U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) was the sole Democrat to vote against a marijuana banking reform bill during a committee markup last month. In a new interview, the senator described his vote as an effort at making important equity improvements while there’s still a chance to do so.
“I’m worried that if we pass a bill with all of the fees and the revenue that comes, and not begin to address the issue of restorative justice, we’re not going to go back and get those communities,” Warnock said during an appearance on Crooked Media’s Lovett or Leave It podcast that was posted on Sunday. Black and brown people especially, he said, have been “hollowed out by half a century of the so-called war on drugs for using marijuana.”
Warnock was discussing the Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act, which would protect banks that service state-legal marijuana markets from being punished by federal regulators.
“What it does is it allows businesses and banks to participate with cannabis businesses in states where it’s legal,” Warnock explained, “and so it creates a safe space for them. But the communities that have been most devastated by the so-called war on drugs, [it] doesn’t do a thing for them at all.”
“My question was, ‘Who are we really making safer?’”
The Senate Banking Committee, of which Warnock is a member, made a number of amendments last month before advancing the SAFER Banking Act to the Senate floor. But the panel rejected Warnock’s proposed changes that were meant to bolster the bill’s equity provisions.
One amendment would have put an expiration date on the banking act unless the Treasury Department submitted a report to Congress certifying that the measure decreased the racial wealth gap and lessened other negative economic impacts of the drug war. Another would have required the government to study the “racial wealth gap and the percentage of minority-owned cannabis-related businesses before and after the passage of the SAFER Banking Act,” according to a summary.
At the time, Warnock delivered a speech expressing concerns about the bill as drafted, arguing that it “will make life safer for bankers for businesses and financial institutions, some of whom have been profiting from the cannabis industry illegally for years.”
“I’m not opposed to easing or undoing federal restrictions around cannabis. And I would support all of the provisions and reforms in this legislation if paired with broader cannabis reforms that substantively addressed the issue of restorative justice,” he told colleagues. “This bill does not do that.”
The lawmaker reiterated his points during the new Lovett or Leave It interview with former Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama.
“There’s some good reasons to move this forward,” he said, “and yet I’m trying to help us summon the will to pair justice with common sense so that everybody can be safe.”
As the war on drugs wanes, Warnock said, he feels the United States needs something like the Marshall Plan, which invested in war-torn countries to help them rebuild after World War II.
“I happen to know some Black and brown communities in Atlanta and in St. Louis and in Chicago and in South Central who could use a Marshall Plan,” he said, “who could use some recognition that something happened to them.”
The U.S. is “the mass incarceration capital of the world,” the senator noted. “We’re about 6 percent of the world’s population. We warehouse about 50 percent of the world’s prisoners.”
From his position on the Banking Committee, Warnock said, he feels he’s watching leaders perpetuate the racial wealth gap as they grapple with marijuana reform. “I think this is what happens in real time—as I witnessed it,” he continued.
“I got really good colleagues on that Banking Committee. They’re good people,” the lawmaker continued. But if banking reform alone becomes law, “years from now we’ll be asking ourselves—as we do about a whole range of things—why are these problems so intractable?”
Amid the tension between the political parties and their respective factions, just 13 percent of congressional staffers think that a marijuana banking bill will pass this year, according to a recent Canvass Capitol Hill survey. Staff for Democratic offices were slightly more optimistic, at 18 percent, compared to just 9 percent of GOP staff who said they think the bill will be enacted by the end of 2023.
Respondents were significantly more bullish on issues such as federal aviation reauthorization, increasing Pentagon funding, increasing support for Ukraine and reauthorizing the Farm Bill.
Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has committed to expeditiously bringing the legislation to the Senate floor, after which point it would be transmitted to the House. Schumer has also detailed plans to amend the SAFER Banking Act by attaching legislation to incentivize state and local cannabis expungements and gun rights for marijuana consumers.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), meanwhile, sent a letter to Schumer recently to express concern about the Senate’s “ongoing prioritizing of legislation relaxing marijuana laws” over a separate measure the GOP senator favors to permanently prohibit fentanyl analogues.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is also stirring the pot over the cannabis banking bill, with an inflated interpretation of Schumer’s recent floor remarks about his plans to amend the legislation with “criminal justice provisions.”
While Schumer has so far only discussed amending the bill to include the expungements and gun rights provisions, Cotton said the majority leader wants to add provisions “letting drug traffickers out of prison.”
Additionally, Sens. Pete Ricketts (R-NE), John Cornyn (R-TX), Ted Budd (R-NC) and James Lankford (R-OK) recently sent a letter to Senate leadership that argued the SAFER Banking Act would result in the cannabis industry producing higher potency products that would be harmful to youth and compromise “the integrity of the United States banking system.”
Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of 22 state attorneys general is also calling on Congress to pass the cannabis banking reform.
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