• November 28, 2020

Democrats Pass Marijuana Banking, Leave DC with No Deal

 Democrats Pass Marijuana Banking, Leave DC with No Deal

The United States Capitol the night the SAFE Banking Act passed the House for the 3rd time this session. Photo by Matt Laslo

House Democrats did it again: For the third time this session of Congress they passed the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow the nation’s financial institutions to finally service the locally legal marijuana companies operating in 33 states and the nation’s capital. That doesn’t mean it’s expected to become law anytime soon, and even some pro-cannabis Democrats aren’t cheering.

The measure easily passed the Democratic-led House of Representatives, because it was tucked inside of The Heroes Act. But that $2.2 trillion bill is Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new coronavirus relief package. And the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell haven’t signed off on it.

When talks broke up between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday, the administration drew a line at $1.6 trillion, yet Pelosi still moved forward with a vote on her $2.2 trillion package. That bill is now headed to the Senate where it’s unlikely to even get a vote under McConnell. And House members aren’t expected back in Washington until after the election.

Even some Democrats were upset with that decision to gavel out without a bipartisan agreement to provide relief from the pandemic. Last week, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) called on Pelosi to keep the House in session until the president signs a relief bill. Unlike the many lawmakers who ship out press releases calling to cancel their recesses during election years, Rice told Pelosi herself.

“I said directly to the speaker: “We should not go home. We should not go home. That’s it,” Rice told The News Station while smacking her hands together for emphasis as her voice rose. “Stay here until we make a deal. Even if it’s just [Pelosi] and Mnuchin sitting in a room. We should be sitting here.”

In New York – a state expected to legalize recreational marijuana next year – Rice represents already legal medical cannabis companies, She supports decriminalization, but she says that’s secondary to her people hurting from coronavirus and the economic downturn.

“The only thing that my constituents care about is: how are they going to put food on the table. I [represent] more food insecure families than ever before,” Rice said. “Small businesses in my district are just closing up shop – they’re never going to come back. This is going to be a colossal, epic economic catastrophe if we don’t do something.”

Rice supported the COVID-19 measure that includes the SAFE Banking Act, but she says Thursday evening’s vote was hard because she knows there’s no final deal in place guaranteeing assistance to her constituents.

“That vote was a little unnerving,” Rice said. “I just think that we shouldn’t have voted on [our bill]. If you’re having good faith negotiations, continue them. And then as a last-ditch effort, you know, show that we’re at least trying to do something.”

But Rice blames Democratic leaders for gaveling the chamber out of session without first securing a deal to provide even a modicum of relief for average Americans.

Still, there was a curious thing about the negotiations between the White House and Pelosi this time around: President Trump’s top economic and political teams didn’t reject the SAFE Banking Act out of hand, as they have in the past.

“I think that this is enormous progress,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told The News Station outside the Capitol. “I think that there are some areas, like even some pieces of criminal justice reform and cannabis legislation, that have a lot of bipartisan support. That’s very different from 10 years ago. And so I do see it as progress.”

Even more moderate Democrats are also sensing a change in the air in prohibitionist Washington.

“No doubt about it,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) told The News Station. “The marijuana thing is really interesting, how it cuts across party lines: Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, farmers, rural, urban. So I think that’s why, you’re seeing some interest on trying to figure out how to thread the needle on the Republican side.”  

It’s unclear whether the change in direction was because of the president’s dismal and petty debate performance, which is also when the White House finally agreed to drastically hike the price tag of a potential coronavirus relief package. Ryan says that’s a part of it, but not the only reason.

“I think it’s a lot of things. The culture is changing. Farmers need some kind of alternative to what’s going on now. The libertarian streak in the Republican Party of like, ‘why is the government doing this?’ The criminal justice piece,” Ryan said. “So it’s got a lot of different elements.”

Still, most rank and file Republicans followed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s lead and kept ripping on cannabis throughout the week.

It’s an election year, so heated rhetoric is flying. That’s why many Democrats don’t think this week’s partisanship around the SAFE Banking Act means its chances of passage are diminished. Like pollsters from both parties, most Democrats recognize this isn’t a partisan issue.

“No, I don’t think it is,” Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.) told The News Station, before predicting it will become law sooner than later. “I’m optimistic that it will.”

Evans is still on just his first term though. And that optimism isn’t shared by some of the more hardened veterans of Washington. 

“Nothing’s going to change til next year,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who is on his 6th term in the House, told The News Station. “Most policy solutions are political ones. We’ll see what happens in November.”

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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