Last year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrived on Capitol Hill as a head-turning progressive phenom after slaying a Democratic giant in Queens. Her larger-than-life public image has rankled many older Democratic colleagues in her first two years in office (even though she’s actually a friendly, normal, if wonky, 31-year-old puppy momma). They wanted her to wait her turn. But why wait your ‘turn’ if you have 3.9 million more Twitter followers than Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (especially if she’s been in Congress two years longer than you’ve been alive)? Exactly, you don’t.
That’s why last year Ocasio-Cortez created a stir when she started a “fight,” she says, within the Democratic Party over whether to move a bill to allow locally legal marijuana firms to access the US financial system (called the SAFE Banking Act). She advocated putting that on hold until the House first passed legislation to decriminalize cannabis nationally, while also reinvesting tax revenue from it into the Black and Brown communities left blighted in the wake of the war on ‘drugs.’ She says it’s fundamentally unfair and unjust unless Congress also expunges past, non-violent drug offenses first.
“We cannot allow that to happen without expunging people’s records who, you know, were locked up for, frankly, being cannabis entrepreneurs in the nineties. So they know this market, they know this space, and they’re being locked out,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station earlier this month.
AOC was in line with many civil rights-oriented advocacy groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, in calling to delay the banking bill until after the House passed the racial-justice-focused Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. She even swayed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, which turned many heads at the gossip-rich Capitol.
In the end, AOC voted to pass the banking bill, along with 320 of her Democratic (Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, an attorney, was the sole Democratic defector) and 103 of her Republican colleagues. Last September, the New York Congresswoman’s staff told Politico she ended up voting in favor of the banking legislation because Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler guaranteed a vote on her favored progressive decriminalization bill, the MORE Act.
But now – after all but three House Republicans lined up to oppose the MORE Act before Democratic leaders pulled the bill earlier this fall – Ocasio-Cortez seems to be singing a different tune. In fact, it’s actually her old tune: The one she championed before reversing herself and supporting the SAFE Banking Act. She remains dubious of moving it forward without first passing the decriminalization bill aimed at combating racial disparities first. That’s, in part, because the nation’s banks – in red and blue states alike – have been on a lobbying offensive with Republicans. And it’s working. To AOC, this is another instance of big banks being the puppet masters of Washington.
“Earlier this year, I had a fight within the caucus, because my exact issue was that we should not pass the banking bill before we passed the racial justice bill,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Because what’s going to happen is that you’re letting all of these banks, which frankly capitalized and profited – especially the private equity groups – that profited from for-profit prisons, now get to take the first bite at the apple on legal weed.”
Many Republicans in Washington are now supportive, even if still quietly, of marijuana banking, even as most of them still oppose legalization or even decriminalization. That growing support is partially tied to medicinal marijuana now being legal in many red states – from Arkansas to Oklahoma – along with it polling higher than both parties combined. But it goes deeper than that.
“All of my bankers are very enthusiastic about the language.”
– Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) –
It’s all about the Benjamins, according to AOC, who says her GOP counterparts are now merely dancing for dollars when it comes to the SAFE Banking Act. Whatever the motivation, there’s been a sea change of late, and Republicans in both chambers are riding those waves.
“Remember, the banks – every single state Banking Association has weighed in on this, and there’s a lot of conservative support for the right bill,” Senate Banking Chair Mike Crapo of Idaho, which remains one of America’s most anti-cannabis states, told The News Station at the Capitol recently.
Crapo’s not alone. The banks are even lining up in conservative Oklahoma, where medicinal, though not recreational, marijuana is legal.
“All of my bankers are very enthusiastic about the language,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) told The News Station of the SAFE Banking Act.
It’s not just Republicans. Moderate – and even lukewarm or indifferent – Democrats are also all aboard this Wall Street express. While the House Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over some portions of federal marijuana policy, its chair, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and his committee mostly handle the research side of cannabis, while the Judiciary Committee controls scheduling, and the Banking Committee handles…you guessed it: Banking. Guess what Pallone hears most about from his own committee members? You guessed right: It’s all about the banks.
“I hear from a lot of members about it all the time, you know, some of the things I hear about are not necessarily within our jurisdiction. A lot of times members talk about the financing and the banks and credit and that type of thing,” Pallone told The News Station.
This shouldn’t shock anyone, according to AOC.
“The banks want it,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “In fact, the marijuana banking bill – this one that passed the House – it’s not led by some big, raging progressive. This is coming from the (more moderate) New Democratic Caucus…And its leaders are from, you know, not the most progressive end of the caucus, either.”
Ocasio-Cortez says capitalism and power are once again trumping the Black and Brown folks who have borne the brunt of the war on ‘drugs,’ and that’s why banks are successfully exerting pressure on Republicans and moderate Democrats alike.
“This has support from the banks, because the banks are tired of dealing with these, like, rooms full of dirty cash that you have to Febreze,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “They don’t want to be subject to the liability.”
Still, many progressives disagree with AOC, especially those representing states that have already legalized recreational marijuana, like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) who is a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“I think now it is a business, and the banking issues for marijuana businesses are real. And so it’s got a lot of support on both sides of the aisle,” Jayapal told The News Station. “It’s not, like, a Democratic state only thing. It’s really popular even in Trump districts – there are districts in New York that Trump won handily, and the support for marijuana [there] is enormous.”
That’s no longer good enough for Ocasio-Cortez. Her office never responded to numerous requests for a comment over whether she now regrets supporting the SAFE Banking Act without any criminal justice provisions included in it, but on the Capitol steps earlier this month she sounded like she’d cast a different vote if given a do-over.
“The timing and the order are just as important as the action itself. So if we allow all these big banking bills to be the only marijuana bills that get passed, then what we’re essentially allowing people to do is take the folks who made billions of dollars on for-profit prisons, take that and use it as essentially seed funds, like, nice equity to just put into marijuana stocks. And then they get to profit off of that while blocking people out from the system,” Ocasio-Cortez says.
That’s why AOC says the GOP troops have been told to stand down on allowing banking access to cannabis companies.
“With Republicans, you know, a lot of their fat cat, big bank donors are not going to want them to go Bulldog against this particular bill, because banks need it and banks want it,” Ocasio-Cortez says of the SAFE Banking Act. “I think that the MORE Act should have been passed first, and it should be passed first, if – knock on wood – we’re able to get to a Biden administration.”