The House of Representatives made history on Wednesday, passing landmark legislation that would protect U.S. banks that provide services to legitimate cannabis businesses in states where cannabis is legal.
"Prohibition is over," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who introduced the bill. "Our bill is focused solely on taking cash off the streets and making our communities safer."
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act passed 321 to 103 with substantial support on both sides of the aisle. Walking into the vote on Wednesday, the bill tallied about 200 sponsors ー 26 of whom were Republican.
A Congressional aid familiar with the SAFE Banking Act said that drumming up bipartisan support was partially the point ー that padding the bill with a broad base of support will increase its odds when it heads to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces a much heavier lift.
With support from about 30 percent of the Senate ー including only five Republican Senators ー some suggest it won’t have enough traction to pass. But comments earlier this month from Senate Banking Chair Mike Crapo reignited proponents' hopes. He told Politico that he hopes to address cannabis banking issues by the end of the year.
"We're working to try to get a bill ready," he told Politico. "I'm looking to see whether we can thread the needle."
Following passage of the bill in the House, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), one of the bill's lead sponsors in the Senate, urged his fellow Senators to deliver SAFE Banking to President Trump’s desk. And Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who introduced the Senate version of the bill, was hopeful of its momentum.
“While we continue to work to address broader issues related to the harmful legacy of cannabis prohibition across the country, I am hopeful that we can get the SAFE Banking Act moving quickly through committee, to the Senate floor, and ultimately, to the President’s desk,” Merkley said in a statement.
Meanwhile in the House of Representatives, proponents celebrated. Cheers could be heard throughout the chamber the moment votes in favor surpassed 290, or two thirds of the chamber ー the margin needed to pass a bill under suspension of the rules. Perlmutter was especially excited. He’s been working to push versions of the legislation through with sponsor Rep. Denny Heck (D- Wash.) since 2013.
“After six years of working on this bill, the SAFE Banking Act will go a long way in getting cash off our streets and providing certainty so financial institutions can work with cannabis businesses and employees,” Perlmutter said in a statement.
But even as they celebrated, proponents of wider legalization acknowledged the need for further reform ー especially for social justice. In the weeks leading up to the House vote on the bill, criticism emerged from within the Democratic party, as well as from advocacy groups, which argued such a bill undermines more comprehensive and socially focused reform. Three Democratic Presidential candidates ー and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer ー have criticized the bill for not doing enough to repair damages from the War Drugs.
But proponents of the bill argued social justice and incremental financial reform don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In the hours leading up to the vote, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released a statement affirming the concerns of advocates and his colleagues, and calling for more action on cannabis equity following passage of the bill by the House.
“I am proud to bring this legislation to the Floor, but I believe it does not go far enough. This must be a first step toward the decriminalization and de-scheduling of marijuana, which has led to the prosecution and incarceration of far too many of our fellow Americans for possession,” Hoyer said in a statement.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Financial Services, which passed the bill in March after days of amendments and deliberation, said much of the same.
"This bill is but one important piece of what should be a comprehensive series of cannabis reform bills,” she said.
Many of SAFE Banking's more prominent cosponsors, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Rep. Early Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Rep. Perlmutter, and Rep. Waters, also support more comprehensive and socially focused cannabis legislation like the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in July.