/Marijuana expected to get traction in Senate — as a banking bill

Marijuana expected to get traction in Senate — as a banking bill

It’s with that dichotomy in mind that advocates are approaching the Senate. Champions of the legislation proved in the House that it was possible to build a broad, bipartisan coalition to retool marijuana laws even as many Republicans resist legalization and the drug remains illegal at the federal level.

The House legislation wouldn’t change the legal status of cannabis but would shield banks and insurers from penalties if they choose to serve the industry where it has become lawful.

“It’s no longer about cannabis,” said Don Murphy of Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s not cannabis advocates calling for this. It’s bankers. And Realtors. And insurance companies. And those are folks that Republicans respond to.”

In the House, Republicans said they found success in selling the bill to others in the party by making clear it was a piece of banking legislation — not marijuana legalization. And marijuana advocates recognize they have less clout with Republicans and say they’ll let banking advocates take center stage in the Senate.

American Bankers Association President and CEO Rob Nichols said the cannabis bill will be a “key priority” when the group’s members visit Washington to meet with lawmakers this fall.

“The politics of marijuana are changing,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), a key player in the effort to whip House Republican votes. “But there are a lot of people who are going to vote ‘yes’ on this who are not for the legalization of marijuana, like me.”

House sponsors took this into account. The final bill they sent across the Capitol had additions designed to make it more palatable to Republican senators.

Protections for hemp were added to cater directly to hemp-industry backers including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pushed hard for its legalization in the 2018 farm bill.

Another provision was added to restrict bank regulators from pressing lenders to cut ties with customers based on reputational risk. It was aimed at winning over Republicans who wanted Congress to prevent the revival of an Obama-era program known as “ Operation Choke Point” that GOP critics said discouraged banks from serving payday lenders and gun retailers.

Crapo, long seen as a potential hurdle to cannabis banking legislation, was among the “Choke Point” initiative’s most vocal critics.

“The hemp language I predict will get Sen. McConnell’s attention,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) said. “The anti-Choke Point language I predict will get Sen. Crapo’s attention.”

Fueling optimism in the Senate is a seeming lack of opposition from President Donald Trump and buy-in from Republicans such as Crapo, whose state has not legalized cannabis but who has been moved by fallout from the federal-state conflict.

And five Republican senators already co-sponsor a companion cannabis banking bill. Its lead GOP sponsor is Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is facing a tough reelection battle in a purple state with a major marijuana industry.

“I see it really as a fairness bill, a fairness banking bill more than a cannabis bill. And that’s okay,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a co-sponsor of the bill.

Ironically, Democrats may present a new hurdle in the Senate.

Pro-marijuana presidential candidates in the Senate such as Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have said they would prefer that comprehensive marijuana reform move before piecemeal legislation that caters solely to the already-existing marijuana industry.

“We can & must do more,” Booker tweeted Wednesday night immediately after the House vote.

Wobbly support from Democrats is not keeping advocates up at night, however, because it falls to Republican leaders like Crapo and McConnell to make the decisions about this bill. Democrats are unlikely to flee en masse from the bill.

“I think that perhaps the most interesting debates going on in Congress on this topic are inside the minds of individuals,” Cramer said. “Democrats have to do something for the banking industry and Republicans have to do something for the cannabis industry. And at the end, you get this kind of policy, maybe.”

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