The inclusion of cannabis banking language in the second phase of America’s Coronavirus recovery plan cleared the House of Representatives on Friday, but it has a trickier battle ahead in the Senate.
Lawmakers worked into the night to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act. In addition to major language around programs and funding to assist Americans in every tax bracket much like its predecessor, CARES Act, whether it’s paying your employees or keeping a roof over your head, The HEROES Act also includes the language of the SAFE Banking Act. That language would provide the pot industry legitimate banking access.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus on Capitol Hill, said the inclusion of the language was just another sign of how important cannabis has become.
“The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act is recognition that cannabis businesses have been classified as essential. Prohibiting these businesses from banking and forcing cash-only transactions in the middle of a global health crisis is irresponsible and wrong,” Blumenauer told L.A. Weekly in an email. “Additionally, we were able to ensure small business owners are no longer disqualified or ineligible for the Paycheck Protection Program solely because of their involvement with the criminal justice system. The passage of the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act will be a huge benefit, not only to the industry but to our communities and public safety.”
In her statement on the bill’s passing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was quick to clap back at those calling The HEROES act too bold of a step.
“Yesterday, I heard GOP Members calling for us to ‘take a pause.’ House Democrats were clear about the urgent need to fight the virus which isn’t taking a pause, allocating assistance for food security to abate hunger which isn’t taking a pause, and supporting America’s workers as unemployment is sadly not taking a pause.”
The Drama Around Pot Banking
But across the hill, one of the big targets of the Republican Senate leadership has been the inclusion of the SAFE Banking language. First reported by Marijuana Moment’s L.A.-based associate editor Kyle Jaeger, Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor on Thursday to call the Democrats “diversity detectives” over a piece of the SAFE Banking Language that includes provisions around researching equity in the marijuana industry for those communities hardest hit by targeted enforcement of cannabis laws.
“That’s what’s so remarkable,” McConnell said. “House Democrats had a blank slate to write anything wanted to define the modern Democratic Party, any vision for the society they wanted, and here’s what they chose: tax hikes on small businesses, giveaways to blue state millionaires, government checks for illegal immigrants and sending diversity detectives to inspect the pot industry.”
McConnell and fellow Senate Republicans have also been chirping around the fact cannabis is mentioned 68 times in The HEROES Act. This raises the question of how many times would you want to see one of America’s fastest-growing industries included in an economic recovery plan? Nevertheless, 68 is too many for the majority, but as Jaeger noted, McConnell never trashed the actual beef of The SAFE Banking Act. He just trashed the idea that you need two separate studies annually to understand diversity in cannabis industry ownership.
In reality, every state with a cannabis program should be mandating this research anyway, and the government numbers should be working off the cumulative data they are getting back from the states.
Many of the organizations that have been working on the cannabis banking issue since its earliest whispers in the halls of Congress are thrilled to see the inclusion. But now more than ever it’s become a public safety issue. It’s not just about the banking access the industry so rightly deserves, but providing consumers the safest way possible to make their transactions.
While some retailers have been quick to jump on offshore merchant service options, plenty remain sketched out by the premise. Legitimate banking options would open up the door to a real touchless cannabis industry with credit cards, Google and Apple pay, and a variety of other options provided in the light.
The Effort to Protect the Public
The Marijuana Policy Project notes the now-essential businesses that make up the industry still lack access to the same financial services that are granted to every other industry in the United States. MPP argues reasonably that since it’s possible coronavirus can be transmitted on currency, not acting on the issue continues to place private industry and government workers at risk when handling large amounts of cash. In addition to the health side, MPP thinks the policy change would also ensure that small and minority-owned businesses can access the financial assistance designed for them in many state programs.
“I’m encouraged that the House recognizes the urgency of this issue and has taken this strong and necessary position. We thank Chairwoman Maxine Waters and Rep. Ed Perlmutter for their leadership on the issue,” MPP’s executive director Steve Hawkins said in a statement after the SAFE Banking Language cleared the house.
But with it still having to clear the Senate, Hawkins wasn’t taking any victory laps and emphasized how important the move is.
“Continuing to exclude the cannabis industry from accessing basic and essential financial services during this time will result in more harm than good,” Hawkins said, “Not only will it make the country’s economic recovery that much harder, but the provisions intended to help minority-owned businesses would continue to be absent within the industry.”
The Industry’s Take
The National Cannabis Industry Association has been another driving force on the cannabis banking issue over the years.
“On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” NCIA’s executive director Aaron Smith said in a statement. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”
The more bootstrapped and authentic an equity business in any state is, the more likely they are to get fleeced on banking stuff due to their lack of access to reputable services or capital. The HEROES Act would eliminate this and give a more even footing for those operators against corporate cannabis in their still daunting task. With all that baggage, it’s easy to see why the Minority Cannabis Business Association supports the effort.
“Small business owners around the country are fighting to stay afloat, but cannabis businesses have to fight without access to relief, or even the ability to get loans or assistance to keep their doors open,” said Khurshid Khoja, chair of MCBA’s Policy Committee. “The struggle to access capital is not new for minority entrepreneurs, who make up less than 20 percent of cannabis industry ownership.Without changes to federal law, traditional bank loans are unavailable to cover extraordinary start-up costs. This leaves minority operators vulnerable to predatory lending and business practices, depriving them of the rights and benefits of ownership.”
In addition to the SAFE language, MCBA was supportive of the bill including a provision preventing the Small Business Administration from discriminating against an applicant for a loan or guarantee “solely because of the applicant’s involvement in the criminal justice system.”