Cannabis Reform Dead In Congress After Objections From Republicans

Lawmakers couldn’t even agree to approve a modest bill allowing cannabis businesses access to banking.

Congress won’t include any cannabis provisions in its year-end spending package, dooming the chances of an overhaul of marijuana laws for the foreseeable future.

Not only will Congress fail to legalize marijuana this year, lawmakers couldn’t even agree to include a modest anti-crime cannabis reform as part of a $1.7 trillion government funding bill set to pass this week.

Reformers had hoped lawmakers would include a bipartisan measure allowing cannabis companies to open bank accounts. Currently, even if a business operates in a state with legal weed, most banks won’t take the firm’s deposits because marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

As a result, most cannabis firms are forced to operate on a cash-only basis, making them easy targets for criminals.

Several top Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), opposed the banking provision.

“It is irresponsible to do this without a federal regulatory framework to address public health and law enforcement issues. Senators take an oath to uphold the law, not ignore it,” Cornyn tweeted last week, referring to the banking bill.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the lead Republican cosponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act on cannabis company banking, lamented its exclusion from the funding bill in a statement on Monday, saying “communities in Montana and across our country will remain vulnerable to crime where legal businesses are forced to operate in all-cash.”

The American Bankers Association endorsed the bill, stating in a letter last year that banks don’t like being caught in the conflict between state and federal law, “with local communities encouraging them to bank cannabis businesses and federal law prohibiting it.”

The prospect of cannabis reform looked brighter at the start of this Democratic-controlled Congress. The House passed a sweeping bill legalizing marijuana nationwide earlier this year, but it stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Republicans and a handful of Democrats. The focus on reform then shifted to passing more incremental changes, like the banking bill.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) oppose the cannabis banking provision.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) oppose the cannabis banking provision.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Though it had nine Republican cosponsors, the cannabis banking bill lacked the kind of broader bipartisan support it needed to catch a ride on a government funding bill. It’s possible that it could have passed with a stand-alone vote, but Democrats had failed to schedule one.

“They’re dead set on anything in marijuana,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a proponent of marijuana legalization, told of GOP leadership. “That to me is the obstacle.”’

With Republicans set to take control of the House next month, the chances of any significant legislation, including marijuana reform, becoming law are likely slim to none. Republican House members are readying scores of investigations into the Biden administration, and they’re planning for a big confrontation with Democrats over spending and deficits.

The failure of Congress to pass cannabis reforms stands in stark contrast to overwhelming public support in favor of marijuana legalization. Polls have repeatedly shown that a supermajority of Americans believe marijuana should be legal for adults. Most states have already legalized the drug for medicinal use, and 18 states have greenlit cannabis for recreational use.

Given the opposition in the Senate to full legalization and even small-bore changes to federal marijuana policy, it’s not clear how Congress could ever come around to enacting a law that matched public opinion on cannabis.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden — who pushed the war on drugs during his long career as a senator — announced in an October surprise that he would pardon thousands of people who had federal charges of simple possession of marijuana.

Biden also ordered federal agencies to reconsider whether marijuana really belongs on the list of the most dangerous illegal drugs, although cannabis reform advocates don’t have much confidence the review will result in legalization.

Cannabis legislation is just one priority being left out of this year’s spending bill. Democrats had hoped to include an expanded tax benefit for parents. Evacuees from Afghanistan sought a legal pathway to remain in the United States. And anti-monopoly advocates demanded the inclusion of landmark antitrust legislation.

The only major policy change to make it into the bill is a reform to the presidential election procedure designed to prevent another attack like the one that happened on Jan. 6, 2021. The Electoral Count Act has widespread bipartisan support in the Senate and, other than added defense spending, is the only unrelated policy rider lawmakers agreed to include in the must-pass government funding bill.

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