Congress Debates Marijuana Banking Amendment

By Tom Angell | July 14, 2017

A U.S. House panel briefly debated — but did not vote on — an amendment to give marijuana businesses greater access to banks late on Thursday night.

Under current federal prohibition laws, many financial services providers are reluctant to work with cannabis businesses for fear of being prosecuted for money laundering. As a result, many state-legal marijuana growers and sellers operate on a cash-only basis, which makes them targets for robberies.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) proposed an amendment to the bill that funds the Treasury Department and other federal financial regulators that would have prevented those officials from punishing banks just for working with marijuana businesses that are legal under state law.

The measure would give “important financial certainty” to cannabis providers that are “vulnerable to dangerous criminal targeting,” Lee said.

Although a similar proposal was approved by the full U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 by a margin of 231 to 192, Lee did not insist on a vote for her amendment on Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee, instead withdrawing it and asking Republican leaders to work with her on the issue as the financial services funding bill makes its way to the floor.

Lee’s decision to not ask for a vote could be an indication that she thought the measure was unlikely to earn enough support at this stage, as committee votes on policy rider amendments typically fall more on party lines than do floor votes.

It may also be the case that she was influenced by the clock. By the time Lee’s amendment was called up, it was after 11:00 PM and members were clearly tired after a day-long markup during which they considered two major bills and dozens of amendments.

The other bill considered during the meeting funds the Justice Department. Advocates will try to attach amendments protecting state cannabis laws to that legislation when it comes to the floor. The financial services legislation also funds the government of the District of Columbia and contains a policy rider that prevents Washington, D.C. officials from spending money to legalize and regulate marijuana sales in the city, another issue that could be debated on the floor.

Separately on Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee amended a bill funding the Department of Veterans Affairs to include a rider allowing military veterans to obtain medical marijuana recommendations through government doctors. The bipartisan vote was 24 to 7.

Lee’s banking amendment was one of three marijuana proposals introduced without votes in the House this week. On Wednesday, two lawmakers tried to amend a synthetic drug scheduling bill by attaching provisions to increase cannabis research and to reschedule marijuana. The first was withdrawn as part of a gentleman’s agreement to work with the House Judiciary Committee chairman on the issue and the second was ruled not germane.

Standalone legislation on the marijuana banking issue has earned substantial bipartisan cosponsorship but hasn’t yet been scheduled for hearings of votes.

Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IN) said during the Appropriations Committee’s brief consideration of Lee’s amendment that allowing licensed state-legal operators to put their money in banks would “make it easier to identify individuals who are operating illegally.”

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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