WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced the first Senate bill protecting banks involved with legal marijuana businesses.

The legislation, unveiled Thursday, would permit financial institutions to provide services to cannabis businesses in states where the drug is now permitted, protecting banks from prosecution or the forfeiture of assets. Federal banking regulators would be prohibited from penalizing banks or requiring banks to halt their business with legal marijuana operators.

Critics argue that absent such protections legal marijuana businesses have been forced to use cash rather than access traditional banking services. The drug is still illegal under federal law.

"Forcing businessmen and businesswomen who are operating legally under Oregon state law to shuttle around gym bags full of cash is an invitation to crime and malfeasance. That must end," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., one of the bill's sponsors, in a press release. "It's time to let banks serve these legal businesses without fearing devastating reprisals from the federal government."

The Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act is also sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Oregon and Colorado were two of the first states to legalize personal use and possession of marijuana.

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