House passes cannabis banking bill in historic voteRaj ChanderSeptember 25, 2019
WASHINGTON, DC — The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to pass legislation that would make banking services available to the cannabis industry, a landmark vote that marks the first time in history the House has approved a standalone cannabis reform bill.
Though cannabis remains illegal under federal law, House lawmakers passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking in Cannabis Act by a 321–103 vote. The measure, which would protect financial institutions and other businesses that provide investments, loans, capital, or other financial services to cannabis companies, now heads to the Senate, where it’s expected to face a tougher fight.
“This is a public safety bill, pure and simple,” said US Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) in remarks on the House floor. “If you want your neighborhoods to be safer, vote yes. If you want your communities to be safer, vote yes.”
Advocates of the bill say it would improve public safety by allowing cannabis businesses to use conventional financial systems instead of cash. Medical and adult-use cannabis facilities often hold large quantities of cash, making them a common target for criminals.
“If we seek to give financial institutions certainty, we should deal with the listing of cannabis as a Schedule I substance, not debate a partial solution for financial institutions to what is a much larger problem.”Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC)
Even non-cannabis businesses that service the industry but don’t touch the cannabis plant are often penalized by banks, according to proponents of the bill.
“The bill would also help others like plumbers or electricians who provide services to cannabis businesses, but face similar challenges with access to banking services,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), a member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and the chair of the House Committee on Financial Services.
“With the passage of this bill, all of these businesses will gain access to traditional financial services that most businesses take for granted,” she said.
Opponents of the SAFE Banking in Cannabis Act pointed to the drug’s Schedule I status under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), suggesting that the banking measure is premature.
“This bill does not change the fact that cannabis remains a prohibited Schedule I substance,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee. “If we seek to give financial institutions certainty, we should deal with the listing of cannabis as a Schedule I substance, not debate a partial solution for financial institutions to what is a much larger problem.”
Other House Republicans expressed concern that the bill would more easily allow criminals and cartels access to legitimate financial institutions. But support for the bill from nearly three-quarters of US House members, including 91 Republicans, indicates that change may be coming on the federal level.
“We’re in this fix today because Congress has refused to provide the leadership that the states demand,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) “This is an $11-billion dollar industry. … The states aren’t waiting for us.”
Multiple House Democrats also said they hoped the vote would lead to further votes on legalization or at least the removal of cannabis from the CSA.
With amendments, a controversial change
In the lead-up to the vote, advocacy groups faced off over how much protection the bill should provide for minority business owners and other disadvantaged groups. Despite African-Americans and other people of color being arrested for marijuana roughly four times as often as whites on average, more than 80% of cannabis businesses are white-owned. The bill as approved by lawmakers was stripped of certain social equity provisions as the measure was nearing a vote.
Critics of the act in its current form, including the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), contend it will maintain or exacerbate inequity in the industry.
“We believe it is a mistake for the House to pass an incremental industry bill before passing a comprehensive bill that prioritizes equity and justice for the communities who have suffered the most under prohibition,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator at the DPA’s Office of National Affairs, in a statement emailed to Leafly.
Adesuyi said it is now the House’s duty to hold a vote on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), sweeping reform legislation introduced by House Democrats in July that would deschedule cannabis and expunge past marijuana convictions.
“We have long feared that passing SAFE Banking would undermine passage of the MORE Act by taking the momentum out of marijuana reform. The onus is now upon House Democrats to prove us wrong and pass the MORE Act,” Adesuyi said.
But industry advocates lauded the vote, which represents the first time in history that a House supermajority has voted to ease federal cannabis enforcement, as a significant milestone.
“It’s incredibly gratifying to see this strong bipartisan showing of support in today’s House vote,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “This bipartisan legislation is vital to protecting public safety, fostering transparency, and leveling the playing field for small businesses.”
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) called it a “significant victory for the cannabis reform movement.”
Next steps for the SAFE Act
The bill now moves to the Senate, which is currently bogged down with year-end appropriations bills that must be passed by Oct. 1 to avoid a government shutdown. It’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who this year called marijuana “hemp’s illicit cousin,” will agree to hold a vote before the fiscal year ends on Tuesday–or whether he’ll bring the bill to a vote at all.
The NCIA and advocates for the bill in Congress will hold a press conference outside of Capitol Hill tomorrow afternoon to discuss its path forward.