Bipartisan effort for cannabis is growing in Congress as a banking bill is making its way through committees, and it may yet have a hope of passing, but maybe not as much as advocates were hoping.

For the last couple of years, bills have been proposed to open up banking for cannabis but have been subsequently shut down. Just last year, there was a lot of promise behind a bill written by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, that ended up going nowhere, and other bills have come and gone, too. But this year’s Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act had a strong start and keeps moving forward. 

The SAFE Banking Act would protect banks from prosecution for working with cannabis-related businesses, if the bill passes. It started as a bill in the House and is now also being considered by the Senate, and would eliminate the vague guidelines that banks must currently follow if they want to work with a cannabis-related account. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has stated that Congress must make changes to the banking rules, as regulators can only follow the rules as written, and it sounds like Congress heard that call to action. 

Progress on Capitol Hill has been slow, however, and the last hurdle seems only a half-victory. The U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs held a hearing to discuss the SAFE Banking Act, and although this is considered a bipartisan effort in some regards, none of the Republican committee members attended the hearing, except for the chair of the committee Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho. 

Though it is disheartening to see such a lack of attendance, there were still some pleasant surprises for advocates. Crapo’s state may not have decriminalized but he seemed more interested in the cannabis banking act than previously anticipated. Since cannabis is illegal on a federal level still, Crapo suggested just a few months ago that the Justice Department should address the issue before Congress acts. He also opposes recreational use. 

His tune sang a little differently at the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, where he seemed to engage with arguments in favor of the bill. Co-sponsors of the bill outlined how allowing financial institutions to work with cannabis businesses would lower the chances of money laundering and other crimes (not to mention giving the IRS a break from storing the millions in cash from the cannabis industry). 

The SAFE Banking Act has also been supported by many who weren’t at the hearing. Banking associations from the 50 states and Puerto Rico co-signed a letter that urged for action and outlined the need for cannabis banking. U.S. attorneys general have also not been silent on this issue: 38 attorneys general from U.S. states and territories signed a joint statement imploring Congress to remove barriers to banking.

Where does the SAFE Banking Act stand now? It remains unclear if Crapo is willing to move the bill forward, though he agreed at the hearing that something must be done to fix this problem. Industry advocates will be keeping a close watch.

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