‘Banking Rights vs. Human Rights’ Debate Frames Political Infighting Among Cannabis Groups

Nationwide polling in support of federal cannabis legalization continues to rise here in the U.S. and there are now just four states (Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, and Nebraska) where residents do not have some form of medical or recreational cannabis laws. So it stands to reason that most Americans believe that full-scale federal cannabis reform is not only inevitable but likely right around the proverbial corner. While marijuana laws are certainly evolving at an unprecedented pace these days, it is important to remember that no cannabis-specific bill has ever advanced to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for a full vote. When you understand how much bureaucratic red tape any type of legislation must maneuver through to become law, it becomes apparent that for a widely misunderstood topic like cannabis to get to Capitol Hill, it has quite a hike ahead of it.

As state-sanctioned cannabis markets begin to mature in places like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and California, hard-earned revenues are beginning to finally trickle out to non-profit pro-cannabis advocacy groups who now have the funding to take their message straight to Washington D.C. in the form of lobbying.

The amount of influence that lobbyists, and the money backing them, have on our lawmakers and their decision-making process is disgusting and is clear evidence of a broken political system, but that is the system we’re in. Cannabis can finally afford a voice and it has found several sympathetic ears from both sides of the political aisle in recent years.


When Democrats retook control of the Congress in the 2018 midterm elections, pro-cannabis lobbyists ramped up their efforts and as a result, some crucial pieces of cannabis-related legislation are advancing quickly and could soon receive a full floor vote from Congress. Convincing otherwise progressive lawmakers who are still on the fence about cannabis will be vital. Convincing stalwart conservatives to consider supporting cannabis will be difficult. These things we know, but what nobody predicted was that political infighting from the ranks of the pro-cannabis movement might derail years of effort, but that’s what we have seen this week.

Two separate pieces of marijuana legislation have sort of separated themselves from the pack as frontrunners to break the barricade between cannabis and Congress – the SAFE Act and the MORE Act.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act enjoys bipartisan support with 207 co-sponsors including 26 Republicans (it would need 290 to pass). The bill aims to protect federally insured banks who do business with law-abiding cannabis companies and the 200,000+ U.S. citizens who work in those legal cannabis markets.

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives confirmed this week that the SAFE Banking Act would be moved to the floor next week for a full vote, marking a monumental moment in marijuana history. Those in the know considered the likelihood of its passage to be high, as the Dems would only send it to the floor if they knew that they could whip their majority into a successful vote.

Then came the opposition. Not from hardcore evangelical groups, not from the Trump Justice Department, not from some well-funded anti-cannabis lobbyists… no, the opposition arose right from within the ranks of the cannabis reform movement.


Just as it appeared that cannabis would finally have its day on Capitol Hill, we got news that a hodgepodge gaggle of normally progressive advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance were coming out in unison in an attempt to kill the vote on the SAFE Banking Act scheduled for next week. These groups claim that focusing on banking first could “undermine” wider-ranging reform efforts – particularly when it comes to social equity and criminal justice reform. Damn, it’s like watching your parents fight… and they’re both kinda right.

“The banking bill does not address marijuana reform holistically. Instead, it narrowly addresses the issues of banking and improved access to financial services, measures that would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition,” the groups wrote in a joint letter to Democratic House leaders. “Congress has a unique opportunity to address the myriad injustices created by this nation’s marijuana laws. For decades, people of color have suffered under harsh and racially-biased marijuana laws.”

So, they pled, the SAFE Banking Act should be shelved in favor of more comprehensive cannabis reform, namely the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), which is aimed at repairing the harms of the war on drugs through social equity programs that focus on providing opportunity to the minorities and people of color who were most impacted by misguided law enforcement. The MORE Act also contains specific language that would remove the cannabis plant from the Controlled Substances Act completely. Technically, that would solve banking problems and a shitload of other problems surrounding cannabis almost overnight.

These groups argue that the SAFE Banking Act is meant to benefit an industry, while the MORE Act is meant to benefit the people – ‘Banking Rights versus Human Rights’ is how they are framing the debate.

Proponents of the SAFE Banking Act are quick to point out, though, that the passage of this nearly finished accomplishment would be a major benefit to social equity businesses and to disparaged communities in general by allowing minorities and people of color to apply for traditional financing to launch their dreams as opposed to courting slimy investors or outrageously priced private capital as they are often forced to do now.

Besides that, they have the sausage-making of D.C. politics on their side.

Although the MORE Act is riding a wave of bipartisan support, the bill has been referred to eight separate House committees for consideration and markups and none of them have scheduled a vote on it yet. By comparison, the SAFE Banking Act cleared those hurdles back in March and has been waiting for its turn on the House floor ever since.

For that reason, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) who heads up the House Financial Services Committee, announced today that the vote will move ahead as scheduled for the SAFWE Banking Act. She acknowledged the validity of the support for the MORE Act, but she noted that “cash is piling up” in states where millions of dollars of legal weed is being sold and nobody can deposit it anywhere safe.

This divide within the pro-cannabis lobby in D.C. weakens our movement at a time when it was finally gaining a unified strength to push back against prohibition. Both of these issues are essential to the success of legal cannabis but they do not need to be mutually exclusive goals. We need full support from all cannabis advocates anytime one of these sensible bills sees some light at the end of a decades-long tunnel.

Remember: We live in a representative democracy. These fuckers work for us! There will be a vote on the SAFE Banking Act next week. If it passes it will not only make history, but it will make a lot of people’s lives easier and more profitable in the cannabis industry. Make your voice heard by contacting your local Congressperson today and letting them know that you expect their support on this long-overdue legislation.

Use this LEGISLATOR LOOKUP TOOL to find your local lawmaker

Then use THIS GUIDE from the Drug Policy Alliance to craft your request

Or don’t… but then, of course, you can’t say anything when things don’t go the way you’d like them to.

Post by Jack Riordan

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