Marijuana use doesn’t carry the same stigma that it once did, but legal restrictions still make it a dangerous cash business. Here’s the story of one Senator’s long fight to change all that.
Decriminalized Mary Jane
Back in 2015, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced a bill that would have revolutionized the fledgling cannabis industry.
In office since 2009, Merkley had a front-row seat to watch marijuana’s transformation in one of the country’s most liberal states.
He knew what was at stake.
After all, Oregon decriminalized Mary Jane in 1973, approved it for medicinal use in 1998, and then opened it up for recreational use in 2014.
It was clear to Merkley that attitudes around marijuana were changing, and not just in his state.
Impact of Federal Restrictions
By the beginning of 2015, more than a dozen other states were allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients.
But even with Americans becoming less uptight about everybody’s favorite chill pill, Merkley knew that a few big problems still remained.
One of the biggest, and most dangerous, was a set of laws around how financial institutions were supposed to act in regard to marijuana “dealers.”
In particular, federal statutes barred banks from loaning money to businesses that were involved in the sale of cannabis.
Cannabis Businesses on Banks’ Restricted Lists
And the situation was even more disruptive than that, says Merkley. Banks were also held to a standard of not serving businesses that themselves served cannabis businesses.
Merkley cites the example of a fertilizer that sells to 200 companies. If one of those companies happened to grow marijuana, then the fertilizer firm landed on banks’ restricted lists.
That led to a situation where perfectly legitimate businesses in the eyes of the law were forced to carry out all their transactions on a cash basis.
And, says Merkley, that’s a recipe for disaster that predictably led to a string of robberies and other violent crimes against cannabis businesses that continues to this day.
Risk of Mugging
“Employees are mugged when they come out of their offices because people think they’re carrying cash,” Merkley reports.
That’s why, knowing what he did about the business, Merkley introduced the Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act.
The aim was to free up banks to finally do business with legitimate cannabis dispensaries and related firms.
In the eight years since the original version saw the light of day in 2015, the bill has come up for committee votes several times. And it’s undergone several revisions.
But now, the latest SAFER iteration finally made it out of committee and is headed for the Senate floor.
“Problems of a Pure Cash Economy”
When asked by CNN’s Before the Bell why it had taken so long to get this far, and what was different now, Merkley had an easy answer.
It’s because more and more states now understand the problems and what’s at stake for banks and business owners.
“The issue and problems of a pure cash economy have grown across the country,” Merkley says. And now that more Senators are seeing the after-effects in their own jurisdiction, their alarm bells are going off.
Whether or not the bill passes into law in the near term is yet to be seen. But Merkley can at least hang his hat on persisting and pushing this far.
All the other Senators really needed to drag them along, it seems, was to remember the old adage, and just follow the money.
Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Joshua Rainey Photography