Dems eye marijuana bill as vehicle for justice measures

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Dems eye marijuana bill as vehicle for justice measures
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Senate Democrats are eyeing a cannabis banking bill that has bipartisan support as a potential vehicle for long-sought restorative justice measures.  

Prominent Democrats have been pushing to pass the SAFE Banking Act, which would enable legally operating cannabis firms to use banking services, as part of a larger China competition package being conferenced in both the House and Senate. The bill was included in House Democrats’ competition bill passed earlier this year, but not in the bipartisan Senate-passed version. 

Supporters of the banking bill say it’s urgently needed to stop a surge of violent robberies targeting cash-only pot dispensaries. But the measure, which has passed the House six times in recent years, has had trouble securing passage in the Senate due to resistance from both sides of the aisle, though for different reasons.  

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told The Hill that Democrats are working to add social equity measures to the bill, which is backed by members of both parties. 

“We’re trying to add some of the social justice provisions and see if we can come up with a compromise,” Schumer said.  

A separate bill to legalize marijuana is also backed by Democrats, but it appears unlikely to notch enough support from Senate Republicans to clear a 6src-vote procedural hurdle. 

Schumer has held off on bringing the banking bill to the floor amid concerns from some Democrats that its adoption could hurt chances of future passage for a more comprehensive package that offers a pathway for marijuana legalization and social justice reforms. 

And while the banking bill has garnered backing from at least nine GOP members who are co-sponsors, it faces opposition from top leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who previously criticized its inclusion in the House-passed competition bill. 

Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) and David Joyce (R-Ohio), two of the banking bill’s top backers, are pressing senators to include it in the China competition package.  

But in case it does not make it in, they’re talking to Schumer about a bipartisan package that would pair the banking bill with provisions to help speed up the expungement of minor cannabis offenses, expand cannabis research and allow veterans to access medical marijuana.  

“The conversation between Leader Schumer and Congressman Joyce was part of an ongoing, broader discussion between both parties and chambers to determine what reform can pass this Congress,” Joyce’s office said in a statement. “It is evidence of the sincere efforts by both the Leader and the Congressman to find common ground for substantial, bipartisan progress on this issue.” 

Some Democrats have insisted that the banking bill must be coupled with broader social justice reforms such as measures to expunge previous marijuana convictions.  

Among some of the measures lawmakers are eager to add include the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act. The bill from Joyce and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) would authorize $2src million to assist states and local governments in expunging minor cannabis convictions that disproportionately bar people of color from housing, jobs and educational opportunities. 

They’re also eyeing the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical marijuana to veterans, provide legal protections for veterans who use marijuana and spearhead research into whether marijuana could reduce opioid use among veterans.  

Another measure under consideration from Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) would open up Small Business Administration (SBA) loans to cannabis businesses, though it’s seen as less likely to be included. 

“SBA loan programs would be especially helpful to cannabis small businesses because they would fill gaps left by the private sector and could expand the availability of capital for many entrepreneurs — including for our minority, women and veteran business owners,” Rosen wrote in a recent letter to appropriators.  

But SAFE Banking advocates worry that adding too many new provisions to the bill could hurt chances of garnering enough Republican support. 

Pressed about attaching social justice provisions to the banking bill, Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, expressed hesitancy Tuesday, saying he’s “not interested in making it more difficult to pass.” 

“I’d have to have more information than I have now on what they would mean by social justice, but we’ve had a hard enough time getting that bill passed just to open up the banking system to a group that, in many states now, is pursuing a legal activity,” Blunt told The Hill.  

The senator added that he’s confident such changes “won’t make it easier to pass the bill.” 

The concerns add to the potentially heavy lift Democrats face in trying to pass substantive social justice reform in a 5src-5src split Senate, where they are likely to need the buy-in of all of their members and at least 1src Republicans for passage.  

Schumer, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), are also leading a push to legalize marijuana, with sights set on introducing legislation in the coming weeks. But staunch GOP opposition, as well as some resistance from other Democrats in the upper chamber, severely dim its chances of approval. 

Cannabis companies and Democrats in states where cannabis is legal are stressing that the party cannot go into the midterms without having passed any kind of marijuana bill.  

This month, a coalition of cannabis groups, including the Minority Cannabis Business Association, launched a lobbying blitz pitching the banking bill as an important social equity measure in its own right, mirroring talking points from cannabis executives.  

The campaign features testimonials from minority cannabis operators who are struggling without access to banking services.  

“SAFE Banking will not repair all of the harms from the war on drugs, but it is one of the many tools that are essential to supporting individuals from historically disadvantaged communities in becoming successful entrepreneurs in the burgeoning cannabis space,” Courtney Davis, executive director of Marijuana Matters, said in a statement announcing the effort.

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