Despite repeatedly voicing support to end federal prohibition, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer does not quite have enough votes for a sweeping decriminalization bill. Recognition of this fact is prompting Democrats within the Senate to consider a compromise, one that might yet put a cannabis dispensary wherever needed, nationwide.
Over recent weeks, Capitol Hill has been changing its tone. Dozens of interviews with staffers, lobbyists, lawmakers, and advocates make this increasingly clear. Senators opposed in the past to anything other than major cannabis reform are becoming amenable now to another choice. Some are willing now to revise the SAFE Banking Act, a popular bill that would allow the cannabis industry banking services.
Democratic control of Congress is waning. Experts predict a flip of the House in November. Some say the Senate will join it. Such a ticking clock is driving this change in approach. Even with the oft-bipartisan nature of marijuana reform, it lacks solid support in either chamber from GOP leadership. As such, lawmakers are contemplating what they can still achieve with weed in the last months of this Congress.
The federal government is under pressure to decriminalize cannabis. States want federal reform. Consumers want it. Doctors rely on it. Researchers need it. Everybody has a personal stake in it. “There is a greater sense of urgency,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) says of current times, he being a decades long advocate for federal legalization. “I think there is a broader base of support.”
Conversations are happening in influential places. Although no tangible plan exists yet for legislative action, these talks hint at what year’s end might still bring. Schumer is chatting with notable Republicans, the weed-friendly Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) among them. Now, it is mostly Democrats talking. They want agreement for a proposal to sway Republicans.
Many anticipate that a cannabis deal, an issue with widespread support on all sides, could survive this latest bipartisan wave in the Senate. Already, thorny issues are finding agreement. Upper chamber Democrats and Republicans agreed recently on controversial subjects, such as insulin pricing and gun control. Some hope this good favor might extend to cannabis reform.
“The discussion is about using SAFE as the nucleus of the thing,” explained Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), the bill’s co-sponsor in the House, “and to add some provisions that will be acceptable to Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. It is at its very early stages.” Coined by the Democratic co-lead sponsor of the cannabis-banking bill, Sen Jeff Merkley of Oregon, they are calling the revised bill “SAFE Plus.”
Compromises for the SAFE Banking Act
The biggest question now is how to bring together Republicans in favor of passing the banking bill as it is and Democrats who insist on adding provisions for social equity and criminal justice. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, the Republican co-lead sponsor of legislation for cannabis banking, has been consistent in his opposition to revising the bill in any way.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), on the other hand, a notable player in the cannabis conversation, will not support a bill that only serves the industry. As it is, it does little meaningful, if anything at all, for those most harmed by cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs. This friction births ideas, however. Several are up for serious discussion, like the inclusion of provisions for many an online weed store.
Joyce, with the support of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), has a bill that would assist states financially in expunging criminal records for nonviolent cannabis convictions. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) wants to give cannabusinesses full access to Small Business Administration, or SBA, programs. Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) want to provide for a VA medical research bill.
It is unclear just what is up for serious discussion. Sullivan wants gun rights for cannabis users. Ideas are plentiful. “I am hoping that we can put a package together that can receive wide bipartisan support,” explained Rosen. “I know that SAFE banking has wide support,” along with her efforts to increase access for businesses to SBA programs.
Under Democrat control, Schumer collaborated with Booker and Ron Wyden of Oregon in the Senate to draft legislation that would decriminalize cannabis, tax and regulate its industry, fund programs, expunge records, and assist financially those harmed by past prohibitive laws. That bill needs introduction still. Currently, it does not have the votes needed to pass anyway.
Pressure from other Democrats meanwhile grows. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) both cosponsor SAFE, two prominent caucus leaders. After three people died in Washington earlier this year during dispensary break-ins, Murray made it priority. Many issues need addressing in order to please all sides in the legalization debate.
“Schumer has changed from a more defensive posture against something smaller that would take away from comprehensive reform, and is now interested in what could get done by the end of the year,” remarked an anonymous Democratic staffer in the Senate with insider knowledge of ongoing talks. Even so, in a GOP-led Congress, the prognosis for SAFE is dire.
Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee and likely committee chair in a Republican House, vetoed the bill twice, both times it passed in the House. Under Republican lead, SAFE may not even get a hearing in either chamber, let alone a vote on the floor. This might prove motivation enough for both sides to reach legislative agreement.
Plan for Lame Duck
Democrats are currently pinning hope on a Schumer-Booker-Wyden cannabis bill. It is unlikely that any talk of a SAFE Plus deal would come before that. Negotiators included the SAFE Banking Act in the House version of a China competition bill, but dropped it from the package for final consideration. Compromise continues for the near future.
However, if current support and momentum keeps pace, Democrats intend drafting a bill that they could support themselves and offer to Republicans. If amicable, everyone can work together from there. Timelines for this are elusive, but lame duck seems possible, if not by the bill’s main sponsor. There will be 1,000 things to do in lame duck,” said Merkley. The aim is for agreement that finally moves forward.