Colorado AG Urges Congress to Move on Marijuana Banking Legislation

by Jessica Folker

Editor’s Note: This article was corrected on May 20. The article incorrectly identified the $15 billion sales figure — the marijuana industry is estimated to have generated $15 billion in sales globally.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on May 19 led a coalition of 34 state and territorial attorneys general to push Congress to pass legislation giving legal marijuana-related businesses access to the federal banking system. The bipartisan group wants Congress to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (H.R. 1595) or similar measures as part of its next round of COVID-19 relief package.  

Because marijuana remains federally illegal, marijuana businesses do not have access to the federal banking system, even if they operate in states where medical or retail sales of the substance are legal. As a result, state legal marijuana businesses are cash-heavy enterprises, making them targets for violent and white-collar crime — a risk that has intensified during the pandemic.

Large cash transactions also put consumers, patients, law enforcement and others who handle marijuana business money at heightened risk of exposure to the coronavirus, the attorneys general note in their letter to Congress.

“At a time when COVID-19 has exacerbated health and safety concerns related to cash exchanges, now more than ever it is vital Congress act on this point,” Weiser said in a news release. “We in Colorado will continue to be at the forefront of defending our businesses and their employees.”

Access to banking would also make it easier to collect tax revenue from marijuana businesses, providing “critical relief for state and local governments predicting budget shortfalls due to the pandemic,” the letter states. The marijuana industry is estimated to have generated $15 billion in sales globally in 2019.

“The current predicament of a rapidly expanding national marketplace without access to the national banking systems has resulted in an untenable situation. We stress that current legislative models are available to fix this situation,” said the letter to Congress.

The SAFE Banking Act, introduced in March 2019, would allow banks and other financial institutions to do business with legitimate marijuana businesses without fear of federal prosecution. The bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives in September, would give marijuana businesses easier access to checking accounts, loans and other banking services, but it was widely considered dead on arrival in the Senate.

The main provisions of the SAFE Banking Act have been included in the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that passed the House May 15. However, the bill faces fierce opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump has already threatened to veto the HEROES Act if it manages to pass both chambers.

In their letter, the attorneys general say that by passing marijuana banking legislation, “Congress is not necessarily endorsing any state or territory’s legalization of marijuana-related transactions,” nor would the enactment of the SAFE Banking Act be a call for legalization in jurisdictions where retail or medical marijuana sales have not been legalized.

In addition to Colorado, the coalition of states and territories behind the letter includes Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.