Senators OK Banking Access for Marijuana Businesses

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Bill Would Also Let D.C. Legalize Marijuana Sales

A key Congressional panel just voted to increase marijuana businesses’ ability to access banks.

Out of fear of violating current money laundering and drug laws, many banks are reluctant to do business with marijuana providers. As a result, most marijuana dispensaries operate on a cash-only basis, making them targets for robberies.

But on Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to prevent the Treasury Department from punishing banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses. The vote was 16 – 14. (See below for full roll call vote.)

The measure is now attached to the Fiscal Year 2017 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which heads to the Senate floor.

In a brief debate ahead of the vote, amendment sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said that not allowing marijuana businesses to store their profits in banks is a public safety threat.

“It makes no sense to have bags of cash, and it’s an invitation to organized crime, an invitation to theft, and invitation to tax evasion,” he said.

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 remain 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 going to stay away.

Financial services industry officials have also expressed skepticism about the protections provided by policy riders on annual appropriations bills like the one just approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Separate standalone bills in the Senate and House are intended to provide the permanent clarity and comfort that the banking industry says it needs.

The Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill also covers funding for Washington, D.C., and has historically been used to prevent the city from spending its own money to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana sales. However, the Senate panel’s legislation contains no such prohibition, as was also the case with the version of the bill the committee approved last year. However, House-passed language blocking the city from moving forward was included in the final Fiscal Year 2016 spending package enacted into law in December.

This year, the House version of the legislation actually broadens the scope of the ban to prevent District of Columbia officials from using a loophole to get around the existing rider by using funds that are untouched by the current block. The contrasting approaches the House and Senate are taking on D.C. marijuana laws sets up a potential point of contention between the two chambers as they seek to reconcile the differences between their bills into a singular package to be sent to President Obama.

The House Appropriations Committee didn’t consider an amendment on banking access for marijuana businesses when it passed its version of the bill earlier this month, but it is expected that one will be offered when the legislation reaches the floor. A similar amendment was approved by the House in 2014 by a vote of 231 – 192.

Thursday’s Senate committee action is just the latest in a series of recent Congressional votes in support of cannabis policy reform.

Last week, by a margin of 18 – 11, the same panel approved an amendment to protect doctors who recommend medical marijuana and patients who use it in accordance with state laws.

In April, the committee voted 21-8 to bar the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws, a measure very similar to language that has been approved on the House floor and enacted into law for the past two fiscal years. The Justice Department spending bill is on the Senate floor this week.

Also in April, the committee approved an amendment to increase military veterans’ access to medical cannabis through the Department of Veterans Affairs by a vote of 20-10. The legislation including the veterans provision was then approved by the full Senate last month, and on the same day the House passed similar language.

 

Senate Appropriations Committee Roll Call Vote on Marijuana Banking Amendment:

REPUBLICANS:

Thad Cochran, Mississippi – NO
Mitch McConnell, Kentucky – NO
Richard Shelby, Alabama – NO
Lamar Alexander, Tennessee – NO
Susan Collins, Maine – NO
Lisa Murkowski, Alaska – YES
Lindsey Graham, South Carolina – NO
Mark Kirk, Illinois – NO
Roy Blunt, Missouri – NO
Jerry Moran, Kansas – NO
John Hoeven, North Dakota – NO
Shelly Moore Capito, West Virginia – NO
John Boozman, Arkansas – NO
Bill Cassidy, Louisiana – YES
James Lankford, Oklahoma – NO
Steve Daines, Montana – YES

DEMOCRATS:

Barbara Mikulski, Maryland – YES
Patrick Leahy, Vermont – YES
Patty Murray, Washington – YES
Dianne Feinstein, California – NO
Dick Durbin, Illinois – YES
Jack Reed, Rhode Island – YES
Jon Tester, Montana – YES
Tom Udall, New Mexico – YES
Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire – YES
Jeff Merkley, Oregon – YES
Chris Coons, Delaware – YES
Brian Schatz, Hawaii – YES
Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin – YES
Chris Murphy, Connecticut – YES

Photo Courtesy of Aliwak.

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

7 Comments

  1. the usual outdated dinosaur Republicans vote NO, trying to keep this country stuck in the past! They can’t stop the future forever!

  2. Wake Up People on

    Well, the people need to grow a pair, and stop re-electing these old geezers, who have 25-40 years in congress. That was not the intent of the Founding fathers, to set up career politicians! Your country calls you, you serve your country, then you go back to your day job.

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