In 2016, Travis Mason was working as a security guard at Green Heart when two armed men walked through the dispensary’s door. The robbery that ensued went horribly wrong. Mason was shot three times as he stood between the men and their target: the store’s cash storage.
He died on the spot — the murderers got away, and remain at large to this day.
Mason’s death was the needless result of a cash problem cannabis businesses across the nation face. The Schedule 1 status of cannabis puts banks at risk of losing their federal banking insurance (and of facing legal consequences for breaking federal laws) if they offer services to a cannabis business like Green Heart. That forces cannabis businesses to keep massive amounts of cash on hand and puts employees like Mason in serious danger.
That’s why Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter has reintroduced his landmark Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to Congress. This legislation would allow cannabis businesses in legal states to access the banking system like any other legal retailer, so they no longer have to shoulder the threat of theft, burglary, robbery or worse.
“The genie is out of the bottle and has been for many years,” Perlmutter said in a press release about the SAFE Banking Act’s reintroduction. “Thousands of employees and businesses across this country have been forced to deal in piles of cash for far too long.”
The SAFE Banking Act was authored by Perlmutter, sponsored by Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-New York), Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) and Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and cosponsored by more than 100 other members from both sides of the aisle. The legislation was first introduced to Congress in March 2019 and subsequently passed through the House with a 321-103 vote — with 91 Republicans voting in favor of it. It never made it through the Senate.
Specifically, the act aims to protect banks from the money laundering laws that currently make it risky to bank with cannabis businesses; it prohibits insurers from incentivizing against doing business with the cannabis industry; and protects banks from being otherwise penalized for working with the cannabis industry.
According to the SAFE Banking Act’s summary, should it pass: “a depository institution, a Federal Reserve bank, or an insurer shall not, under federal law, be liable or subject to forfeiture for providing a loan or other financial services to a legitimate marijuana- or hemp-related business.”
“The cannabis industry has been operating with great success, with many of these businesses deemed essential as the coronavirus pandemic took hold,” Rep. Velázquez said in the recent release on the act’s reintroduction. “However, without the ability to safely utilize the banking system, cannabis-related businesses are left behind and stuck resorting to tactics that can threaten public safety and economic success.”
While the SAFE Act has yet to pass through the Senate (despite passing in the House with bipartisan support), Perlmutter hopes the path to the president’s desk is clearer this time than it was under the last administration. Since the last election there has already been a swell in support for the federal decriminalization of cannabis: four states voted to legalize medical or recreational cannabis in November; and the Marijuana Opportunity and Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, spearheaded by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, passed the House in December and is currently being reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee.
That all has Perlmutter hopeful about the SAFE Act’s prospects. While in the past his cannabis legislation has been met by what he calls the “chuckle factor” from some of his colleagues, this time around he doesn’t expect anyone to be laughing. As the tragic death of Travis Mason illustrated in 2016: lives are quite literally at stake. It is not safe for these businesses, their employees or their communities to deny them access to the banking system and force them to assume so much risk, Perlmutter said.
“It is the responsibility of Congress to step up and take action to align federal and state laws for the safety of our constituents and communities.” Perlmutter said. “The public safety need is urgent.”