How SAFE Banking Act Could Benefit US Cannabis Companies

How SAFE Banking Act Could Benefit US Cannabis Companies

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. 

State/federal dilemma

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.

House Reintroduces SAFE Banking Act To Protect Cannabis Businesses

House Reintroduces SAFE Banking Act To Protect Cannabis Businesses

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.”

Senate Proposed Coronavirus Relief Legislation Does Not Include Marijuana Banking Protections

Senate Proposed Coronavirus Relief Legislation Does Not Include Marijuana Banking Protections

On Monday, the Republican-controlled Senate rolled out new Coronavirus relief legislation—a counteroffer to the $3.4 trillion package unveiled by House democrats back in May. The Senate’s relief bill comes with a much smaller price tag of only $1 trillion dollars, which it achieves by slashing much of the benefits proposed by the House.

In addition to the dramatic cuts to the weekly enhancements of state unemployment benefits and safety net programs proposed in the House’s version (The HEROES Act), the Senate’s package does not include language that would protect banks who service the legal cannabis industry.

SAFE Banking Act

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which was originally proposed as a standalone bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), would allow legitimate legal cannabis businesses access to financial services regardless of federal prohibition. Despite being initially approved by the house months ago, the Senate Banking Committee has continued to take no action on the bill. In order to circumvent the Senate Banking Committee, House Democrats included a version of the SAFE Banking Act in their Coronavirus relief bill.

According to the summary provided in the HEROES Act, the SAFE Banking section would “allow cannabis-related legitimate businesses, that in many states have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential services, along with their service providers, to access banking services and products, as well as insurance.”

The executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, Aaron Smith, tweeted out his approval of SAFEs inclusion in the House’s relief bill, stating: “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation.”

Criticism From Senate Republicans

Despite the fact that forcing essential businesses to continue operating as cash-only during a global pandemic seems counterintuitive to stopping the spread of the virus, Senate Republicans have leveled criticism at the addition of marijuana banking protections to the Coronavirus relief bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been particularly vocal about his opposition to including protections for cannabis businesses in any relief package, stating: “I am opposed to non-germane amendments, whether it’s funding for the FBI building…or other non-germane amendments in the House bill like marijuana studies or aid to illegal immigrants…”

McConnell’s disapproval is not only aimed at the germaneness of the SAFE Act being included in the House’s relief legislation, but also at the diversity report provisions that it contains. Back in May, McConnell gave a speech on the Senate floor where he responded to the passing of the House’s HEROES Act. During it, McConnell sardonically referred to the section on marijuana banking protections as “the cherry on top.”

He continued in a similar tone: “Let me say that again, Democrats’ proposed coronavirus bill includes taxpayer-funded studies to measure diversity and inclusion among the people who profit off of marijuana.”

The Future of the SAFE Banking Act

As of now, it is unclear whether or not House Democrats will push for a section on cannabis banking protections to remain during the upcoming bicameral negotiations that will take place to merge the two chambers bills into one.

As for the Standalone bill, there is no reason to think the Senate Banking Committee will take further action any time soon.

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