Congress should vote to bank marijuana businesses and use taxes to pay for record expungements

Congress should vote to bank marijuana businesses and use taxes to pay for record expungements
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Majority Leader Hoyer on Friday announced that members of the House are anticipated to hold a floor vote this week on The SAFE Banking Act (HR1595), which explicitly permits banks and other financial institutions to work directly with state-legal marijuana businesses. 

This congressional fix is necessary. Today, almost no state-licensed cannabis businesses can legally obtain a bank account, process credit cards, or take standard business deductions on their federal taxes. This is because federal law continues to inappropriately define all marijuana-related endeavors as criminal enterprises, including those commercial activities that are licensed and legally regulated under state laws. 

In other words, federal lawmakers are mandating that this rapidly growing multi-billion dollar industry operate on a cash-only basis — an environment that makes businesses more susceptible to theft and more difficult to audit. It also places the safety and welfare of these businesses’ customers at risk, as they must carry significant amounts of cash on their persons in order to make legal purchases at retail facilities. Similarly, it needlessly jeopardizes the safety of retail staffers, who are susceptible to robbery

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Passing this act should be a "no brainer" and fortunately, there exists strong bipartisan support for enacting HR 1595. However, the banking bills advance shouldn’t be the only action Congress takes this session to amend federal marijuana policy.

It is the hope of the majority of Americans, 66 percent to be exact, including outright majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, that members of Congress ultimately legalize cannabis for responsible adult use. Therefore, following the passage of HR 1595, members of the House Judiciary Committee should begin debating more comprehensive reform legislation, in particular, HR 3884, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.

Introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Jerry NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerDem committee chairs blast Trump G-7 announcement Top Democrat holds moment of silence for Cummings at hearing Barr to speak at Notre Dame law school on Friday MORE (D-N.Y.), the MORE Act is bipartisan legislation that removes the marijuana plant from the Controlled Substances Act, thereby descheduling the substance at the federal level and enabling states to set their own regulatory policies absent the threat of federal interference. The measure also provides tax relief to licensed cannabis operators, and provides expanded access to medical cannabis to military veterans, among other important changes in the law.

But, perhaps most importantly, the MORE Act would right many of the past wrongs of marijuana criminalization. Specifically, it would appropriate a portion of the federal taxes collected from the legal industry to pay for the expungement of past records and to partially fund reentry services, job training, and community improvements in jurisdictions most that have been most disproportionately impacted by the cannabis prohibition. 

According to the most recent FBI Uniform Crime Report, police made 659,700 arrests for marijuana-related violations in 2017. That total is more than 21 percent higher than the total number of persons arrests for the commission of violent crimes (518,617) in 2017. Of those arrested for marijuana crimes, just under 91 percent (599,000) were arrested for marijuana possession offenses, a slight increase over the previous year’s annual totals.

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Communities of color have disproportionately suffered for decades under the enforcement of marijuana laws, with data from the ACLU showing that the racial disparity in arrests in nearly 4-to-1, despite similar usage rates among racial groups. In total marijuana arrests in 2017 increased for the second straight year, despite having fallen for nearly a decade.

The MORE Act additionally recognizes the importance of small business players in this emerging industry and seeks to facilitate and strengthen their involvement in the cannabis market and bolster the ability for local units of government to promote local and minority ownership and licensure. 

In short, the upcoming banking vote is an important first step by Congress. But much more action will still need to be taken in order to ultimately comport federal law with the new political and cultural realities surrounding marijuana.

Justin Strekal is the political director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, where he serves as an advocate to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and to reform our nation's marijuana laws.