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May 30, 2024

Republicans soften on federal marijuana reform in a shift that could make it a reality

Republicans soften on federal marijuana reform in a shift that could make it a reality

WASHINGTON — Cannabis reform is moving one step closer to reality at the federal level, with a committee hearing on a bipartisan bill to expand banking services for legal marijuana businesses expected at the end of the month, according to multiple people directly involved in the process.

The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee is expected to hold a markup session for the bill, known as the SAFE Banking Act, the week of Sept. 25, three sources familiar with the talks said. The markup process, which allows senators to debate and consider amendments, is viewed as a key step in advancing the bill to the Senate floor.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee support the bill and expressed confidence that it would have enough support to pass the Senate when it comes up for a full vote, a step Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., vowed to take as soon as this fall.

A person prepares to pluck a cannabis leaf at a farm in Columbia County, N.Y., on Oct. 7, 2022.Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images file

“We’ve got enough votes to get it passed,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said, adding in an interview that he is “cautiously optimistic we may have something before the end of the month.”

The SAFE Banking Act would make it lawful for legal marijuana businesses to use major financial and banking institutions. Under current law, banks and creditors could face federal prosecution if they provide services to legal businesses selling the drug, leaving business owners unable to use banks as the drug remains against federal law. 

“I want to see a strong vote come out” of the committee, the panel’s chair, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told reporters. “It helps us with momentum on the floor and the House.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., one of eight Republicans who have signed on as co-sponsors, said, “I feel pretty good about passing the bill.”

In addition to Daines and Cramer, GOP Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine have signed on to the bill.

The fate of the bill in the House is less certain, despite a strong showing of support from Republicans in leadership roles, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, who voted for the bill in previous years. McCarthy has not said whether he would prioritize the effort this time around given the fragile majority that has complicated his tenure as speaker.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., had been expected to formally endorse the legislation this week, but he ultimately did not take the step after he faced backlash from law enforcement officials and other conservative groups back home, said a source with knowledge of his thinking.

“Coach supports the bill and will support it as it goes through the process, including on the floor,” said Steve Stafford, a spokesperson, alluding to Tuberville’s past as the football coach at Auburn University.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action, a political organization opposed to marijuana legalization, urged Tuberville to oppose the legislation in a recent letter.

“Marijuana is particularly dangerous for young people, a group you have demonstrated great care for in your career as a college coach. Your support for the SAFE Banking Act is equivalent to supporting the federal legalization of marijuana and would send a dangerous message to young people who look up to you as a role model,” the group wrote. 

Support for the measure has grown among congressional Republicans, even as most of them — including Daines — oppose efforts to legalize cannabis recreationally. Senators have pointed to a rise in robberies at cash-heavy dispensaries in recent years as a reason for backing the bill.

“The emphasis needs to be on safety,” Sullivan said. “So what I really worry about is someone’s going to get murdered or robbed and severely beaten, and then we’re going to be spurred to action. And that’s the wrong way to do it, you know?”

Financial institutions, including small and community banks, have also put pressure on lawmakers, including Tuberville, to support the bill.

Tuberville’s endorsement, if not formal co-sponsorship, reflects a shift among lawmakers from red states where recreational cannabis remains illegal. Tuberville holds the seat of former Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican who cracked down on marijuana when he was attorney general in the Trump administration.

Forty states and Washington, D.C., have legalized some form of use of the drug, but because of a disjointed federal approach, legal business owners are left to contend with a patchwork of ever-changing laws around the country.

Gallatin County, Montana, Sheriff Dan Springer, a registered Republican, lauded Daines’ efforts. “If we’re going to have businesses doing this, then let’s treat them as businesses and not as drug dealers,” he said in an interview this spring in Montana.

“If there’s cash being moved around, out at residences on the street, there’s a propensity for criminal activity,” Springer said. “I’ve had those conversations with some of the business owners about that. And it makes them nervous.” 

An updated version of the SAFE Banking Act was introduced by an unlikely duo this year: progressive Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Daines, the chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, both of whom represent states where cannabis is legal medically and recreationally.

The new version excludes some provisions that were backed by Democrats after Republican leadership blocked it in December, in part, for being too broad and not having gone through regular committee order.

Lawmakers involved in crafting the legislation worked through the congressional recess last month to resolve any concerns that could prevent the bill from getting across the finish line. 

“We’ve made great progress,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who pushed to narrow the regulatory scope of the bill. “It’s not over till it’s over.”

Other Democrats, meanwhile, hope to add additional criminal justice components to the bill once it lands on the Senate floor. That effort is likely to be unsuccessful in a closely divided Congress, but it is crucial to cannabis reform advocates.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and other Democrats have stressed the importance of including equity provisions for minority and women-run businesses, as well as criminal justice reform components.

Echoing the position of a majority of the Republican conference, Sullivan countered: “It needs to be clean. There’s been these attempts by the chairman of the Banking Committee to add a bunch of other stuff onto it, and I think that just completely torpedoes the chances.” 

Separately, a bipartisan effort to encourage states to expunge marijuana misdemeanor convictions was reintroduced in April. The bill, from Reps. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., known as the HOPE Act, was first introduced in December 2021. 

Ahead of his re-election campaign, President Joe Biden announced his intention to pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession offenses at the end of last year. 

His administration is also in the process of potentially rescheduling cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act — a move that would pave the way for additional cannabis reform on the federal level.

Julie Tsirkin

Julie Tsirkin is a correspondent covering Capitol Hill.

Liz Brown-Kaiser

Liz Brown-Kaiser covers Capitol Hill for NBC News.

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