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SAFE Banking Act Left Out of Defense Spending Bill

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A bid to include the SAFE Banking Act in a must-pass defense spending bill has failed, leaving advocates searching for a way to pass the legislation that would grant the legal cannabis industry access to banking services. Proponents of the measure had hoped to include provisions of the banking bill, known as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, in the National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA), an annual spending bill that funds the military. But the latest version of the NDAA released on Tuesday did not include the cannabis banking language.

Under the SAFE Banking Act, federal banking regulators would be prohibited from penalizing banks that choose to serve cannabis firms doing business in accordance with state law. Under current regulations, banks are subject to penalties under federal money laundering and other laws for servicing such companies, leaving the cannabis industry to operate in a risky environment heavy in cash. 

The legislation was initially introduced in the House in 2013 by Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, who has reintroduced the bill each subsequent congressional cycle. The bill has been passed seven times since 2019 by the House of Representatives, but each time the Senate has failed to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote.

Another amendment supported by cannabis policy reform advocates that would have given the states assistance with expunging past marijuana-related convictions also failed to make it to the final version of the defense spending bill. Before the latest text of the NDAA was released on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters that he was still working on getting the cannabis banking measure passed.

“It’s a priority for me,” Schumer said. “I’d like to get it done. We’ll try and discuss the best way to get it done.”

Republicans Balk At Adding SAFE To Defense Bill

But later in the day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky admonished Democrats for attempting to attach amendments not related to defense, including the SAFE Banking Act, to the spending bill.

“Even now, House and Senate Democrats are still obstructing efforts to close out the NDAA by trying to jam in unrelated items with no relationship to defense,” McConnell said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “We’re talking about a grab bag of miscellaneous pet priorities — like making our financial system more sympathetic to illegal drugs, or the phony, partisan permitting-‘reform’-in-name-only language that already failed to pass the Senate this year.”

“If Democrats wanted these controversial items so badly, they had two years to move them across the floor. Heck, they could have scheduled those matters for votes this week. But no — we’re doing more mid-level nominations, while Democrats keep half-threatening to take our Armed Forces hostage over these extraneous matters,” said McConnell, adding “The Democrats’ failure to plan ahead for unrelated liberal pet priorities should not be creating uncertainty and confusion for the brave servicemembers who keep us safe. My colleagues across the aisle need to cut the unrelated hostage-taking and put a bipartisan NDAA on the floor.”

What’s Next?

The failure to include the SAFE Banking Act in the NDAA leaves the prospect of passing the cannabis banking legislation before the current Congress adjourns in two weeks unsettled. Morgan Fox, the political director for the cannabis policy reform group the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that SAFE could be attached to a pending omnibus appropriations bill or perhaps be approved as standalone legislation.

“I’m glad that we still have other options,” Fox said Wednesday. “It’s pretty disappointing.”

“While there has been momentum and optimism around getting SAFE included in the National Defense Authorization Act, it has been known for some time that getting this through would be a challenge,” Sahar Ayinehsazian, partner at the cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, wrote in an email to High Times. “The focus now is on the omnibus appropriations bill, which congress is currently negotiating. SAFE has growing support on both sides of the aisle and I, and many others in the industry close to this issue, think that there is a still a chance that movement can be made on SAFE via the omnibus bill during this session of Congress.”

The SAFE Banking Act is supported by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers made up primarily of representatives and senators from states that have legalized medical marijuana or adult-use cannabis. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote of 321-110 in the House last year, and senators from both parties are also in favor of passing the measure.

“The Senator is continuing to work every day to build consensus so we can pass “SAFE Banking” into law this year,” a spokesperson for Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines said in an email on Wednesday.

The senior senator from Montana, Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, also said he “would like to see it pass this Congress.”

The banking bill is also supported by nearly two dozen governors in states that have liberalized marijuana policy. In a written statement, Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Democratic Colorado Governor Jared Polis, praised the work of Perlmutter and said he expects the legislation to pass this year.

“Governor Polis has long advocated for the passage of the SAFE Banking Act, and has repeatedly called upon Congress to pass this important legislation to protect cannabis-related businesses, support minority, women, and veteran-owned small businesses owners, create jobs, and strengthen public safety in Colorado communities and in the states,” Cahill wrote in a Tuesday email. “We hope and expect to see the final passage of his decade-long effort by the end of the lame-duck session.”



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