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Legal marijuana advocates are one step closer to federal reform


WASHINGTON — Cannabis reform is moving one step closer to reality at the federal level, with a committee hearing on a bipartisan bill to expand banking services for legal marijuana businesses expected to take place at the end of the month, according to multiple people directly involved in the process.

The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee is expected to hold a markup on the bill, known as the SAFE Banking Act, the week of Sept. 25, three sources familiar with the talks told NBC News. The markup process allows senators to debate and consider amendments for the legislation and is viewed as a key step in advancing the bill to the Senate floor.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee support the bill and expressed confidence that the bill would have enough support to pass the Senate when it comes up for a full vote, a step Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed to take as soon as this fall.

“We’ve got enough votes to get it passed,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said, adding in an interview that he is “cautiously optimistic we may have something before the end of the month.”

The SAFE Banking Act would make it lawful for legal marijuana businesses to access major financial and banking institutions. Under current law, banks and creditors could face federal prosecution if they provide services to legal businesses selling the drug, leaving business owners unable to utilize banks as the drug remains against the law on the federal level. 

“I want to see a strong vote come out” of the committee, the panel’s chair, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told reporters. “It helps us with momentum on the floor and the House.”

“I feel pretty good about passing the bill,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., one of eight Republicans who have signed on as co-sponsors.

In addition to Daines and Cramer, GOP Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine have signed on to the bill.

The fate of the bill in the House is less certain, despite a strong showing of support from Republicans serving in leadership roles, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy who voted for the bill in previous years. McCarthy has not stated whether he would prioritize the effort this time around given the fragile majority that has complicated his tenure as speaker.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., was expected to formally endorse the legislation earlier this week, but ultimately did not take the step after facing backlash from law enforcement officials and other conservative groups back home, according to a source with knowledge of his thinking.

“Coach supports the bill and will support it as it goes through the process, including on the floor,” said Steve Stafford, a spokesperson for Tuberville.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action, a political organization opposed to marijuana legalization, urged Tuberville to oppose the legislation in a recent letter. “Marijuana is particularly dangerous for young people, a group you have demonstrated great care for in your career as a college coach. Your support for the SAFE Banking Act is equivalent to supporting the federal legalization of marijuana and would send a dangerous message to young people who look up to you as a role model,” the group wrote. 

Support has grown for the measure among congressional Republicans, even as most of them — including Daines — oppose efforts to legalize cannabis recreationally. Senators have pointed to a rise in robberies at cash-heavy dispensaries in recent years as one reason for backing the bill.

“The emphasis needs to be on safety,” Sullivan told NBC News. “So what I really worry about is someone’s gonna get murdered, or robbed and severely beaten, and then we’re going to be spurred to action. And that’s the wrong way to do it, you know?”

Financial institutions, including small and community banks, have also put pressure on lawmakers, including Tuberville, to support the bill.

Tuberville’s endorsement, if not formal co-sponsorship, of the bill reflects a shift among lawmakers from red states where recreational cannabis remains illegal. The freshman senator holds the seat of former Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican who cracked down on marijuana when serving as attorney general under the Trump administration.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of use of the drug, but because of a disjointed federal approach, legal business owners are left to contend with a patchwork of ever-changing laws around the country.

Dan Springer, a registered Republican and sheriff based in Bozeman, Montana, lauded Daines’ efforts on the legislation. “If we’re gonna have businesses doing this, then let’s treat them as businesses and not as drug dealers,” he told NBC News during an interview this spring in Montana.

“If there’s cash being moved around, out at residences on the street, there’s a propensity for criminal activity,” Springer said. “I’ve had those conversations with some of the business owners about that. And it makes them nervous.” 

An updated version of the SAFE Banking Act was introduced by an unlikely duo this year: progressive Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Daines, the chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, both of whom represent states where cannabis is legal medically and recreationally.

The new version excludes some provisions that were backed by Democrats after Republican leadership blocked it last December, in part, for being too broad and not having gone through regular committee order.

Lawmakers involved in crafting the legislation worked through the congressional recess last month to resolve any concerns that could prevent the bill from getting across the finish line. 

“We’ve made great progress,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who pushed to narrow the regulatory scope of the bill, told NBC News. “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.”

Other Democrats, meanwhile, hope to add additional criminal justice components to the bill once it lands on the Senate floor. That effort will likely be unsuccessful in a closely divided Congress but is crucial to cannabis reform advocates.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., among other Democrats, has stressed the importance of including equity provisions for minority and women-run businesses, as well as criminal justice reform components.

“It needs to be clean,” countered Sullivan, echoing the position of a majority of the Republican conference. “There’s been these attempts by the Chairman of the Banking Committee to add a bunch of other stuff onto it and I think that just completely torpedoes the chances.” 

Separately, a bipartisan effort to encourage states to expunge marijuana misdemeanors was reintroduced in April. The bill from Reps. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., known as the HOPE Act, was first introduced in December 2021. 

Ahead of his re-election campaign, President Joe Biden announced his intent to pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession offenses at the end of last year. 

His administration is also in the process of potentially rescheduling cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act — a move that would pave the way for additional cannabis reforms on the federal level.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.