The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, was reintroduced in Congress, on March 19th. A version of the bill in 2019 garnered 321 votes in its favor, and 103 in rejection. However, the bill floundered in the then Republican-controlled Senate. There is renewed optimism now that Democrats hold a slight control of the Senate.
The bill seeks to offer federal-wide protection from prosecution for US bankers that serve the cannabis market.
Cannabis companies must be cautiously delighted but deepen lobbying on federal-wide uniform rules; insurance access rather than just retail banking and robust data capture.
The biggest dilemma of the US cannabis market is that trade, consumption, or banking for participants is lawful in select states but there is no federal blanket protection. From 2012, adults over the age of 21 can lawfully use marijuana in 15 states and Washington DC. Additionally, 36 states have legalized the usage of medical cannabis meaning – loosely – the majority of Americans can possess marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
This arcane patch of rules is a headache to marijuana market participants. “The biggest risk the cannabis industry faces is uncertainty. Not only around regulation but around the nature of the lawsuits that could arise,” an authoritative report about the industry, compiled by New Dawn Risk consultancy, states.
Marijuana companies in the US incur millions of dollars in consulting lawyers to weave through a maze of intimidating, non-uniform state laws that can change from state to county. For example in Pennsylvania, a web of rules means marijuana traders have to part ways with up to $2 million upfront in paperwork and proof of assets alone.
So the re-introduction of the SAFE Act is a very important opening for marijuana companies to lobby for a law that gives blanket federal protection. That way, American marijuana corporations get a competitive footing and don’t have to coy around the rules, and list on indexes in nearby liberal jurisdictions like the Toronto Stocks Exchange in Canada.
We spoke to Andrew Bowden, CEO of Item 9 Labs Corp, who had this to say:
“We believe the passing of the SAFE Banking Act will advantage all U.S. cannabis operators. For Item 9 Labs, we’ll see direct benefit in access to further financing our Arizona cultivation site buildout and cannabis products to fulfill our customer demand. With our upcoming merger with OCG, Inc. and their Unity Rd. franchise, the robust pipeline of prospective franchise partners will gain additional access to financing – much like SBA loans assist other franchise concepts. We also expect the passing will open the broader exchanges, like NASDAQ and NYSE, with investment banking and institutional investors able to participate, and make it easier for U.S. citizens to purchase shares.”
Don´t forget insurance
The re-introduced bill mandates that federal banking regulators cannot “terminate or limit the deposit insurance or share insurance” or “take any other adverse action against a depository institution” just because it provides banking services to licensed cannabis corporations.
Cannabis companies must not fall into the trap of focusing their lobbying too heavily on retail banking whilst overlooking insurance. As cannabis cultivation, harvesting and trade heat up in the US domestic market, don’t forget that marijuana is a business that´s galloping beyond our shores. China, as bullish as ever, already plants 50% of the total area of cannabis grown in the world today. The World Intellectual Property Organization, states that 306 of the 606 patents involving cannabis today are in the hands of Chinese corporations and individuals.
It is almost given that US marijuana businesses will venture abroad to pick virgin markets or diversify harvests, and this is where insurance shines. Global and domestic US marijuana logistics are complex and fraught with risks of shipping, fire, or climate change disrupting harvests. The legalized cannabis industry in the US would pay $1 billion in annual insurance premiums if the trade was insured to levels offered for other sectors.
Lobbying must intensify to make it easier for cannabis corporations to obtain legal insurance at competitive rates thus they can safely hire more workers and expand operations. As a National Association of Insurance Commission report stated in 2018: “Lack of insurance for the industry adds layers of unnecessary risk and exposure for all market participants.”
Data is savior
The re-introduction of the SAFE Act bill could unleash an avalanche of pent-up data that will enrich both cannabis traders, healthcare agencies, users, and bankers.
Right now due to patchwork of mysterious rules, the cannabis sector runs by word-of-mouth figures, and insider chats (not structured data). “Thousands of employees and businesses across this country have been forced to deal in piles of cash for far too long,” Rep. Perlmutter, the pusher of the re-introduced bills said via a news release.
Without a modern, high-quality data registry on the marijuana market, it is double difficult for retail insurance companies to fairly price packages, or for cannabis traders to haggle for competitive interest rates. Without data, insurers are piloting in the dark. Cannabis growers lose, and health agencies can´t track the impact on consumers.
On Thursday, The United States House of Representatives reintroduced a critical cannabis banking bill. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Steve Stivers (R-OH), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), and Warren Davidson (R-OH) brought the SAFE banking act back to the House along with the support of over 100 additional cosponsors. The bill, which is expected to effortlessly advance, previously passed the house in 2019 and 2020 but was squashed by the Republican-controlled senate. However, now that Democrats control both the White House and Senate, the bill has a real chance of passing.
What Is The SAFE Banking Act?
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would allow legitimate cannabis businesses acting within the confines of the law access to the same banking services as other companies.
Currently, despite the industry generating millions of dollars in tax revenue, cannabis entrepreneurs are seen more like criminals in the in the eyes of major financial institutions. Not only are cannabis operations effectively barred from traditional lending, but it’s also nearly impossible for these businesses to legally open a bank account. As a result, dispensaries and other cannabis businesses are obligated to deal primarily in cash-only transactions, making them prime targets for criminals. According to Representative Perlmutter,
“Thousands of employees and businesses across this country have been forced to deal in piles of cash for far too long. It is the responsibility of Congress to step up and take action to align federal and state laws for the safety of our constituents and communities.”
The bill remains largely the same as it was in 2019 and 2020, but with added language that explicitly includes hemp and CBD businesses as well as additional clarification on safe harbor laws and cannabis insurance.
The SAFE Banking Act’s Path Forward
In 2019, The SAFE Banking Act was introduced as a stand-alone bill. Despite overwhelmingly passing the House, it would never see the Senate floor. A year later, House Democrats attempted to embed the bill in part of their larger Coronavirus relief package, pointing out the inherent dangers of operating an “essential business” in a cash-only capacity during the height of a catastrophic pandemic. After considerable criticism from Republicans, the House eventually dropped the SAFE Banking Act from the relief bill’s final draft. Perlmutter harkened back to this subject in his Thursday address, saying,
“In many states, the industry was deemed essential yet forced to continue to operate in all cash, adding a significant public health risk for businesses and their workers. As we begin our economic recovery, allowing cannabis businesses to access the banking system would also mean an influx of cash into the economy and the opportunity to create good-paying jobs.”
The Senate is expected to introduce its own version of the bill this week. For the last two years, this is where the SAFE Banking Act has predominantly run into challenges. However, this time around, the Senate has a more favorable makeup—split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker. Perlmutter remains optimistic the bill will make it all the way to President Biden’s desk. He said,
“I think this is going to get a full legislative review, and we’re going to get a good product, a good piece of legislation, and send it to the White House.”
New York is on the precipice of completing a deal that would usher legal marijuana into the state. Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo (D) expressed that he and the state Legislators were “very close” to reaching an agreement.
For the third year in a row, the governor has attempted to pass marijuana reform legislation as part of his executive budget. Past efforts at reform from the gubernatorial office have largely been unsuccessful due to disagreements with the more progressive wing of Cuomo’s own party.
This time, however, negotiations will take place outside of the budget process.
Cuomo Criticized For Putting Tax Revenue Above Criminal Justice
Cuomo, who is currently facing a growing number of calls to resign amidst an onslaught of sexual harassment allegations, has been criticized in the past by drug policy reform advocates for pushing a legalization plan that prioritizes maximizing state revenue over reinvesting in the minority communities most victimized by marijuana prohibition.
In response, the governor’s office has released a proposal claiming that some funds from cannabis tax revenue may be used for minority community reinvestment purposes but doesn’t guarantee it. “The devil is in the details,” According to Melissa Moore, the New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Moore says,
“The governor’s proposal has included some of the language from the MRTA about what the community grants reinvestment fund could be used for, but it hasn’t actually had the lockbox guarantee around funds going to communities.”
There have also been concerns that Cuomo’s plan, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), won’t do enough to prevent the future criminalization of cannabis users. Under the CRTA plan, possession of marijuana purchased from an unlicensed source would remain a misdemeanor offense with potential jail time. In contrast, the Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act (MRTA) proposed by state legislators would make possession of illicit cannabis up to two pounds of flower or 4.5 ounces of concentrate a violation only punishable with a fine.
While the MRTA allows for six marijuana plants to be grown per household, The CRTA prohibits residents of the state from cultivating any cannabis plants inside their own homes, severely limiting access to consumers who don’t want to purchase from state-licensed dispensaries.
Growing Support For MRTA
NORML, one of the largest cannabis advocacy lobbies in the country, rated both legalization plans at the beginning of this month. The New York NORML Chapter found that “[The] MRTA is far superior to the CRTA,” and gave the legislator’s plan an A- grade while only giving Cuomo’s a C-.
A recent poll conducted by Consensus Strategies found that New Yorkers favor marijuana reform policy that more closely resembles the MRTA. 52% of those surveyed said that they preferred legislation allowing state residents to grow a limited amount of marijuana plants at home, and 51% supported license preferences for social equity applicants.
In a Twitter statement on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) expressed his support for the legalization efforts taking place in the Big Apple. While he didn’t mention Cuomo by name, he did explicitly show his support for the MRTA plan saying,
“We must ensure that tax dollars flow to communities harmed by over-criminalization; small entrepreneurs and directly impacted people have an opportunity to enter the market through strong social equity provisions; marijuana is not used as pretext for criminalizing Black and Brown people, especially youth; and that individuals weighed down by past criminal convictions are given an opportunity to move on as productive members of society.”
Senator Schumer went on to thank supporters of MRTA, specifically calling out legislators Crystal People-Stokes (D) and Liz Krueger (D)—the two legislators responsible for introducing the bill.
Currently, Senator People-Stokes is optimistic that the legislation will advance before April 1st.
According to the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), the Empire State is “very close” to legalizing marijuana.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) echoed this sentiment on Monday, stating that lawmakers plan to advance the stand-alone legalization bill before passing the budget, which is due on April 1st. However, questions regarding traffic stops and driving while impaired currently have legislators deadlocked.
“We are extremely close. We have reached a little bit of an impasse right now, and it has to do with impaired driving.” State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said at a press conference on Tuesday.
No One Wants To Arrest Unlawfully
Law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns that the classification of driving under the influence of cannabis as a traffic infraction would send the wrong message to the public and encourage New Yorkers to drive while intoxicated from marijuana use. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York maintains that driving while on cannabis should remain a misdemeanor crime.
In its current form, roadside marijuana testing cannot determine how recently a driver may have used cannabis, adding an extra layer of difficulty in policing motorists who use marijuana.
Despite the impasse, Stewart-Cousins remains optimistic about the bill’s eventual passing, saying
“It’s a matter of when, not if.” State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Originally, Gov. Cuomo included his own version of the legislation in his annual budget request, though it was omitted Monday in a Senate resolution. It seems state legislators would prefer to handle the marijuana issue outside of budget negotiations.
New York’s Third Opportunity to Legalize Marijuana
Past efforts from the governor to bring pot to New York have flopped largely due to disagreements within his own party regarding equity and revenue spending. While state lawmakers sought to spend large swaths of new tax revenue on supporting minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition, Gov. Cuomo’s previous plans allocated the majority of funds under state control.
Gov. Cuomo isn’t the only one ready for recreational marijuana to hit the state. According to a recent survey conducted by Sienna College, New Yorkers overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis for adult use. The poll found that 59% of those surveyed were in favor of legalization, while only a meager 33% were opposed. Last year, in the neighboring state of New Jersey, voters decisively cast ballots in favor of a constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis, allowing lawmakers to set up the necessary regulatory systems for a recreational market.
During his Monday press conference, Cuomo said, “I think this should’ve passed years ago. I think too many people have been imprisoned, incarcerated, and punished. Too many of those people are Black, Latino, and poor. It’s exaggerated the injustice of the justice system.”
Arizona voters will have a chance to cast a ballot in support of recreational marijuana this coming November.
The initiative will hit the polls only four years after voters rejected a similar measure by a slim margin of 2.6 percent. However, a recent survey showed that over 62 percent of likely voters now support legalizing cannabis, suggesting a recent change of heart in the Grand Canyon State.
Supporters of the measure turned in a petition that had garnered over 420,000 raw signatures to Secretary of State Katie Hobb’s office in July. On August 10th, Hobb’s certified the signatures and added the initiative to the ballot under the name Prop. 207.
If approved, Prop. 207 would make it legal for adults in Arizona to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, so long as no more than five grams of that marijuana is in the form of concentrates. Arizonans would also be allowed to cultivate up to six cannabis plants in their homes. In homes with two or more adults, the allowance would go up to twelve plants total.
The measure requires the Department of Health Services to set forth the rules regarding retail sales by June 1, 2021. State and local sales taxes would be charged, as well as an additional 16 percent excise tax. The revenue from the taxes collected would be split between the state agencies responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law, fire departments, highways, community colleges, and a restorative justice fund.
Employers would still be allowed to ban marijuana in the workplace and prohibit potential applicants and current employees from using cannabis.
Prop. 207 will do more than simply legalize cannabis in Arizona. There are several provisions written to help those who have been impacted by the harsh realities of prohibition, including establishing a social equity program designed to issue licenses to members of communities that have been historically disproportionately targeted by cannabis laws. It would also allow Arizonans who have been previously convicted of marijuana-related crimes to petition for the expungement of their records.
Support for Proposition 207
Smart and Safe Arizona, where former House representative Chad Campbell (D-24) is a chairperson of the campaign committee, spearheads the initiative’s campaign.
“As the name says, smart and safe. It’s put together in a responsible way to sell this product to adults only, and it will generate revenue, much-needed revenue, for the state which is a win for everybody,” Campbell told Fox10 Phoenix. He estimates that legal cannabis will bring around $300 million in revenue a year.
Political consultant Stacy Pearson told KTVK, “[Prop. 207] does the right thing by providing an option for folks who were previously convicted of low-level marijuana charges to have their criminal records sealed, so they have fair access to jobs and housing. It frees up police to focus on real crime and hard drugs and unclogs the justice system, which is currently backlogged with minor offenses.”
Opposition to Proposition 207
Robert Leger, a spokesperson for Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, has concerns about what kind of signal legalization could send to young people.
“I think there’s a lot here to worry about. If you have a vote that says it’s OK to use it, I think those kids who might be on the fence might are more likely to say ‘The voters say it’s a good thing [sic] to have, it can’t be bad for us.’ I think it makes it more legitimate in the eyes of a teenager.” Leger said to KTVK
Contrary to what Leger believes, studies have shown that legal cannabis markets have not caused increased marijuana use by minors.
On Tuesday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced he was selecting Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate for the 2020 election.
Harris, a former prosecutor, has experienced an evolution regarding her views on marijuana prohibition during the last decade.
Views Prior to 2015
In 2003, Harris began her foray into electoral politics by challenging Democratic incumbent Terrence Hallinan for the San Francisco attorney general position. During the campaign, Harris criticized Hallinan’s office for its low conviction rate and vowed to take a tougher stance on crime. After successfully defeating Hallinan, Harris did just that. While at the helm, her office oversaw a 6 percent rise in marijuana convictions. Despite those high numbers, Paul Henderson, Harris’ chief of administration, stated, “Our policy was that no one with a marijuana conviction for mere possession could do any (jail time) at all.”
In 2010, while Harris was making a run for state attorney general, she came out against Proposition 19 — a bill designed to legalize and tax marijuana in California. Her campaign made the statement, “[Harris] supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that.”
Four years later, during re-election, she was flanked to the left by her Republican opponent Ron Gold who stated, “[marijuana] needs to be legalized immediately.” When told about Gold’s statement by a local news station, Harris simply laughed and said, “He’s entitled to his opinion.”
2015 Through the Present
In 2015 her position began to soften. During a speech at the California Democrats Convention, Harris came out in support of ending the federal ban on marijuana. She echoed this statement in 2016 after being elected to congress. Harris addressed noted marijuana prohibitionist Jeff Sessions directly while speaking at the Center for American Progress by saying, “Let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions. We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations and dealing with human trafficking – not in going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”
She continued, “While I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs — as a career prosecutor, I just don’t — we need to do the smart thing, the right thing, and finally decriminalize marijuana.”
Her shifting views on cannabis prohibition became even more apparent in 2018 when Harris signed onto the Marijuana Justice Act — Presidential rival Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) far-reaching bill designed to end federal prohibition.
In 2019, Harris went a step further and co-sponsored the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE). The MORE Act called for not only complete federal legalization but also the expungement of prior marijuana convictions. It marked the first time in history a congressional committee has approved a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition.
“Right now in this country, people are being arrested, being prosecuted, and end up spending time in jail or prison all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal,” Harris said in a press release regarding her involvement with the MORE Act.
“Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do; it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor, and I know it as a senator.”
Harris went on to co-sponsor the SAFE Banking act — an essential piece of legislation that would allow cannabis dispensaries access to financial institutions like banks and credit unions.