Marijuana banking debate returns to Congress and Rep. Perlmutter is optimistic

Eight years after it was first introduced, federal legislation that would give cannabis companies in Colorado and across the country access to the banking system is back in Congress. And its co-sponsors, Democrat and Republican, are sounding bullish.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, or SAFE Banking Act, has been introduced every Congress since 2013 by U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat. It has passed the House on several occasions but never the Senate.

Perlmutter expects that to change this year, he said during a conference call Friday. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, has told Perlmutter that he expects the committee to debate and vote on the bill for the first time.

Since legalization in Colorado, the state has seen more than $10 billion in sales and about $430 million in tax revenue from the cannabis business.

Rep. Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican and co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, said he has spoken with two top Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mike Crapo of Idaho, and feels optimistic.

“We showed that we can get great Republican support on this bill last year, with 91 Republicans voting for it,” Stivers said, referring to a vote in the House, “and I feel confident that there will be a lot of Republican senators that will vote for this when it gets a vote in the Senate.”

Perlmutter expects the full House to vote in April or May. He said the bill may have so much bipartisan support that it can be fast-tracked with only a requirement that two-thirds of members vote in favor. But it’ll need 60 votes in the Senate — including at least 10 Republican votes — in order to make it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Opponents argue that the SAFE Banking Act’s reintroduction is good news for big business and bad news for public health.

“Passing this bill would be a significant gift to Big Tobacco, which has already invested billions into pot and officially partnered with Big Alcohol to lobby in support of federal marijuana policy,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-pot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “Granting this industry access to banks will bring billions of dollars of institutional investment from the titans of addiction and vastly expand the harms we are already witnessing.”

But supporters of the bill say the status quo — in which cannabis companies deal in cash, making them vulnerable to armed robberies — is dangerous.

Perlmutter says the bill is being taken seriously in Congress as more states legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use.

“I’ve talked many times before about the chuckle factor … when I first started bringing it up, people would chuckle,” he said Friday. “There’s no more chuckle factor. Everyone knows this is a serious issue that Congress needs to address.”

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