When it comes to Congress and cannabis reform, the question is how far (or how far) to go
Outside of Congress, supporters of the SAFE Banking Act are increasingly disappointed with the lack of progress in the Senate.
“It’s created a very dangerous environment with the amount of money that’s still, you know, processed without access to normal banking,” said Chuck Smith, head of trade association Colorado Leads.
SAFE Banking faces an age-old problem in Congress, which arises around thorny issues. Are lawmakers trying to pass a small, targeted bill that solves a specific problem, which Perlmutters’ bill does, or will they grow up and try to tackle the whole problem?
Senate Democrats, including Cory Booker and Chuck Schumer, are trying to think big.
“It cannot be a simple legalization. It has to be about restorative justice,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Last summer, Booker joined Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden in pledging to introduce a measure to end the federal ban on cannabis, while addressing the issues of social and criminal justice that the war on marijuana has left in its wake.
Booker noted that the vast majority of people punished for marijuana-related offenses are low-income black and brown people. And while he recognizes the importance of giving existing cannabis companies access to banking services, he is unwilling to move forward on this issue alone.
“[The] the reality is that there are a lot of very important interests that want this done,” he said. “And if we do that, we lose an invaluable sweetener to get restorative justice, erasure of records, the kind of stuff done that there’s not so much money behind.”
Booker hopes his group will be ready to unveil its legalization legislation later this month, possibly April 20.
But not everyone in the industry agrees that going big is the right approach.
But Smith and some other industry advocates worry that by going so big the bill is doomed.
“Perfect is the enemy of good right now,” he said.
It comes down to simple Senate calculations: To pass the bill, proponents of legalization will need 60 votes.
“We’re fighting to get the most mundane thing done in Congress,” said Amber Littlejohn, executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. “So the fair legalization of cannabis is not going to be something we do this Congress.”
Like other advocates, Littlejohn wants federal prohibition to end and admires the goal Booker and lawmakers are trying to achieve in addressing an issue that’s been decades in the making. She agrees that criminal records for non-violent marijuana offenses should be expunged. But she thinks the basics of equity could start with SAFE banking. She said some of the businesses she represents won’t last until legalization unless they get help now.
His organization had direct experience of these problems. She lost her bank last year and had to wait several months for her new bank to complete federal due diligence. The Association is also fighting a fine from the IRS because its lack of access to electronic payments prevents it from paying its taxes online.
The House passed a comprehensive legalization bill last week, called the MORE law. But he only got three Republican votes, essentially dooming the bill to the Senate legislative graveyard.
GOP Representative Dave Joyce of Ohio, who has worked with Perlmutter and others on cannabis issues for years, sees obstacles to any sweeping legalization bill; warning that it gives lawmakers a reason to avoid taking a potentially risky vote.
“They say, ‘You know, I like that part, but I don’t like that one. So they’re probably not going to vote for that,” he explained.
When it comes to legitimizing cannabis, Joyce thinks it would be best to scale down: “try to build a coalition around those manageable elements to see which ones have the energy to take over.”
What reform is being left behind?
But fellow House GOP Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina warns that a piecemeal approach will always leave the toughest pieces behind.
“My fear is…we’ll pass the SAFE bank and not see her again for 20 years, right? Because people will feel like they checked that box, they’re done now. But you can’t stop there,” she said.
Mace introduced his own legalization bill in the House called the States Reform Act. It’s a more limited approach than what House Democrats just took; it would treat cannabis like alcohol and contains limited elements of criminal justice reform. The bill is expected to get a committee hearing in a few months. She hopes this will be the tool that opens the door to true bipartisan discussion and building consensus on marijuana reform.
“Beggars cannot choose in this space. We have to get our heads out of the sand and do what is right,” she said.
Mace and others in this debate agree on one thing – that the federal status quo is increasingly unsustainable as more and more states legalize cannabis in one form or another.
But it remains to be seen whether the next step of the Cannabis Congress will be big or small. And supporters have said the one scenario they would like to avoid at this Congress is for options big and small to fail.