When It Comes to Cannabis, Congress Is Thinking About More Than Just Banking or Legalization

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The United State Congress has a wide range of cannabis legislation on its plate as it returns to session this week. There are close to sixty cannabis-related bills, amendments, and resolutions pending consideration, on issues from legalization to banking to research to veterans’ issues and beyond. 

The most popular of these bills—the SAFE Banking Act of 2019, aimed at providing access to banking and financial services to cannabis businesses—has the bipartisan support of more than 230 co-sponsors combined in the House and Senate. The STATES Act, which protects legal state cannabis businesses from federal prosecution, is another widely discussed bill with close to seventy co-sponsors. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of the Acts here and here.)

There is also a significant legislative push to either federally legalize or decriminalize cannabis, with a focus on social and criminal justice. Most notable of these is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act of 2019, which has the support of prominent Democrats in both the House and Senate. (Read Cannabis Wire’s story on the Act here.)

But Congress is thinking beyond just banking and legalization in relation to cannabis. For example, there are nine bills aimed at improving medical cannabis research and access for veterans. Some of these bills were debated at two separate congressional hearings in May and June, where the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to support any of the bills discussed. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of the hearings here and here.) 

There are bills trying to address the challenges faced by small and minority-owned cannabis businesses as well. After a hearing in the House Committee on Small Business, Representative Nydia Velázquez, chair of the committee, introduced a bill to ensure that legal small cannabis businesses have access to certain federal loan programs under the Small Business Administration. (Read Cannabis Wire’s piece on the hearing here.)

Some legislators are also trying to protect immigrants from deportation and denial of entry into the United States due to cannabis convictions. The Removing Marijuana from Deportable Offenses Act, introduced by Booker, seeks to remove cannabis use, possession, and distribution as grounds for inadmissibility into and/or removal from the country.

“Our long overdue efforts to reform our outdated cannabis laws are finally resonating in Congress,” Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer told Cannabis Wire. “Judiciary Committee Chairman [Jerry] Nadler just introduced a landmark comprehensive reform bill, the MORE Act, which I hope the House will consider before the end of the year.”

However, the biggest challenge to legalization efforts is in getting legislation past Senate Republicans, according to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. 

“Cannabis should be legalized, in fact, it never should have been illegal in the first place. The public is ready, and now it’s time for the politicians to catch up,” Wyden told Cannabis Wire. “The only thing standing in the way is [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, and his Republican colleagues who are still stuck in the days of ‘reefer madness.’” 

But as more and more states act, Republicans will be “forced by their constituents to come around” to legalization, Wyden said. 

“It’s obscene that simple reforms like ensuring safe access to banking services and medical research haven’t yet passed,” he said. “I’d like to see movement there. It shouldn’t be as difficult as our Republican colleagues in the Senate are making it.”

Representative James McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee, agrees with Wyden. 

A spokesperson for McGovern told Cannabis Wire that, as chairman, he “continues to make in order and allow debate on germane cannabis-related amendments instead of reflexively blocking them like Republicans did,” adding, “McGovern believes that the biggest challenge right now is getting Senate Republicans to move forward with legalization despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans support it.”

In the first half of this year, Congress held seven cannabis-related hearings on banking, small businesses, veterans issues, racial justice, and hemp regulations. The House Appropriations committee also advanced key protections for cannabis businesses, such as barring the Department of the Treasury from using any part of its budget to penalize financial institutions providing services to legal state cannabis businesses. 

Here are the ten cannabis-related bills with the most sponsors in Congress:

1) The Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act or SAFE Banking Act of 2019

2) VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019

3) Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, or the STATES Act

4) Marijuana Justice Act

5) Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act

6) Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019

7) Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2019

8) Marijuana Data Collection Act

9) Veterans Equal Access Act

10) Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2019

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