U.S.: Senate Appropriations Committee Approves Marijuana Banking Measure
Amendment to appropriations bill would prohibit the Treasury Department from using funds to punish banks that provide financial services to state-legal marijuana businesses
By Steve Elliott
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a measure 16-14 that is intended to ensure marijuana businesses have access to banking services.
The amendment, offered by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, would prohibit the Treasury Department and its enforcement arm, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network or FinCEN, from using federal funds to punish banks that provide financial services to marijuana businesses that are operating legally under state laws.
Many banks are currently unwilling to provide depository and other basic banking services to marijuana businesses because the substance is still illegal under federal law. Federal, state, and local law enforcement and other government officials say marijuana businesses need to have access to banking because operating entirely in cash raises significant public safety concerns.
A similar amendment was passed by the full House of Representatives in 2014, but was ultimately stripped out during the final omnibus budget negotiations conducted by the Senate. The House has not yet debated the Financial Services Appropriations bill in 2015, but a repeat of the cannabis banking amendment is anticipated if and when that debate takes place.
“It’s encouraging to see members of the Senate stepping up and joining the House to address the banking crisis facing our industry,” said National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith. “Access to basic banking services is one of the most critical challenges facing legal cannabis businesses and the state agencies tasked with regulating them.”
“Bipartisan coalitions in both chambers are supporting these reforms," Smith said. "It’s time to make them the law of the land.”
The House is unlikely to consider its own Financial Services bill, so it is unclear whether the amendment will be included in any final compromise legislation that is sent to the president.
Earlier this month, Sen. Merkley introduced the Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act, which would amend federal banking laws to prevent banks from being punished for providing services to state-legal marijuana businesses. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Rand Paul (R-KY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Patty Murray (D-WA).
“Marijuana businesses in Colorado alone are on pace for nearly $1 billion dollars in revenue this year," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Forcing these companies to store that much cash anywhere other than inside banks raises significant public safety concerns.
"Current federal laws are putting a bullseye on businesses that are operating legally under state laws, as well as their employees and customers," Riffle said. "It’s almost as if some federal officials want to see marijuana businesses get robbed.
“Forcing these businesses to deal exclusively in cash makes it more challenging for states to collect taxes, monitor transactions, and enforce some regulations," Riffle said. "Allowing these businesses to access basic banking services is a critical step toward letting states regulate marijuana as effectively and responsibly as possible.
"A strong majority of Americans think the federal government should stop interfering in state marijuana laws," Riffle said. "It appears many, if not most, of the top 2016 presidential candidates agree.”