Senate Democrats are giving marijuana banking legislation another look only weeks after it hit a wall with Republicans and was not attached to a year-end spending package.
A handful of Senate Democrats met with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday to “ponder the path” to passage this Congress, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said, despite what seems to be a dead end across the Capitol with Republicans now in charge of the House.
“We’re trying to find the formulation of Safe Banking Plus that can allow us to end this cash economy that’s doing so much to hurt so many across the country,” Merkley, a leading backer of Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking reform, told The Hill ahead of Wednesday’s meeting in Schumer’s office. “Hopefully we can find a formulation and have bipartisan support and get it done.”
The legislation would allow banks to offer services to cannabis businesses in states where it has been legalized.
Merkley and Schumer huddled alongside Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Jacky Rosen (Nev.) to plot out how to proceed.
Last year, Booker and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was invited to the meeting but had a scheduling conflict, unveiled a comprehensive marijuana reform package. But in order to win GOP support, Schumer headlined talks that led to a deal that came to be known as Safe Banking Plus.
While the group is hopeful, they realize the climb to advancing the bill through the GOP-led House is a steep one.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said in December that he is personally opposed to SAFE Banking, but would not stand in the bill’s way if the caucus as a whole wanted it passed. It does not, however, appear to be atop House Republicans’ to-do list.
“I think every Congress I’ve been here … has been a climb, but we’re gaining momentum,” Booker told The Hill. “There are people now, bipartisan and bicameral, who support some sort of reform legislation, and we’re going to continue to work on it this Congress.”
The discussion this week notably did not include any GOP senators who’d led the effort in the last Congress — headlined by Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska) — to include Safe Plus in either the annual defense bill or the omnibus spending package. Any opening for the bill to be attached to either vehicle was slammed shut by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
According to McHenry in December, any hopes of passage would hinge on what else is added to the Plus package.
The SAFE Banking Plus bill was set to be paired with the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement Act, which would create grants for state expungement programs. The latter item was proposed by Reps. David Joyce (R-Ohio) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“We’ll see. … I clearly want a path forward and I think the time is now. And I think this…can be a bipartisan issue and bicameral,” Brown told The Hill, adding that he’s “optimistic.” “I think it’s realistic because so many different people and groups I know — the bankers want it. … I bring up the bankers because that’s what will move Republicans.”
However, not all Democrats see the avenue to putting SAFE Banking Plus on President Biden’s desk.
“I don’t know,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2-ranked Senate Democrat. “There’s Republican resistance to the idea. It’s all about cannabis.”
Senators in favor of the legislation point to issues that keeping cannabis businesses out of the traditional banking system has caused, including a spate of attacks on dispensaries that are forced to carry cash, making them prime targets for robberies. Senators in favor have repeatedly noted that those locales have been forced to increase security.
Twenty states have fully legalized marijuana.
“We’re going to stay at it until we get it [done]. This is an enormous public safety issue. In my part of the world, people don’t understand that we’ve voted to legalize, but we can’t use the banking system,” Wyden said, laying into Republicans who he said routinely praise state’s rights until they object to an issue.
“I’m going to start saying, ‘Hey, you know what they’re really saying to you America? They’re saying they believe in state’s rights if they think the state is right,’” Wyden added.