.Puff Puff Pass: Democrats eye the SAFE Banking Act to motivate a move on full, national legalization

After one gets over the weirdness of Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, appearing on a cannabis-focused podcast called Psychoactive, hosted by the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, it’s worth considering the deft political maneuvering behind what he said in the interview last week: Despite the fact that everybody thinks Congress and President Biden should pass and sign legislation to shield banks from liability for working with cannabis clients, Schumer has made a pact with his allies to block legislation that would do just that.

In so doing, Schumer explained to host Ethan Nadelmann, the New York Democrat and his Congressional allies, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon, hope to spur the banking industry and more moderate lawmakers to support full legalization. If something like the SAFE Banking Act were to pass now, he said, “it’ll make it much harder and take longer to pass comprehensive reform.”

That is, the bank lobby and lawmakers who don’t particularly care about cannabis itself—or who might even outright oppose its legalization at the federal level—might be satisfied with enabling the financial industry to profit off weed in legal states, but without having to take a stand on cannabis itself as legalization continues to grow in popularity.

“All the pain that’s been suffered by so many people for so long will not be alleviated because banks can now do some funding of the growing and processing of marijuana,” Schumer added. “If you let just the banking provisions pass, it’ll make it much harder to get more Republicans and more conservatives on the bill.”

Schumer has said as much before, but this marks the first time we’ve heard that there is a concerted effort among him and his allies to block banking legislation from consideration.

The day after the interview, the House Judiciary Committee approved a legalization bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—in a 26–15 vote, with two Republicans, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Tom McClintock of California, joining the Democrats in the majority. Other Republicans, as is their wont, turned the hearing into something of a circus. As the D.C. publication Roll Call drily put it, the debate “devolved into a series of fights over the border, law enforcement, abortion and COVID-19 vaccines.”

Jim Jordan, an outspoken Trumpian Congress-creature from Ohio and the committee’s ranking Republican member, said he worried that by legalizing weed, the federal government would be providing a “stimulus” to the cannabis industry. He didn’t explain how imposing tight regulations and levying heavy taxes on an already operating industry—both legally and illegally—would amount to a “stimulus.” He also declared that decriminalizing weed was a “radical, out-of-touch Democrat priority.” Americans overwhelmingly favor legalization, with more than 90% favoring legal weed for at least medical and therapeutic uses, and about two-thirds believing pot should be legal for all adults, according to a Pew Research Poll released in April.

Other Republicans tried to drag hot-button Fox News issues into the debate. The legislation would create grants to help communities harmed by the war on drugs, and would enable people to expunge most cannabis convictions from their criminal records. Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin said he wanted a provision to exclude people convicted of rioting or looting from eligibility.

Dan Bishop, Republican of North Carolina, wanted to ensure that the awarding of grants would not “discriminate” against anyone “on the basis of the Covid-19 vaccination status of an individual.”

The men were essentially laughed down by the majority.

Assuming it passes the House, as a similar bill did last year, the MORE Act is unlikely to make it through the Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden this year. Because of the Democrats’ narrow majority in the upper chamber, the votes just aren’t there, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to approve of anything that might appear to hand the Democrats a win.

And even if it were to somehow pass, we still don’t know what Biden might do. Schumer told Nadelmann that if and when it comes time, he will “heavily” lobby Biden to sign a legalization measure.

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