The SAFE Banking Act passes the House again but is waiting on the Senate.

Republicans in Awkward Spot After House Passes SAFE Banking for Marijuana

WASHINGTON – On Monday evening, the US House of Representatives passed the SAFE Banking Act, again. The marijuana measure sailed through the House, just as it did in 2019. And just like back then, it now awaits Senate action (or inaction). But unlike in 2019, this year the measure isn’t the story. There’s been a mood change at the Capitol when it comes to cannabis. Even opponents are now resigned to the new reality that’s taken root locally, in red and blue states alike: The federal marijuana prohibition will soon be history.

After voting against the banking measure – a bill that garnered 321 votes in a chamber currently comprised of 430 lawmakers (due to five current vacancies)  – Tennessee Republican Chuck Fleischmann conceded he and other anti-marijuana lawmakers are on the losing side of this national debate.

“It’s a battle, candidly, that’s lost. It’s a battle that is lost,” the five-term congressman told The News Station. “I’ll tell you why I think the battle is lost, because you’re seeing more and more states trending towards legalization. And when I speak with younger people about that, it’s something that they are not as fervently against.”  

“It’s a battle that is lost”

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee

He used to drink while younger – “my generation was the generation in the 1980s that was beer kegs and frat parties” – but he gave it up when he “married a good Southern Baptist” 35 years ago.

“I am so concerned, candidly, about the devastating effects of marijuana,” Fleischmann said. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’ve never touched marijuana, and I just am so concerned.”

Other cannabis opponents aren’t as blunt as the southern gentleman. Still, November’s elections were a game changer. After Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi voters – along with those in blue states — bucked their local conservative leaders and overwhelmingly approved recreational or medicinal marijuana ballot measures, there’s been a tangible sense of loss exuding from opponents these days.

“You think you’re gonna be able to keep blocking [marijuana measures]?” The News Station asked as Rep. Andy Harris was running to vote against the banking measure Monday.

As the sun was setting on the east side of the Capitol, the doctor turned congressman who is known as marijuana’s biggest foe in Washington paused and turned around. His expression became one not of defeat – but one of knowing there’s only one chance left in this Congress to block the pro-cannabis policies he despises.

“I wonder what the Senate thinks about it,” Harris finally said after pausing to ponder the question. “Brave new world.”

The banking measure divided the GOP, as it did last time, though the numbers moved away from the GOP establishment’s historic prohibitionist policy position. In 2019, 91 Republicans supported the SAFE Banking Act, while 102 opposed it. On Monday, 106 Republicans voted for the measure, with just 101 opposing it.

“I am absolutely not willing to continue the current regime that is founded on, to me,

reprehensible racism and a lack of science”

Rep. Gerry Connolly

Marijuana policy is no longer viewed as a partisan issue, even if the only votes against the measure were those 101 Republicans. Rather, it’s now dividing Republicans who hail from the same state.

Take Alabama. This year a bipartisan group of state legislators there have been making headway in their effort to legalize medicinal marijuana. But even without a medicinal program in the state at the moment, the federal cannabis banking measure won support from a darling of what used to be the ‘tea party.’

“State’s rights,” Rep. Mo Brooks – a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus – told The News Station was the reason he voted in favor of the SAFE Banking Act. “I believe in state’s rights.”

Across Alabama, there’s only one county where marijuana has essentially been decriminalized: Birmingham. Even though his district borders that urban hub, Rep. Robert Aderholt is fine with big government regulations superseding the will of his neighbors when it comes to cannabis, even as he’s read the 10th Amendment – the one about state’s rights that his colleague Brooks quoted above.

“I think it goes beyond that where no state should legalize marijuana,” Aderholt told The News Station after voting against the SAFE Banking Act. “I’m not for legalization of marijuana, so obviously that was my reasoning for doing it, even though some of my banker friends would have supported the issue, but, you know, overall, the issue I don’t support.”  

The SAFE Banking Act is viewed by this new and burgeoning industry as critical legislation for businesses desperately clamoring for access to the full US banking system, which they’re currently locked out of because of the lingering federal prohibition on cannabis.

That’s why it’s curious GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Lee Zeldin of New York, along with Democrat Cheri Bustos of Illinois – all states with recreationally legal marijuana – didn’t show up for the vote or even bother to tap another lawmaker to cast their vote by proxy.  

For most Democrats, even supportive Republicans are asking the wrong questions. To them, the nation is overdue for a reckoning over how the ‘war on drugs’ was conceived, launched and took root in the American psyche.

“The current system is just punitive and unproductive and un-redemptive,” Rep. Gerry Connolly told The News Station after the vote. “There is no scientific reason for the current classification of marijuana, which has led to terrible results since the Richard Nixon days. And what we know from the White House tapes of Richard Nixon, it was all arbitrary and racist. So I favor absolutely replacing the current classification and the current approach to marijuana.”

“…no state should legalize marijuana”

Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama

Like most federal lawmakers in both parties, the Virginia Democrat still has reservations about cannabis.

“The one caveat I would have is that, just as we lack science upon which to base the current policies, we also lack science to propound new ones. And I simply favor public policy that is based on empirical evidence,” Connolly said. “What I favor also, while we get rid of the onerous laws we have now, we need to have some science that makes us comfortable in new approaches in legalization, in usage and so forth.”

Unlike most Republicans, for Connolly there was no debate over whether to support the SAFE banking Act or not.

“I am absolutely not willing to continue the current regime that is founded on, to me, reprehensible racism and a lack of science,” Connolly said. “This is something that federal government could or should have done a long time ago, so the states have essentially taken that initiative away from us and we’re catching up with them. And I think we have to recognize that reality. It’s too late to just start de novo, tabula rasa and ‘let’s try to figure this out.’ We’re way beyond that point.”   

After passing the SAFE Banking Act for the second session in a row, House lawmakers are now once again waiting to see what – if anything – the Senate does with the measure.

“Does it feel any different now that McConnell isn’t majority leader?” The News Station asked Rep. Josh Gottheimer after he voted for the bill.  

“It still has to pass,” the New Jersey Democrat replied, before asking for intel on whether there are enough votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. “Does it have 60 votes?”

“It’s never come up,” The News Station replied. “No one knows.”

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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