US House Appropriations Committee Advances Spending Bill with Key Cannabis Protections

The US House Appropriations Committee advanced a bill that could open a pathway for Washington D.C. to legalize adult-use cannabis sales as well as provide some measure of protection to financial institutions servicing legal cannabis businesses nationwide.

The bill removes language introduced by Maryland Rep. Andy Harris that prevented D.C. from legalizing adult-use cannabis sales. The district’s voters approved legalization of adult-use cannabis possession and home cultivation in 2014.

“What’s not in this bill is also noteworthy, starting with objectionable riders from previous years that threatened home rule for the District of Columbia, such as the ban on D.C. using its own local funds to support abortion services, needle exchanges, and the legalization of marijuana,” said committee chair Rep. Nita Lowey of New York.

The advancement of the bill is a positive sign for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed Safe Cannabis Sales Act (2019). The Act, currently under review by the D.C. Council, would tax adult-use cannabis at 17 percent. It would allow daily purchase of one ounce of cannabis flower, five grams of cannabis concentrate, 16 ounces of cannabis infused edibles, or 72 ounces of cannabinoid products in liquid form.

The bill also prohibits the United States Department of Treasury from spending money to punish financial institutions that provide services to legitimate cannabis business. This provision is a sort of lite version of the Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act— approved by the House Committee on Financial Services and currently awaiting a House floor vote—which provides legal protections to financial institutions serving cannabis businesses.

“[The] cannabis industry is here to stay,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley and Oakland, California. Lee, who is co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, added,  “Instead of trying to limit access to banking and continuing to lock people out, especially communities of color that have already been disproportionately impacted by the failed war on drugs, Congress should be working to advance banking services to all state-sanctioned cannabis businesses.”

Supporters of the banking provision said that it attempts to make the cannabis industry, which largely deals in cash, safer by providing businesses access to financial institutions. However, the opposition argued that the provision increases confusion instead of lessening it, as cannabis is still federally illegal.

“It simply allows for banks to participate in an industry which is illegal. They essentially become money launderers for an illegal product,” said Rep. Chris Stewart from Utah. “If they don’t want to deal in cash, then sell cars or donuts instead of recreational marijuana.”

Stewart introduced, and later withdrew, an amendment that would only protect financial institutions servicing medical cannabis businesses. Here, Harris re-emerged.   

“Is recreational marijuana a thing that the federal government should be promoting?” Harris said. Without Stewart’s amendment, “that’s exactly the message that is sent,” he added.

There is no state where cannabis is legal under federal law, Harris continued. “Now, we could change that. Some people think we should,” said Harris. “Let’s vote on that.”

The bill will now proceed to the House Rules Committee.


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