Battle Over Marijuana Banking Plays Out in Congress

Mayor's Legislation Hinges on Outcome

More than a month ago, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) introduced legislation to allow the recreational sale of marijuana and marijuana products, with the goal of diverting revenue to jobs, housing and other investments of benefit to communities hardest hit by draconian drug laws.

Realizing the passage of what’s touted as the Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019, however, would require changes on the federal level to a congressional rider that prevents local governments from spending money to legalize and regulate the marijuana industry.

A bill currently under consideration in the House of Representatives dismantles penalties, but whether lawmakers would pass it remains to be seen.

“I’m hopeful that we may be able to regulate sales, finally, in this area but currently, we are unable to develop a regulatory scheme in the District as long as congressional riders exist,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “This is very frustrating and not just from a home rule point of view, but it’s as if we’re caught in the middle [of] decriminalization and legalization as well as adopting a control system. And therefore we have to maintain the status quo.”

The new House bill in question, the Safe and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, prevents federal regulators from penalizing financial service providers from maintaining accounts of legal, state-level marijuana businesses. House Democrats have been expected to bring it to the floor for a vote before the end of the month. On the Senate side, similar legislation has been introduced with the potential of increasing bank and credit union deposits.

In the District, legalization advocates wait with bated breath for the outcome of the ongoing congressional battle.

In 2015, city residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of Initiative 71, which allowed people 21 and older to legally possess up to two ounces of the plant. Additionally, residents could use and grow marijuana on their property without penalty.

However, the law forbids the exchange of marijuana for money, goods or services, a provision that has confused people navigating both sides of a growing marijuana industry.

In recent years, pop-up events advertised on social media pages feature various strands of marijuana to be sold in private residences, restaurants and other venues that revelers could access after contacting the host. However, law enforcement officials have increasingly cracked down on those functions, even revoking the license of a local nightclub that allowed smoking.

For some longtime marijuana users, including a local millennial who requested anonymity out of fear of losing her job, legalizing the sale of the plant would alleviate hurdles in acquiring and enjoying products. However, as the user told The Informer, the public health and judiciary implications of this law loom large.

“The various strains that people are growing are stronger than what I’m used to. I don’t know if it still has the natural ingredients,” the anonymous user said. “I don’t know what that process is like, but I know people are obsessed with ‘gas’ in this culture. Capitalism is at the foundation of all this — it’s unfortunate that a lot of men and women are still in jail for selling a plant now that the industry has been woven into society.”

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