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Marijuana banking bill backed by 18 state attorneys general

A bill introduced by Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter that would allow banks to serve marijuana-related businesses without fear of penalties from the federal government got a boost Tuesday from a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general.

A letter sent to leaders in Congress Tuesday by 19 state attorneys general requests that Congress pass legislation such as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to “provide a safe harbor” for banks that provide financial products or services to state-legal marijuana businesses.

The recent rescission by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session of Obama-era guidance for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) regarding banks doing business with marijuana firms has made the need for Congressional action more urgent, the attorneys general said.

Enacting laws such as the SAFE Banking Act that ensure accountability in the marijuana industry would, “bring billions of dollars into the banking sector, and give law enforcement the ability to monitor these transactions,” the attorneys general said. “Moreover, compliance with tax requirements would be simpler and easier to enforce with a better-defined tracking of funds.”

Democrat Perlmutter introduced the SAFE Banking Act last April with co-sponsors Reps. Denny Heck, D-Washington, and Don Young, R-Alaska. Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner announced their sponsorship of a Senate companion bill last May. The House bill, which currently has 64 co-sponsors, is a reintroduction of the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act, which was first introduced in 2013 — and again in 2015 — but subsequently languished.

“I first introduced this legislation in 2013 to get cash off the streets and reduce the threat of crime, robbery and assault in our communities,” Perlmutter said in an email to The Cannabist. “Voters have spoken on this issue and voted to legalize some form of marijuana in nearly every state in the country. States are taking responsible steps to regulate the industry and we must ensure that includes access to the banking system.”

The attorneys general from seven of the eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana for adults signed the letter.

Cannabis banking is an issue impacting both red and blue states, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement announcing the letter. The nation’s most populous state legalized recreational marijuana on Jan. 1.

“The future of small and local licensed businesses has been clouded by the Trump Administration’s relentless attacks on progress, in conflict with the will of voters,” the California Democrat said. “Congress has the power to protect a growing $6.7 billion industry and the public safety of our communities.”

Related: California’s new attorney general gearing up to defend legal weed

A spokesperson for Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican who also signed the letter, could not immediately be reached for comment. In the aftermath of Sessions’ shift on marijuana policy earlier this month the chief law officer in the state that was the first to legalize recreational marijuana she said she would continue to defend state laws and encouraged Coloradans “not to freak out.”

Notably absent from the letter was the signature of Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican who is also running for governor, and was opposed to the Nevada Marijuana Legalization Initiative before Nevada voters approved it in November 2016.

The SAFE Banking Act would prevent federal banking regulators from:

• Prohibiting, penalizing or discouraging a bank from providing financial services to a legitimate state-sanctioned and regulated cannabis business, or an associated business (such as a lawyer or landlord providing services to a legal cannabis business);
• Terminating or limiting a bank’s federal deposit insurance solely because the bank is providing services to a state-sanctioned cannabis business or associated business;
• Recommending or incentivizing a bank to halt or downgrade providing any kind of banking services to these businesses;
• Taking any action on a loan to an owner or operator of a cannabis-related business.

Perlmutter’s SAFE Banking Act is the latest marijuana-related measure in the U.S. House of Representatives to see increased support since Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo guidance on federal marijuana enforcement.

Nearly 70 congress members signed a letter sent Friday asking House leadership to include Colorado Rep. Jared Polis’ McClintock-Polis Amendment in any forthcoming appropriations legislation. That amendment would ensure Department of Justice funds cannot be used to interfere with states that have authorized some form of marijuana legalization.

This story is developing and will be updated

Read the letter

Marijuana Banking Letter to Congress Jan 16 (PDF)

Marijuana Banking Letter to Congress Jan 16 (Text)

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