The lack of traditional financial services is the biggest problem the cannabis industry faces today. Without the ability to use banks, our annual $12 billion industry relies mostly upon cash transactions, which is a significant safety issue. Without access to institutional capital, the industry relies wholly upon private equity financing which:
- Eliminates many small business opportunities
- Promotes less diversity and
- Prevent the industry to grow to its potential
The only way to fix this problem? Congressional action and reform legislation.
What is the National Cannabis Industry Association?
The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) leads the charge on federal cannabis policy reform, particularly related to banking. They strongly fight for the passage of the SAFE Banking Act, which Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced for the seventh consecutive term on April 8, 2019. The bill holds overwhelming bipartisan support with 191 co-sponsors, 23 of whom identify as Republican (including Rep. Fred Upton [R MI-6]).
The SAFE Banking Act precludes a Federal Banking Regulator (for example: Federal Reserve, FDIC, Department of Treasury) from penalizing or prosecuting banks that service licensed cannabis businesses. The main purpose is to increase public safety by reducing the amount of cash transactions. Therefore, a safe harbor is created for financial institutions in which they’ll no longer fear penalties for providing their cannabis services.
Every year, NCIA holds a three day event in DC called “Lobby Days.” During this, approximately 200 members throughout the U.S. hold meetings or “lobby” congressional members and/or their staffs to discuss cannabis reform. This year, the event took place during the week of May 20, 2019. Of course, the SAFE Banking Act is one of the key pieces of legislation.
The Board of Directors selected me to hold a leadership position on the NCIA’s Policy Council. This special council assists in the development of federal cannabis policy. Due to my previous experience in federal congressional lobbying and my leadership within the NCIA, I was then selected as a group leader. The team I led met with eight different congressional offices over the course of two days. These are my main takeaways from my experience at Lobby Days.
The SAFE Banking Act holds more congressional support than any other pro-cannabis bill in history
Since its introduction, the SAFE Banking Act received 191 co-sponsors. This is only 27 votes short of what is needed to pass in the House. It referred to the House Committee on Financial Services and received a committee “mark-up” session, which is a first for any cannabis reform bill. Subsequently, the committee approved it with a historic vote of 45 to 15 in favor.
The resolution then referred it to the judiciary committee. It’s expected to vote out of that committee and then sent the House for their vote. With only 27 more votes needed, it’s widely believed to easily pass out of the House and then sent to the Senate for approval.
Congress is familiar with main federal cannabis issues (and they take them seriously)
It wasn’t long ago that congressional offices would refuse to take meetings regarding cannabis reform. When they did, it wasn’t taken seriously. I noticed that most congressional offices, if not all, take it seriously now. While it might not top many of their legislative agendas, it’s hard to ignore the rapid growth of the industry and the prevailing liberal attitudes about cannabis legalization.
Additionally, there are currently 47 pieces of legislation about cannabis reform introduced in congress (36 in the house and 11 in the senate) in the past six months. The support is bipartisan, with 8 of those bills introduced by Republicans and 59 other Republicans acting as co-sponsors. Despite the fact that most of these bills are dead ends, it still demonstrates the amount of support for federal cannabis reform from both political parties. The support is only growing from here.
Passing the SAFE Banking Act
When a bill gets introduced, it’s assigned to a committee. The Committee Chair, who is a member of the majority party in their respective chambers, decides whether the bill receives a committee hearing and when. If there is no hearing, the bill typically dies without any action taken. Over the last several years, Republicans controlled both houses of congress. Therefore, the former House and Senate ignored every cannabis reform bill.
However, majority of the House consists of Democrats in 2019. Subsequently, the House Committee on Financial Services, chaired by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), received the SAFE Banking Act. In historic fashion, the act received a hearing conducted on March 28, 2019. After markup, it received a vote to send it to the full House, which passed.
Even though the SAFE Banking Act creates historic strides, there’s still an uphill battle before it becomes law. After it passes the House (expected to happen some time in June), the Senate introduces it. It’s then referred to the Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Currently, there are no state marijuana laws in Iowa and Grassley won’t provide a hearing unless pressed to do so. Therefore, this was one of our objectives: gaining support in this committee.
The importance of congressional committees and their chair/membership
Conducting meetings with congressional members and their staff makes you feel like you’re making a real difference in the federal law making process. They provide great feedback about how their members may take favorable action or what their concerns are. Afterwards, we leave them professional pre-printed materials which they may reference for their own research. They also encourage us to follow up with them with new developments and additional information/data they may ask for.
Meetings and relationships are meaningful, and therefore hold influence on members’ voting or actions. Since Lobby Days, the SAFE Banking Act significantly acquired nine new co-sponsors, including three Republicans. Each of those new co-sponsors met with a NCIA lobbying team during the week of May 20, 2019.
Meetings are also requested. Specifically, House Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) found out I was in D.C. and requested a personal meeting with me to discuss federal cannabis policy reform. We talked for 30 minutes and had a great discussion. Her questions demonstrated her genuine interest for the issues. Furthermore, the congressional staff scheduled to take our meetings are highly influential with their respective members of Congress. Obviously, they held a great influence.
Lobbying in Washington DC is an amazing experience, especially when fighting for such a good cause. Real change in federal cannabis policy is coming in the next few months/years. It’s especially fascinating to take part in it.
Currently, all 7 MI Democrat representatives co-sponsor the SAFE Banking Act (Levin, Kildee, Slotkin, Stevens, Lawrence, Upton, Dingle and Tlaib). 6 Republican representatives do not, including Justin Amash MI-3, Jack Bergman MI-1, Bill Huizenga MI-2, Paul Mitchell MI-10, John Moolenaar MI-4, and Tim Walberg MI-7.