WASHINGTON — Banks in states with legal marijuana businesses may warm up to them as customers if an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill becomes law.

The amendment introduced by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., last week would prohibit federal bank regulators from penalizing banks for providing financial services to marijuana businesses that operate in the 25 states that have legalized the plant.

"The federal government should not be forcing Oregon's legal marijuana businesses to carry gym bags full of cash to pay their taxes, employees and bills," Merkley said. "We need to enable our banks to serve these legal businesses without fearing devastating reprisals from the federal government."

Murray added that "this amendment is really about providing clarity, stability and security for our banks, credit unions and small-business owners who want to be able to operate in full daylight."

The amendment to the Financial Services and General Government funding bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee by a 16-14 vote, with Democrats largely supporting the amendment and most Republicans opposing it. Banks and marijuana businesses would likely prefer a more substantial piece of stand-alone legislation, but the amendment is an indication that the industry is gaining more support among lawmakers.

"While an appropriations amendment isn't a permanent fix to the banking problem, it is a significant step to correct a dangerous and unfair burden on responsible small-business owners and regulators," said Aaron Smith, the executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

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