The U.S. Senate could soon vote to finally allow banks to do business with marijuana providers without fear of criminal prosecution.
Due to current federal money laundering and drug laws, most financial services providers are reluctant to take on cannabis businesses as clients, even those that operate legally under state law. As a result, many marijuana dispensaries are forced to operate on a cash-only basis, making them targets for robberies.
But an amendment introduced Wednesday by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon could change that. He and a bipartisan group of six co-sponsors are pushing to attach the proposal to a broader bill aimed at bolstering addiction recovery services that the Senate is considering this week.
Specifically, the amendment would prevent federal officials from punishing banks that work with the marijuana industry through prosecutions, asset seizures or termination of their FDIC insurance, which are very real threats under current law.
Signing on with Merkley are Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Patty Murray of Washington, all Democrats. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican, is also on board.
The text of the amendment is similar to standalone bills in the House and Senate that would ease banking access for marijuana businesses. The standalone Senate proposal is co-sponsored by the same group signed on to the new amendment, along with four others including independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and two other Republicans. The House legislation currently has 33 co-sponsors.
Last July, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved by a vote of 16-14 an amendment to the Department of the Treasury’s spending bill that would have prohibited the department from punishing financial institutions that work with marijuana businesses. The language did not make it into the final Fiscal Year 2016 omnibus spending bill signed into law by the president, however. In July 2014, the House of Representatives voted 231-192 for a similar amendment, but that too was excluded from that year’s final spending package.
It is unclear whether the new amendment will be brought forward to a vote on the Senate floor under the body’s arcane rules for germaneness, and will likely come down to whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chooses to give it floor time over other amendments that have been submitted. As of Thursday, there were 91 pending amendments to the bill.
In 2014, the Obama administration released guidance intended to make it easier for banks to do business with cannabis sellers, but many financial industry leaders have remained wary. They say that until federal law actually changes — as opposed to relying on nonbinding memos that could be changed by this or future administrations — they’re largely going to stay away.