurance companies that wish to re-insure marijuana-related businesses.

The bill would spell out that proceeds of transactions should not be considered proceeds of an unlawful activity and banks would additionally receive certain protections from federal law liabilities.

Bipartisan support

The SAFE Banking Act, H.R. 1595, passed the House in September on a 321-103 vote, with support from 91 Republicans after it was amended to include protections for the hemp industry.

The next step would be for Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, to schedule a vote by the panel. The measure could be attached to a different piece of legislation next year because it’s unlikely that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would allow a stand-alone Senate floor vote.

Though many Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee opposed the measure, the version of the bill that passed the House would bar financial regulators from pressuring banks to drop clients, such as payday lenders and gun retailers that were targeted under an Obama-era program.

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“There’s a lot of bills we’d like to see votes on. If they’re just going to do nothing and sit on their hands, then they’re making it a partisan issue,” Eidinger said in reference to GOP lawmakers.

One potential obstacle, however, is that most publicly traded banks and big lenders, such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co., would likely avoid marijuana-related activities, at least initially, even if the law passes.

“Credit unions have already been handling banking for marijuana. But your big banks, your traditional banks have not been,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting delegate to the House representing the District of Columbia, said at the rally. “It is important that those who are involved in marijuana trade not be carrying around socks of money against their own safety and public safety.”

SAFE Act supporters, such as Eidinger, said that without further legal protections, the industry could not realize its potential.

“The only controversy is not about weed any longer,” Norton said. “It’s about full equalization or step by step equalization starting with the SAFE Banking Act.”

The cannabis advocacy groups were also urging senators to pass the Marijuana Justice Act, which would fully legalize cannabis in the United States, and remove a measure included in a spending bill that would prevent cannabis commerce and taxation in Washington.