Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is “confident” Congress will be able to pass a bipartisan marijuana banking bill this session—and other Democratic senators also echoed that point, according to a cannabis industry entrepreneur who spoke with the lawmakers recently.
After speaking at an event focused on higher education last week, Schumer was approached by the CEO of the Colorado-based cannabis company Simply Pure, Wanda James, who became the first Black woman in the country to own a licensed marijuana dispensary in 2009.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, James told Marijuana Moment that she spoke with the majority leader about the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, expressing how Black entrepreneurs in the industry are broadly supportive of the incremental reform to free up banks and credit unions to work with state-licensed cannabis businesses.
Democrats! Let’s get #SAFEBanking done! @SenSchumer small business owners in cannabis who happen to be Black need you and your team to get this done. We are counting on you. @SenatorBennet @SenatorHick pic.twitter.com/8IkYyJGSKy
— Wanda L. James (@WandaLJames) June 20, 2023
Schumer appeared “confident” that the marijuana bill, which received an initial hearing in the Senate Banking Committee last month, will advance and be enacted this year, according to James, who emphasized that the brief chat with the majority leader was not a formal sit down with him and his staff.
Schumer noted in the discussion that there’s enough Republican support in the Senate to move SAFE Banking to the House, where it’s passed in some form seven times in recent years.
“From my conversation that I briefly had with Senator Schumer,” as well as separate discussions with Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) during the trip to D.C., “I am of the opinion that our Democratic leadership believes that this is something we can get done,” James said.
Marijuana Moment reached out to Schumer’s office for comment, but a representative was not immediately available.
Lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders might have different opinions about what the final product should look like—with Schumer pushing for expungements provisions when it reaches the floor and certain industry representatives advocating for an expansion of the overall financial protections, for example. But the sentiment that James heard from key senators was confidence that something is achievable, even if that means incrementalism first.
Spoke with @SenSchumer last night, he feels confident we will get #SafeBanking done. @SenatorHick and @SenatorBennet felt we will get it done as well. I also had long conversation with @RepPerlmutter . He dispelled the neg talking points about this Bill. @m4mmunited @Gia_Vm
— Wanda L. James (@WandaLJames) June 15, 2023
Some equity-focused advocates have taken a skeptical or hostile stance on SAFE Banking, which is expected to receive a committee markup within weeks, as a standalone—arguing that it would not be appropriate to pass the industry-focused measure ahead of broader justice-focused reforms.
James says she and other business owners in the space share the perspective that comprehensive legalization is the “end game.” But she emphasized that the vast majority of Black operators that she knows in this space are backing modest financial reform in the interim.
“I would be thrilled to see more and more movement on this. However—make no mistake—first and foremost, we must get basic banking over the finish line,” she said, adding that her own personal bank accounts were closed recently due to her involvement in the marijuana industry.
“It had nothing to do with anything except for the fact that I’m a CEO of a cannabis business,” James said.
OK Democrats, don’t mess this up. W/O banking no business will survive, including the POC biz people already in the industry.
SAFE Banking Has 10 Republicans Votes Needed For Passage, According To Cannabis Industry Insider @TheDalesReport https://t.co/lnGLNy0RIQ
— Wanda L. James (@WandaLJames) June 20, 2023
While the SAFE Banking Act has yet to be scheduled for a committee markup, lawmakers from across the aisle are signaling that the votes are there for passage—so long as there are no major contentions or hiccups along the way.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) said last week that he’s a “yes” on the legislation, for example. He just doubts that Democratic leadership will follow through on their pledge to get the job done this year.
Democrats would likely contest that characterization. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said earlier this month that he wants to hold a vote on it “in the next two or three weeks,” for instance.
As its currently drafted, the measure would protect banks and credit unions, as well as depository institutions, from being penalized by federal regulators for working with state-licensed cannabis businesses.
Schumer and others have discussed plans to amend the legislation on the floor to adopt “critical” criminal justice provisions such as expungements for prior marijuana convictions, calling broader effort to repair the harms of the drug war a “moral responsibility” for Congress.
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It’s unclear if members will move to make any revisions to the measure in committee at the markup, whenever that might be, but at least one Democratic senator on the panel has previewed changes he would like to make to the main banking provisions.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and some consumer groups have raised concerns that Section 10 of the bill could inadvertently limit the ability of regulators to take action against people exploiting banking services.
Brown himself previously said that he worried banking representatives were trying to use the legislation to “weaken bank rules” and “undermine” regulations.
Others have also floated other changes that they’d like to see incorporated into the cannabis bill such as expanding protections to free up marijuana industry access to all forms of financial services, including representation on major U.S. stock exchanges.
That request has faced some criticism from other advocates who say that would be an inappropriate move to help businesses while efforts to legalize marijuana stall in Congress.
A major cannabis lobbying firm apologized last month after sending a letter to Senate Banking Committee leadership concerning the banking bill that contained “inappropriate” references to investments from China in a “misguided attempt” to push for amendments expanding the legislation.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also recently said that she wanted the SAFE Banking Act to pass with an amendment allowing cannabis businesses to access federal Small Business Administration (SBA) services.
In April, Schumer said that he was “disappointed” that a so-called SAFE Plus package of cannabis reform legislation didn’t advance last year, saying “we came close,” but “we ran into opposition in the last minute.” He said lawmakers will continue to “work in a bipartisan way” to get the job done.
The majority leader has been holding meetings with Democratic and Republican members in the early months of the new Congress to discuss cannabis reform proposals that might have bipartisan buy-in this year.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said recently that lawmakers are working to “resurrect” the cannabis reform package, acknowledging that failure to advance a banking fix for the industry “literally means that hundreds of businesses go out of business.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who is a lead sponsor of the House version of the SAFE Banking Act, said at a recent press briefing that thinks it’s important that advocates and lawmakers align on any incremental proposals to end the drug war, warning against an “all-or-nothing” mentality.
The American Bankers Association (ABA) also recently renewed its call for the passage of the legislation. And all 50 of its state chapters did the same, as did insurance and union organizations, in recent letters to congressional leadership.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.