The marijuana banking debut

Dem on Dem Marijuana Banking Battle: Racial Justice vs. Big Banks

On Thursday Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure extending financial protections and access to the nation’s marijuana businesses that are currently largely locked out of the American banking system because cannabis remains federally illegal. The SAFE Banking Act is now on its way to the Senate after Democratic leaders tucked it onto an unrelated “must-pass” defense measure, but the broadly popular, bipartisan measure’s chances of becoming law are endangered by Senate Democrats. 

This go round, it’s not moderates who are imperiling marijuana’s moment to shine in the Senate: Progressive Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—who’s teaming up with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Finance Chair Ron Wyden in crafting what promises to be the first comprehensive, federal cannabis decriminalization bill to ever hit the Senate floor—is signaling he wants this domestic marijuana policy stripped out of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), because it doesn’t include any provisions aimed at healing the racial disparities left in the wake of 50 years of this War on Drugs.  

In their competing NDAA text, senators on the Armed Services Committee decided to leave the marijuana banking debate out completely. It remains unclear which Democratic leader — newfound cannabis cheerleader Schumer, hesitant marijuana tactician Speaker Nancy Pelosi or anti-cannabis commander-in-chief Joe Biden — will flex their now sizable pot power in this latest test of Democratic unity tied to a proposal the party promised voters it would tackle if entrusted with the reins of power. 

“This is not just about the ability to use a drug. It’s about correcting for the pain and carnage that was caused by the War on Drugs.”

Sen. Cory Booker

The Democratic infighting in the Capitol around the NDAA means the two competing measures from the House and Senate will now head to a conference committee where they’ll be debated, hacked, tweaked and potentially overhauled mostly away from the public view by loyal handpicked groups of lawmakers from each party and chamber. But the Armed Services Committees — whose members wield sweeping powers over all weapons, and even toys, of war over which they have jurisdiction — are stocked mostly with defense hawks who couldn’t, by and large, care less about marijuana policy on most days when they remain almost singularly focused on maintaining, enshrining and even expanding the military industrial complex

In recent years, most all legislative efforts to expand protections for the nation’s burgeoning cannabis industry have been killed at the Capitol, even when they enjoyed broad bipartisan support. That’s true for the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act — the measure the House passed for the fifth time on Thursday. 

“I think the fifth time is the charm,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the lead sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment this week. “I mean, obviously, we still have to do some work to make sure that it remains part of the NDAA as the House and the Senate go to conference. So we still have work to do with the Senate to make sure that it remains part of it. But I think that it will.”

The congressman is now polishing up his talking points, and he has a plan for how to convince war hawks to join his cannabis campaign. 

“I mean, the fact that it deals with cartels and national security, on top of the need for the public safety piece of this thing, I think that we’ll be able to convince the conference committee and the conferees generally to keep it in,” Perlmutter continued. “But we still have work to do.”

Get Lit.

In the Senate, Banking Housing and Urban Affairs Chair Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Schumer have insisted justice-focused marijuana legalization is needed before Democrats join Republicans in basically being the lap dogs for the nation’s big banks, many of which are now lobbying lawmakers to normalize weed so they can join this cannabis cash bonanza. 

Outside of the Senate, some advocates are arguing the party should take what it can get when it comes to marijuana, especially because it will take time to build the bipartisan coalition needed to pass a more comprehensive measure whose centerpiece promises to be contentious, progressive programs aimed at unwinding the decades of racial disparities, blight, poverty and imprisonment directly tied to the War on Drugs.

“Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would improve public safety and business efficiency in the 36 states that currently permit some form of retail marijuana sales,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “The Senate should ensure this provision remains in the final version of this funding package and enact it swiftly.”

Even if marijuana banking isn’t the focus of the national defense bill, proponents say it’s a pressing issue. The current system endangers the public, because thousands of booming business owners nationwide are federally mandated to be all cash operations — all because Congress has failed to either enforce or unwind the federal prohibition, even as the majority of states have now moved past marijuana bans and instead set up regulated cannabis market places. 

“The SAFE Banking Act is only the first step toward making sure that state-legal marijuana markets operate safely and efficiently,” Strekal continued. “The sad reality is that those who own or patronize these currently unbanked businesses would still be recognized as criminals in the eyes of the federal government and by federal law. This situation can only be rectified by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.”

Even as Wall Street banks and local mom and pop lenders alike have lined up demanding banking disparity for marijuana operations, Democrats leading the debate in the Senate have held firm in their demand to couple any banking measure — and the prosperity it promises for the majority white industry, even as the nation’s prisons have been literally overflowing with people of color shackled for the same substance — with historic, reparations-like cannabis provisions. The goal isn’t legalization alone anymore; they’re hoping to heal the economic racial disparities woven into entire communities throughout America

Unlike many Democrats, the sentiment seems to go beyond mere rhetoric in the Senate. Just ask Booker. For months the former Newark, New Jersey mayor has demanded marijuana reform include racial components.  

“I would not sign on to a banking bill — that was just changing the banking regulations — because that would be taking the sweetener without having people really confront the racial justice and restorative justice elements,” Booker told The News Station at the start of this Congress.  

As the legislative cauldron has heated up on Capitol Hill this year, Booker hasn’t sweat the ever-present and perpetually growing Wall Street pressure. Decoupling cannabis cash from the morality he longs to — and has vowed to — infuse in this promising new industry would be a betrayal of his principles and people back home. 

“As a leader in the Senate on this since it was not en vogue — I don’t drink alcohol; never, never, never tried marijuana — for me, it’s really about the larger issues of justice,” Booker told TNS in February, something he reiterated to Natalie Fertig at the Capitol this week. 

“I get very frustrated with people who will say, ‘I’m for ending prohibition, but I’m not about expungement or about restorative justice.’ To me this is not just about the ability to use a drug,” Booker told The News Station, “it’s about correcting for the pain and carnage that was caused by the War on Drugs.” 

This piece was originally published by Marijuana Moment and has been modified and edited by The News Station. 

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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