House Voted (Twice) to Allow Marijuana Banking Services

Democrats were joined by a growing faction of Republicans.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / Boyan Dimitrov

In a stunning change of tone on marijuana policy on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives voted on a pair of measures affecting the legal marijuana businesses in Washington and Colorado and medical marijuana businesses in 23 states and Washington DC. Almost all Democrats were joined by a growing faction of Republicans in approving the access to legitimate banking services. The House also quashed an attempt to stop the Department of Treasury from allowing banks to do business with legal marijuana firms.

“Though this isn’t as flashy a win as some other drug policy reforms of recent years, banking regulations have been one of the most significant obstacles to creating a well-run, safe legal marketplace,” said Law Enforcement Against Prohibition’s executive director Major Neill Franklin (Ret.). “This is a huge victory for those who care about the smart regulation and control of marijuana.”

The so-called “Heck Amendment” was sponsored by Representatives Denny Heck (D-WA), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). The bill would prevent the Treasury Department from using federal funds to penalize banks and other financial institutions that provide services to state-legal marijuana businesses. The bill passed 231-192, with 45 Republicans joining all but 12 Democrats* in support. Four of those Democrats represent states that have legalized medical marijuana dispensaries, not including Rep. Linda T. Sánchez of California, where dispensaries exist in a quasi-legal status in some localities.

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The other vote earlier in the day was on an attempt by Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana to block the Treasury Department from spending funds to implement its new guidance allowing banks to do business with legal marijuana businesses. So, where the Heck Amendment says the Treasury can’t spend money to punish marijuana banking, the Fleming Amendment said Treasury can’t spend money to allow marijuana banking. The House rejected that amendment by a greater vote margin of 236-186, with just seven Democrats* breaking ranks to block marijuana banking.

Banking has been a major sticking point for marijuana businesses trying to operate legally. The Treasury Department issued guidelines to banks on how to properly report transactions with marijuana businesses in February. However, many financial institutions feared they might be charged with money laundering if they worked with businesses dealing with a substance still illegal under federal law. As a result, many marijuana businesses were forced to conduct transactions in cash, creating huge accounting and public safety issues.   

“They are operating just in cash, which creates its own potential for crime, robbery, assault and battery,” said Rep. Perlmutter, whose state has legalized recreational pot use. “You cannot track the money. There is skimming and tax evasion. So the guidance by the Justice Department and the guidance by the Treasury Department is to bring this out into the open.”

Earlier this year, the House voted 219-189 to support the so-called Rohrabacher Amendment to prohibit Department of Justice (which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration) from spending money to interfere with state marijuana legalization laws for recreational or medical use. Two other bills passed by the House have called on the federal government to allow state laws on industrial hemp to move forward.

Unfortunately, the amendments still have to clear the Senate. The "Rohrabacher Amendment" has been blocked so far by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who famously opposed her state's Proposition 19 legalization initiative in 2010. Reformers anticipate similar Senate obstruction on the new banking amendments.

*Those Democrats were Rep. Barrow (GA), Rep. Cuellar (TX), Rep. Dingell (MI), Rep. Keating (MA), Rep. Lipinski (IL), Rep. Matheson (UT), Rep. McIntyre (NC), Rep. Peterson (MN), Rep. Rahall (WV), Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (CA), Rep. Sewell (AL), and Rep. Wasserman Schultz (FL). All Democrats listed voted against the Heck Amendment and the ones in boldface voted for the Fleming Amendment.

Russ Belville is the host and producer of "The Russ Belville Show" at RadicalRuss.com.