Victories and Challenges For Cannabis Policy Reform
Advocacy

Victories and Challenges For Cannabis Policy Reform


By Morgan Fox, NCIA’s Director of Media Relations

On April 19, the House of Representatives approved legislation once again that would provide legal protections for financial service providers to work with cannabis businesses that are in compliance with state laws. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, or H.R. 1996, was reintroduced in March by a bipartisan group of sponsors and had 177 total cosponsors by the time of the vote.

The legislation was approved by a vote of 321-101 and included 106 Republicans voting in favor of the measure, a small majority that represents a growing trend of increasing conservative support since the last time this bill was approved in the House in 2019. No Democrats voted against the bill. This is the fourth time that the House has approved the language of the SAFE Banking Act, initially as the first standalone cannabis policy reform bill ever passed by either chamber of Congress two years ago and two more times last year as part of pandemic relief packages that were not approved in the Senate.

In the time that elapsed between the last vote on the SAFE Banking Act and this one, a number of factors have added momentum and boosted the pressure on federal lawmakers to more seriously consider cannabis policy reform generally and bills like the SAFE Banking Act.

First, cannabis businesses were nearly unanimously declared essential in states with regulated markets during the pandemic, adding to the legitimacy of the industry in the eyes of many while providing uninterrupted healthcare, jobs, and tax revenue in a very challenging economic and public health environment. However, despite increased sales over the last year, the operational costs required to keep employees and customers safe have taken their toll, compounded by the added costs and other challenges associated with limited access to banking services or traditional loans.

These obstacles were felt even more keenly by cannabis businesses because they could not avail themselves of the federal stimulus packages approved by Congress, such as PPP or funds available through the Small Business Administration. Helping to ease the worsening financial burdens facing the cannabis industry during such a difficult time was a major reason for the inclusion of SAFE Banking language in the House-approved aid bills. Recently, standalone legislation has also been reintroduced by Small Business Committee Chair Nydia Velazquez to allow direct and indirect cannabis businesses to be able to access SBA-backed loans and other assistance programs.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of cannabis language in House stimulus packages was used as a political attack tool in the leadup to the election by some lawmakers, likely leading to a postponement of a House vote on the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances and help repair the damage done by prohibition. Those attacks significantly died down in November, however, when five states approved adult-use or medical cannabis ballot initiatives by heavy margins, including the red states of Mississippi, Montana, and South Dakota. These victories paved the way for the historic passage of the MORE Act in the lower chamber in December. Three additional state legislatures have passed adult-use laws since then, including the first Southern state of Virginia.

This combination of political will, the feasibility of passing cannabis policy reform measures both comprehensive and incremental, and the introduction of eight new regulated cannabis markets in just a few short months has lawmakers of all stripes taking a much closer look at this issue than ever before. Even staunchly opposed legislators are being forced to reexamine their positions on bills that would directly benefit their constituents and businesses in their states, particularly in light of the urgent need for jobs and taxes as the pandemic response begins to pivot toward economic recovery. This is on top of record public support nationally for legalization. It is becoming increasingly clear to lawmakers that standing in the way of reform is a losing proposition.

With the passage of the SAFE Banking Act, it is likely that the House will move its attention to amending and approving the MORE Act for a second time, as well as considering several other pieces of cannabis-related legislation. The fate of the SAFE Banking Act now lies with the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said recently that he would prefer to wait for further consideration of that or other incremental reforms until after the introduction of his much-anticipated comprehensive descheduling bill in the coming weeks. We are confident that debate and progress on these bills is not mutually exclusive, and moving both pieces of legislation through the upper chamber simultaneously is both possible and likely, especially given the broad bipartisan support that the SAFE Banking Act enjoys.

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