Just four years after Washington and Colorado led in legalizing recreational uses of marijuana, the pot train has left the station.
Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia allow legal marijuana access in some form, with legislatures in Ohio and Pennsylvania approving medical marijuana in 2016. Full legalization measures are polling well in California and Nevada. Nationwide, a majority of Americans now support tossing out the drug-war ban on cannabis.
But Congress hasn’t gotten on board. Despite small tweaks in the law and promising cracks in the prohibition regime, leadership in the Republican-controlled U.S. House have again blocked meaningful changes needed to facilitate the state-level experiment on marijuana.
This time, it’s the issue of cash. Federal banking laws equate licensed, regulated marijuana businesses with cocaine kingpins. The Obama administration somewhat blunted the sharp teeth of law enforcement, however, with “guidance” memos — not a change in the law.
That allowed a small cadre of small banks and credit unions in Washington to more openly serve state-licensed marijuana businesses. Scott Jarvis, head of the state Department of Financial Institutions, estimates there are fewer than a dozen such institutions. His agency has been a model for artful, productive negotiation between federal regulations, state financial institutions and the cannabis industry.
But as long as the threat of federal banking regulators remains, the marijuana industry will remain a cash-rich target for thieves. Last week, U.S. Reps. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, and Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., tried to tack on an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have blocked federal enforcement against financial institutions servicing licensed marijuana businesses. But the House Rules Committee, led by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, blocked a vote on the amendment, effectively killing it.
Nevermind that the U.S. Senate recently approved a similar amendment, thanks to leadership from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and that the House itself approved the amendment two years ago. Those provisions, however, never survived budget reconciliation negotiations and did not become law.
The consequence of non-action was seen two weeks ago, when a 24-year-old former Marine, Travis Mason, was gunned down in an armed robbery at a Colorado marijuana dispensary where he worked as a security guard.
Heck, who has become a leader in pushing Congress toward sensible marijuana reforms, said Congress has a clear public-safety responsibility.
“I get opposition (to marijuana legalization), but that’s not what is in front of us. What’s in front of us is how do we make this a safe and well-regulated market,” Heck said.
Congress should see the shifting will of the voters on marijuana, recognize the revolt among the states and begin an end of the prohibition regime. Easing banking regulations on marijuana is a reasonable place to start.