A bill introduced by Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter that would allow banks to serve marijuana-related businesses without fear of penalties from the federal government got a boost Tuesday from a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general.
A letter sent to leaders in Congress Tuesday by 19 state attorneys general requests advancement of legislation such as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to “provide a safe harbor” for banks that provide financial products or services to state-legal marijuana businesses.
The recent rescission by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session of Obama-era guidance for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) regarding banks doing business with marijuana firms has made the need for Congressional action more urgent, the attorneys general said.
Enacting laws such as the SAFE Banking Act that ensure accountability in the marijuana industry would, “bring billions of dollars into the banking sector, and give law enforcement the ability to monitor these transactions,” the attorneys general said. “Moreover, compliance with tax requirements would be simpler and easier to enforce with a better-defined tracking of funds.”
Democrat Perlmutter introduced the SAFE Banking Act last April with co-sponsors Reps. Denny Heck, D-Washington, and Don Young, R-Alaska. Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner announced their sponsorship of a Senate companion bill last May. The House bill, which currently has 64 co-sponsors, is a reintroduction of the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act, which was first introduced in 2013 — and again in 2015 — but subsequently languished.
“I first introduced this legislation in 2013 to get cash off the streets and reduce the threat of crime, robbery and assault in our communities,” Perlmutter said in an email to The Cannabist. “Voters have spoken on this issue and voted to legalize some form of marijuana in nearly every state in the country. States are taking responsible steps to regulate the industry and we must ensure that includes access to the banking system.”
The attorneys general from seven of the eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana signed the letter.
Congress must take legislative actions to allow legal marijuana businesses access to banking services, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said in a statement.
“Opening a bank account is often one of the first steps a new business takes, but given the currently outdated federal banking laws, the multi-billion dollar legal marijuana industry is forced to remain in the financial shadows running cash-only businesses,” she said. “I urge Congress to take the necessary action to bring that commerce into the banking system, which will address certain public safety concerns, and allow law enforcement, regulators and taxing authorities to better monitor these businesses.”
In the aftermath of Sessions’ shift on marijuana policy, the Republican — who is also running for governor — had previously said she would continue to defend state laws and encouraged Coloradans “not to freak out.”
Cannabis banking is an issue impacting both red and blue states, California Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. After legalizing recreational marijuana on Jan. 1, the nation’s most populous state is moving forward, not backwards when it comes to the cannabis industry, he said.
“The future of small and local licensed businesses has been clouded by the Trump Administration’s relentless attacks on progress, in conflict with the will of voters,” Becerra said. “Congress has the power to protect a growing $6.7 billion industry and the public safety of our communities.”
Notably absent from the letter was the signature of Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican who is also running for governor and was opposed to the Nevada marijuana legalization initiative known as Question 2 before the state’s voters approved it in November 2016.
Perlmutter’s SAFE Banking Act is the latest marijuana-related measure in the U.S. House of Representatives to see increased support since Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo guidance on federal marijuana enforcement.
Nearly 70 congress members signed a letter sent Friday asking House leadership to include Colorado Rep. Jared Polis’ McClintock-Polis Amendment in any forthcoming appropriations legislation. That amendment would ensure Department of Justice funds cannot be used to interfere with states that have authorized some form of marijuana legalization.
Update January 17: The Associated Press reports that Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says the federal government has a responsibility to “bring its practices in line with the states that have seen fit to legalize marijuana.”
Read the letter