NEW YORK (MainStreet) Marijuana reform continues on the federal level as the House of Representatives passed a groundbreaking banking bill last week. The bill passed on a bipartisan basis, by a vote of 231-192.
The amendment to the House Financial Services Appropriations Bill removes federal funding for Department of Treasury legal actions against banks that enter into business with state-sanctioned marijuana related companies. The House also voted to reject an attempt to block implementation of a key banking reform measure issued earlier this year by the federal Departments of Justice and Treasury which provides guidance to banks who wish to provide banking services to legal marijuana businesses that operate within the guidance of state laws.
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At this point, this does not mean that the bill becomes law.
"The fact that the House acted to pass this measure is terrific, but the immediate impact here is not complete," said Taylor West, deputy director of the Cannabis Industry Association. "This will not become law unless the Senate also passes an amendment that is similar. It would have to survive a conference committee vote as well. That being said, the impact that the message about the approach that Congress is now taking to our industry is significant. This was a bipartisan measure that passed in a Republican controlled House."
The banking measure was introduced by House members (on both sides of the aisle) from states where marijuana is legal under state law, for medical and recreational use. The measure was co-sponsored by Representatives Denny Heck (D-Wash.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.).
Businesses now operating within state sanctioned regulations in the states where marijuana is legal for medical or recreational use can still not easily open bank accounts. Major American banks including Wells Fargo and Bank of America have continued to refuse to work with the industry for fear of federal investigation if not more.
As a result, the vast majority of legal marijuana businesses, even in states where the industry has been approved by state voters, must transact everything in cash from paying taxes to payroll.
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Reform advocates are more than ecstatic about their second major House win on cannabis in less than two months. In late May, the House voted to stop funding for DEA drug enforcement in states where marijuana is legal under state law.
"An overwhelming number of House members are telling the Obama Administration to stop meddling in state and local medical marijuana laws," said Mike Liszewski, government affairs director with Americans for Safe Access, a national reform and patients' advocacy organization. "Today's vote should also be a clear signal to the U.S. Senate that they, too, should respect medical marijuana laws across the country."
In addition, the IRS which falls under the purview of the federal Department of the Treasury, has selectively audited marijuana businesses under a provision of the federal tax code known as 280E. The code forces "criminal" enterprises to pay tax on gross revenue. Dispensaries in California and Colorado in particular are still being audited under this part of the tax code intended to be applied to drug cartels and large illegal operations (of any kind).
Also See: Legal Marijuana Businesses Complicate the Federal Tax Code
It is still unclear whether this or the other major marijuana measure defunding DOJ and DEA activities that passed at the end of May will also clear the Senate.
That said, regardless of whether such bills do become law this year, it is clear that the winds are changing for marijuana reform in Washington, even if "only" for now on the House side of Capitol Hill.
As Taylor said, "The more states that legalize medical or recreational marijuana, the more members of Congress start to see this as something that affects their constituents if not that public policy wise and public opinion wise this is a smart move."
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Taylor, like many other reform advocates also believes that change is already happening within the banking industry and the House vote is just one more indication of the rapidly moving needle on acceptance of the industry.
"It certainly sends a good message to banks who are in the process of considering this that everything is moving in the right direction," she said. "Nevertheless, we have heard anecdotally that banks are investigating how they might comply with the process set out by the federal government earlier in the year. While this may not open the floodgates, it is a message to these banks that this is the direction that U.S. federal law is moving."
Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet