Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and two top colleagues said on Thursday that they will be working to add marijuana expungements legislation to a cannabis banking bill that had just been discussed in a committee hearing.
Schumer, along with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), released a joint statement following the panel’s meeting, applauding “key improvements” that were made to the latest version of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, while emphasizing the need to incorporate additional equity provisions as it advances.
There was some conversation about the need for more holistic reform during Thursday’s Senate Banking Committee hearing on the marijuana industry unique financial issues under prohibition.
The three senators, who filed a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill last session that Schumer also recently said he’d be reintroducing, made clear that they “look forward to watching this legislation progress through the Banking Committee and working with bipartisan partners to include additional improvements.”
Specifically, they said that they wanted to incorporate provisions of the Harnessing by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, “which would support states that want to expunge cannabis records with grants.”
That standalone bill was reintroduced by Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) last month.
As Schumer has previously described, the plan is to move the clean SAFE Banking Act through committee and then amend it with equity provisions when it reaches the floor. It was generally expected that the HOPE Act language would be a top priority to that end, but now the senators have explicitly confirmed their intent to incorporate it by name.
The expungements legislation, which would create a grant program through the Justice Department to support state and local cannabis clemency, was also being considered as part of a package of modest reforms known as SAFE Plus that Schumer worked to put together last session. To advocates’ disappointment, that package didn’t materialize.
Now, with a divided Congress that has Republicans in control of the House, the dynamics have shifted. But Democratic leadership is signaling an unwillingness to enact the banking bill without provisions that address the harm of the war on drugs.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said recently that senators planned to “move quickly” on the SAFE Banking Act, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT). Thursday’s hearing was scheduled just one week after the bill’s reintroduction. It’s unclear when the committee will schedule a markup to advance the legislation to the floor.
Senators on both sides of the aisle have been pushing for urgent action on the standalone legislation, which would protect banks that work with state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
A former top aide to Schumer recently wrote an op-ed for Marijuana Moment explaining why the new makeup of the 118th Congress actually improves the prospects of passage for the SAFE Banking Act.
Schumer has emphasized his commitment to advancing the marijuana banking legislation with criminal justice provisions included, calling the broader effort to repair the harms of the drug war a “moral responsibility” for Congress.
A vote in the Senate last month on separate marijuana legislation, however, has raised some questions about whether any modest cannabis reform is achievable under the current congressional makeup. Senate Republicans blocked a procedural motion to advance a bipartisan bill to simply require studies into the medical potential of cannabis for military veterans with chronic pain and PTSD.
The standalone SAFE Banking Act has been approved along largely bipartisan lines in the House in some form several times in recent years. But it’s consistently stalled out in the Senate under both Democratic and Republican leadership.
Last month, Schumer said that he was “disappointed” that the so-called SAFE Plus package didn’t advance last year, saying “we came close,” but “we ran into opposition in the last minute.” He said lawmakers will continue to “work in a bipartisan way” to get the job done.
The majority leader has been holding meetings with Democratic and Republican members in the early months of the new Congress to discuss cannabis reform proposals that might have bipartisan buy-in this year.
Booker said recently that lawmakers are working to “resurrect” the cannabis reform package, acknowledging that failure to advance a banking fix for the industry “literally means that hundreds of businesses go out of business.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who is sponsoring the House version of the SAFE Banking Act, said at a recent press briefing that thinks it’s important that advocates and lawmakers align on any incremental proposals to end the drug war, warning against an “all-or-nothing” mentality.
The American Bankers Association (ABA) also recently renewed its call for the passage of the legislation.
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Numerous other cannabis bills have been filed in Congress in recent weeks beside the banking legislation.
For example, bipartisan congressional lawmakers recently filed a bill to mandate the automatic sealing of criminal records for certain non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
House and Senate lawmakers also reintroduced legislation last month to provide a safe harbor to insurance companies that work with licensed marijuana businesses.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) introduced legislation last month to protect the Second Amendment rights of people who use marijuana in legal states, allowing them to purchase and possess firearms that they’re currently prohibited from having under federal law.
Also last month, Joyce and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed a measure designed to prepare the federal government for marijuana legalization, directing the attorney general to form a commission to study and make recommendations about regulating cannabis in a way similar to alcohol.
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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
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