Activists Rebecca Wright, left, and Christopher Stripling of Denver, join others to protest banks in the area closing their accounts with local medical marijuana dispensaries in August 2010. (Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

Senate panel OKs measure to make pot banking easier

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel voted Thursday to make it easier for businesses that legally produce and sell marijuana to do business with banks and other financial services providers.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved, by a 16-14 vote, an amendment that would effectively ease laws making it officially illegal for banks to handle money from marijuana vendors. The laws have resulted in a situation in which many marijuana vendors have typically had to use cash to conduct their business.

The marijuana banking legislation was added to a Treasury funding measure by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, whose state is among four in the nation where voters have adopted referendums permitting the sale of pot for recreational use.

The language had passed the House last year but was taken out during talks with the Senate, which has yet to consider the underlying spending bill this year.

Three Republicans on the Senate panel — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Steve Daines of Montana — voted for the amendment. Dianne Feinstein of California was the only panel Democrat to oppose it.

The Treasury and Justice departments have issued guidance intended to address the situation even as the law remains officially unchanged, but many banks remain skittish about doing business with marijuana-related companies. Four states allow sales of marijuana for recreational use, and 23 states and the District of Columbia permit medical marijuana.

The committee’s vote comes as attitudes among lawmakers on marijuana are loosening somewhat as more states allow its use. The Justice Department, for instance, is blocked from cracking down on medicinal pot vendors and users under restrictions placed by lawmakers into its current budget. They would need to be renewed to remain in place.