With a new Democratic majority in the U.S. House, the movement of cannabis bills in committee is expected to be smoother. The first sign of a more receptive Congress in 2019 will come when the House Financial Services Committee takes up a draft of the SAFE Banking Act, expected Feb. 13. The news was first reported by Politco reporter Zachary Warmbrodt.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Denny Heck (D-WA), would allow banks and credit unions to work freely with state-legal cannabis businesses (even as the plant remains illegal on the federal level). On the surface, the goal is twofold: Facilitate business development in the industry and allow regulators to clear a significant hurdle en route to broader cannabis reform legislation.
Brady Cobb, CEO of SOL Global, spoke with Cannabis Business Times on his way to Washington, D.C., where he said he was going to continue talking with congressional representatives on the importance of legislation like the SAFE Banking Act. After a tremendous year that ended with a power shift in the U.S. House, Cobb says the country is poised to see more action on cannabis issues in the Capitol.
“What’s really been amazing in the last year and change—even in the last nine to 10 months—is we’ve gone from a ‘tier-three,’ ‘tier-four’ issue to a ‘tier-one’ issue from a political standpoint,” Cobb says. “And especially from a reelection and election standpoint. That has elevated both the profile of the industry within Congress and also elevated the necessity to support it.”
For years, U.S Rep. Pete Sessions presided as chairman of the House Rules Committee and routinely blocked hearings on cannabis legislation. Things are different this year.
“Now, with him gone and the House with a different composition, this is its first day in the sunshine,” Cobb says.
The cannabis lobby is more vocal than ever, and even financial institutions are buoying efforts to persuade lawmakers to take on cannabis reform. That process, though, involves a steep learning curve.
The question that Cobb has continually heard in Washington has been some variant of, “What’s the issue with banking?” The simplest version of an answer is to imagine the payroll of a company with 300 employees and no formal banking relationship. Right now, the law is standing in the way of more formal financial arrangements that other consumer goods companies enjoy.
“We are employing people. We are allowing people the means to live their lives and to be employed gainfully in highly skilled positions in a lot of cases, and we’re having to do business in shell games and not have the ability to access traditional banking,” he says, rhetorically. “That’s a story that has really resonated. For those that are the more conservative [politicians] who are looking at it from a law enforcement perspective, the easiest way to protect against a black market or diversion or bad actors in the space is to have full transparency and regulation of transactions. You can’t have that unless the whole system is banked.”
The byproducts of legitimate banking options in the cannabis sector include far-reaching benefits for other areas of the U.S. economy that have been eyeing the early growth of cannabis businesses. A fully banked marketplace would allow regulators to determine the actual size of the market. Now, organizations across the cannabis space have gathered their best estimates, based on prior and projected sales, of what sort of market growth is to be expected from this new industry. Legislation like the SAFE Banking Act would also provide a palette to financial regulators, upon which further oversight may be levied.
“It’ll ultimately be a springboard for the Treasury Department to issue updated guidance over and above the FinCEN guidance that is out there now, which is very draconian,” Cobb says, referencing a set of due-diligence perspectives on how banks and credit unions may assess the risks of working with a cannabis industry client—but providing no real protections. (“In general, the decision to open, close, or refuse any particular account or relationship should be made by each financial institution based on a number of factors specific to that institution,” the document states, for instance.)
In the absence of legislation like the SAFE Banking Act, Cobb says, financial institutions are mostly left to their own devices. Few have entered the space.
“It’s a massively expensive process. It’s an incredibly onerous process right now,” he says.
That process may be the first beneficiary of a new power structure in the U.S. House. The industry will be watching the House Financial Services Committee hearing closely.
“After November 2018 and the election, we’re in a very pro-industry [political environment] and we are primed to have a very big 2019 with the changeover in the House,” Cobb says.
And if a banking fix is a prerequisite to broader reform, Cobb says he’s anticipating legislation like the STATES Act to really gain some traction in Washington later this year. “This is an incremental long game,” he says. “We’re looking at moving and weaving legislation through a massive government and undoing 60 years, 70 years of oppressive cannabis policy as law. That’s not going to happen overnight. We got SAFE Banking and the STATES Act in 2019, [and] you’re going to see the shackles come off this marketplace.”