Four ways cannabis banking could cross the finish line in 2022

WASHINGTON — The legalization of cannabis banking looks as likely as ever, but the road lawmakers will take to get there remains an open question. 

Even in states where the substance has been legalized for recreational or medical use, many law-abiding cannabis companies have struggled for years to access basic financial services from depository institutions (though some have been willing to take the plunge). 

Nearly a decade after Colorado and Washington State first legalized the substance, legal cannabis companies have been plagued with an overabundance of cash. Major payment companies like Visa and Mastercard have explicit policies preventing their electronic systems from being used to purchase or sell cannabis so long as it remains criminalized at the federal level, and as a result those companies have to do business primarily in cash. That reality is a deterrent for many banks, which would prefer not to take on clients who show up in their branches with cash-stuffed duffle bags looking to make a deposit.

Congress has been aware of this problem for some time, and in 2013 U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., introduced a bill that would provide a federal safe harbor for banks to work with cannabis firms. Perlmutter’s bill, the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, passed the House in 2019 with remarkably widespread bipartisan support. 

But since then, the bill has remained on the shelf in the Senate and has not been brought up for a vote. In 2019 and 2020 the Republican-led chamber did not act on the bill out of concern that it might alienate some of the GOP’s core base, while the Senate under Democratic control since January 2021 has stalled the bill in favor of broader decriminalization and restorative justice legislation. 

But after years of stasis, many policy analysts are suddenly bullish on the reform’s odds of passage by the end of the year, and there are four main legislative avenues for the SAFE Act to become law before 2023.  

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