The U.S. House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act on Thursday in a bipartisan 316-113 vote as part of the latest National Defense Authorization Act, a military spending bill. It’s the fifth time the legislation has been approved in the House as a standalone bill or an amendment as part of larger legislation.

Since statewide cannabis reform has been enacted over the past four decades, cannabis businesses still are not fully tolerated, most evidently in federal restrictions, such as the way banking is restricted.

Representative Ed Perlmutter re-introduced the bill, as promised, saying that it would allow cannabis businesses to access the banking system—like any other industry—and would bring more money into the economy and offer the opportunity to create good-paying jobs. 

On September 21, the House Rules Committee approved the SAFE Banking Act as they sifted through over 800 amendments filed for the $778 billion FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to determine which ones will get a floor vote. As Representative Perlmutter sits in the Rules Committee, the move suggests he has influence.

Currently, The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Guidance from the Department of the Treasury provides informal guidance on banking with cannabis businesses, but still nothing to immunize a financial institution from federal prosecution—only an act of Congress can do that.

Bloomberg reported that the SAFE Banking Act would be a boon for cannabis companies—which up until now have been forced to do business in cash thanks to federal banking restrictions. Cannabis-adjacent companies that provide financial services agreed.

“Passage of the SAFE Banking Act is a historic, significant step forward for the cannabis industry, which deserves more legitimacy and access to banking, insurance and other services just like any other mainstream industry. This legislation will open up much-needed access to financial institutions and loans for cannabis industry entrepreneurs,” said Ryan Hale, Chief Sales Officer of Operational Security Solutions (OSS). “Meanwhile, as the sheep dogs for the industry in security, we know that many compliance issues will remain as long as cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug and passage of the SAFE Banking Act will only mean more regulation for the industry.”

The bill would protect banks that cater to state-licensed cannabis business from facing punishment from federal regulators. As of December 2020, the U.S. Treasury found that 515 banks and 169 credit unions already provide such services.

NORML sent leaders in Congress a letter in support of its inclusion as part of the NDAA. NORML Political Director Justin Strekal applauded the legislation cautiously:

“It is critical to balance the need to accomplish comprehensive reform at the federal level and make every effort possible in the immediate term to support the successful state-level programs to ensure safe and efficient consumer access to quality cannabis that is cost-competitive with the unregulated market,” Strekal said. “For those reasons, we support the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any piece of legislation that is going to be enacted into law.”

Advocates speculated that the SAFE Banking Act might have a better chance of success than a standalone bill, because of its bipartisan support and because Senators don’t want any minor bill holding up the “must-pass” NDAA.

Leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Cory Booker have been somewhat hesitant to support the bill without seeking broader reform. Both see more comprehensive cannabis reform such as the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA).

“As someone who has been working inside the banking industry for most of my career, I’ve seen firsthand the many challenges banks face when trying to serve cannabis businesses,” said Andrew Montgomery, Founder and CEO of HD Compliance. Montgomery is a seasoned banking professional with more than 25 years as a senior executive in the industry. 

He continued, “Though this is not the first time that lawmakers have added a seemingly unrelated bill to a broader bill that is likely to pass without increased scrutiny, we must remember that the SAFE Banking Act has already been passed four times in the House, two of them were associated with COVID-19 economic relief bills. The Senate failed to act on each of those bills. However, burying it in the Defense Authorization Act may give cover to GOP senators that want to support SAFE Banking and allow Senator Cory Booker to oppose the bill. This very well could be a back door way of passing this needed legislation.”

While some leaders argued about the appropriateness of including the SAFE Banking Act in a military spending bill, veteran support for cannabis is high. NORML, for instance, clarified that the spending bill was indeed an “appropriate vehicle” for cannabis reform. According to the American Legion, nearly one in four veterans currently consumes cannabis for medical reasons.