Negotiations on legislation to let legal cannabis businesses get bank loans, accept credit cards and open checking accounts are focusing on what restorative justice measures can be added without the jeopardizing the 60 Senate votes needed needed to enact the bill.
Proponents have acknowledged that the Secure and Fair Enforcement, or SAFE, Banking Act, opposed by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, won’t reach the Senate floor without addressing their concerns.
“That’s exactly where we are,” Booker told NJ Advance Media. “We are at a point now where most people understand that the SAFE Banking bill as written is not enough to pass the Senate. They’re going to have to add equity issues and fairness issues into the banking provisions and do some restorative justice as well. The question is how much can we get done.”
Negotiations on a cannabis bill “are getting much more substantive,” said Morgan Fox, political director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “There are real conversations about what an incremental package would really look like. It’s moved beyond just the SAFE Banking Act and is now a conversation that is a little more broad.”
Topics being discussed include helping states expunge convictions for nonviolent marijuana offenders, providing Small Business Administration loans to new legal cannabis businesses trying to get started, and making sure that banks provide support for new minority-owned enterprises, said Justin Strekal, a long-time advocate for legal weed who now runs a pro-cannabis political action committee.
“When so many industry advocates argued that the bill would support minority entrepreneurs’ access to capital, it’s imperative that the text reflect that,” Strekal said.
Some people already have a nickname for whatever legislation they wind up with: “SAFE Plus,” and they said they were willing to add some restorative justice provisions to get the bill through Congress.
“That’s absolutely fine with me,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., at a press conference last week outside the U.S. Capitol to push for passage of SAFE Banking.
Supporters of SAFE Banking said they now have the backing of the 10 Senate Republicans needed to overcome a filibuster if every Democrat is on board. But Booker, Schumer and Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore. — the sponsors of comprehensive Senate legislation to end the federal ban on cannabis — are not yet on board.
The risk is that the provisions needed to bring them on board will cause some GOP senators to pull their support.
“That’s the push and pull,” said Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association. “The biggest issue is getting SAFE Plus more comfortable for Democrats without peeling off Republicans.”
Booker’s insistence that no banking bill pass without at least restorative justice provisions have stymied efforts to get SAFE Banking through the Senate once Democrats took control of the chamber in January 2021.
The Democratic-run House has passed the bill seven times, both as a stand-alone measure and as an amendment to unrelated legislation such as the coronavirus stimulus bill and legislation setting defense policy for the next fiscal year.
“I have been saying from the beginning of this journey that SAFE Banking alone would leave a lot of injustice on the table,” Booker said. “I think that idea is getting more and more acceptance, that we have to try to do something to help people that are suffering from lifetime penalties for having a nonviolent marijuana arrest.”
The proponents are operating under a timetable. With control of the House and Senate at stake this November, Democrats could lose their majority and be replaced by Republican leaders who do not support marijuana legislation.
For example, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blocked all cannabis measures when he was in charge, while Schumer introduced comprehensive legislation.
Congress is scheduled to return to Washington after Election Day, and Booker said that the lame-duck session would be the time to enact cannabis legislation.
“There is a consensus growing in the Senate that gives me confidence that it’s very likely in he lame duck we can get something significant done,” he said.
And if the Senate acts, “whatever they pass in the Senate will get passed in the House,” said SAFE Banking’s chief sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.
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Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at @JDSalant.