WASHINGTON — Advocates for the cannabis industry took to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby for bank protections that would help legitimize the industry and give it access to financial services.
The marijuana industry made significant gains during the November election, with eight states passing measures to legalize pot, including California and Massachusetts. Twenty-nine states now have some form of legalized marijuana, which encompasses more than 60% of the U.S. population, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Yet comments by Attorney General Jeff Sessions have indicated the Trump administration may still launch a crackdown on the industry.
“We have heard a lot of bluster from Attorney General Sessions and [White House spokesman] Sean Spicer, but what is really important is you see that there really isn’t any support for that kind of rhetoric anymore,” Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of the NCIA, said during an interview after press conference the trade group sponsored outside the Capitol on Wednesday. “It seems like he is out there testing the waters. Perhaps he’ll say something negative about marijuana, but there is nobody here in Congress standing up and supporting that. That is really an ideology of the past, and I am hopeful they are starting to see the great economic impact that our industry has.”
A spokesperson for the NCIA said the trade group has arranged visits with more than 300 congressional offices by the end of the week.
The press conference came the same day that Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., held a press call announcing the introduction of a pot-banking bill.
The legislation would prevent regulators from prohibiting or discouraging banks from having marijuana business customers, including limiting a bank's deposit insurance. It would also create a safe harbor from criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture for the banks' officers and employees who provide the financial services to pot businesses.
The bill has seven Democratic co-sponsors in addition to Merkley and one Republican co-sponsor in libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. A similar bill introduced in the House by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., has 32 co-sponsors, including six Republicans.
“Support is certainly growing” for the bill on Capitol Hill, Merkley told reporters. As states are continuing to legalize marijuana “we’re going to break through here and get it done at some point.”
Merkley said it is dangerous to force marijuana businesses to hold large amounts of cash because they can’t get a bank account and recalled escorting a fearful Tyson Haworth, owner of Sofresh Farms in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, who was carrying $75,000 in cash to the state Capitol, in order to pay his taxes.
“It really reinforced how much cash is involved, and how dangerous it is to be operating in a cash economy,” said Merkley.
Haworth, who was on the conference call, said his business continues to struggle to acquire banking services. One institution recently revoked his business’s bank account, he said.
“For us to get a bank account, it costs about $30,000 a year,” Haworth said.
During the NCIA press conference earlier in the day, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said that “We need to validate these businesses” and that Republicans should support protecting state rights from federal law.
“I would encourage all of my conservative colleagues in this House to be consequential with our belief that the federal government should respect states' rights,” Curbelo said.
Haworth said Republican lawmakers have told him they would support the marijuana banking bill, but that statements from Sessions and an April memo calling for a review of marijuana enforcement policies have sent a chill through the industry.
However, Smith from the cannabis trade group said banks are becoming more comfortable with banking the pot industry because of guidance provided by the previous administration, including the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.
“We have certainly seen more banks step forward that our willing to offer more financial services to the industry,” Smith said. “Currently in place, we do have a memorandum from the Department of Justice and Fincen that provided a road map for how financial institutions can bank our industry, and more and more of them are following that road map because they see the opportunity and because local law enforcement, local regulators in the states and state government are calling on local institutions and on Congress to fix this banking crisis, because it does nobody any good to have a cash-only business.”
Kevin Wack contributed to this article.