WASHINGTON -- Giving cannabis-related businesses access to banking services would reduce violent crime and help local economies, Colorado U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter said at a congressional hearing Wednesday.
He also accused Congress of resisting public opinion by denying cannabis businesses financial opportunities.
“The American voters have spoken and continue to speak and the truth is you cannot put the genie back in the bottle,” Perlmutter said.
The House Financial Services subcommittee on consumer protection and financial institutions called Wednesday's hearing to consider the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019, also known as the SAFE Banking Act.
Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, was the lead author of the legislation.
The bill would ban federal banking regulators from prohibiting or penalizing financial institutions that deal with legitimate marijuana-related businesses.
Current federal law forbids banking services for marijuana businesses. It also makes marijuana possession or sales a criminal offense, despite the fact that 47 states have legalized varying degrees of its medicinal or recreational use.
Both are legal in Colorado because of voter-approved measures.
Perlmutter said "97.7 percent" of the U.S. population lives in states that have legalized some degree of marijuana use. However, businesses that sell it generally must deal with cash transactions only because they are denied access to banking services, such as credit card payments by customers, he said.
“They are forced to deal with piles of cash while Congress stuck its head in the sand for the past 20 years,” Perlmutter said.
He mentioned the example of Travis Mason, a security guard who was shot and killed during a robbery attempt at a marijuana dispensary in Aurora on June 18, 2016. He was planning to become a police officer when he was killed by the two robbers.
“These stories are why we have drafted the SAFE Banking Act,” Perlmutter said.
The Colorado lawmaker has introduced similar legislation in previous years but believes his chances are better this year as public opinion changes.
He said he has been trying for six years to get Congress to seriously consider changing the banking laws but succeeded for the first time Wednesday with the subcommittee hearing.
Perlmutter plans to re-introduce the SAFE Banking Act later this month.
“Today’s hearing is a big deal,” Perlmutter said.
He said in a press call after the hearing that support for his bill has evolved from a primarily Democratic effort to become more bipartisan.
“I know we’re going to get Republican support,” he said. “There’s a lot of business to be done here.”
The American Bankers Association said in a statement to the congressional subcommittee that federal law is standing in the way of economic development in states that legalized marijuana.
“Simply excluding legal state cannabis activity from the banking sector has not prevented the growth and spread of this industry, but providing access to the banking system could help facilitate public safety, streamline tax payments, and enable effective oversight in the states where voters have chosen to embrace cannabis legalization,” the statement says.
However, Jonathan Talcott, chairman of the anti-marijuana legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said smoking the drug can lead to psychosis, addiction and serious health problems.
“This is a public health issue, not a banking issue,” he said.
Additional words of caution came from Rep. William Luetkemeyer, a Missouri Republican, who warned against legitimizing marijuana businesses while the federal government still outlaws them.
“We must remember we are dealing with an illegal industry at the federal level,” Luetkemeyer said.