Two key congressmen made waves in the marijuana community on Thursday by disclosing that there are high-level talks underway about putting together a wide-ranging package of incremental marijuana proposals that House and Senate lawmakers believe could be enacted into law this year. But multiple sources tell Marijuana Moment that issues under consideration go further than the banking and expungements reforms that were at the center of the public discussion that has emerged.
The dueling pushes for comprehensive legalization and incremental reform—a source of tension among advocates, lawmakers and industry insiders over many months—may actually result in something actionable and bipartisan by the end of the current Congress, those familiar with the bicameral negotiations say. That said, no deal is set in stone and talks are ongoing.
In addition to the banking and expungements proposals that made waves when discussed publicly at a conference on Thursday by two key House lawmakers, there are also talks about attaching language from other standalone bills dealing with issues such as veterans’ medical cannabis access, research expansion, marijuana industry access to Small Business Administration (SBA) programs and broader drug sentencing reform.
As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has continued to work with colleagues on a broad legalization bill, he’s also been actively inviting input from members across the aisle.
That feedback might help inform the final Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) that he’s sponsoring alongside Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and is expected to be filed this month. But it’s also apparently helped guide lawmakers toward an alternative, backup approach, something that would effectively be a marijuana omnibus bill.
Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Dave Joyce (R-OH) first publicly disclosed that there were discussions about crafting a bipartisan cannabis package at an International Cannabis Bar Association conference on Thursday, with Joyce revealing a recent meeting he had about the idea with Schumer.
Perlmutter, sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, said that his legislation to safeguard financial institutions that work with state-legal marijuana businesses would be part of the package under consideration, but he also said at the time that members are interested in including Joyce’s Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act to incentive state and local governments to expunge prior marijuana records, as well as proposals to provide veterans with access to medical cannabis and expand marijuana research.
But those four issues—banking, expungements, research and veterans—noted earlier by Law360, are only part of what’s on the table, sources who have been involved in the negotiations but requested anonymity, told Marijuana Moment on Friday. They stressed, however, that a deal has not yet been reached and talks are tentative at this point.
Another possible component that lawmakers have discussed including in the omnibus legislation would be a proposal to give cannabis businesses access to SBA loans and services that are available to every other industry. It’s a reform that Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) in particular has consistently advocated for, including in a recent letter to the head of SBA.
While it’s not clear what stage the negotiations over the prospective marijuana package is at, a congressional source said that Rosen has spoken with Schumer about her interest in advancing the issue as he’s worked to navigate the congressional cannabis waters.
Interestingly enough, a non-marijuana item might also be part of the deal in the works: the EQUAL Act to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which experts say has exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system. That legislation has passed the House in standalone form and has substantial bipartisan support in the Senate.
“These talks are very serious,” a source involved in criminal justice reform said. “I would say this is one of the most serious bipartisan, bicameral conversations that we’ve seen occur in our time in this space.”
To be clear, Senate leadership isn’t giving up the push for the broader CAOA legalization bill at this point. Nor is Perlmutter fully conceding passing the SAFE Banking Act on a sooner timetable, either as standalone legislation or as part of a large-scale manufacturing bill called the America COMPETES Act that’s currently in a bicameral conference committee.
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But for Schumer, the challenge of reaching the required 60-vote threshold to pass his legalization bill is a steep—and some would say unachievable—task given the small majority Democrats have in the chamber, as well as opposition from the vast majority of GOP members and certain moderates within the leader’s own party.
The SAFE Banking Act, meanwhile, has passed the House in some form six times at this point, and if were put to a vote in the Senate, insiders say they feel confident it would pass. That political dynamic has seriously complicated reform in the 117th Congress.
“As I’ve said before, I continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking signed into law this year. That effort includes ongoing conversations with senators who want to advance cannabis reforms,” Perlmutter said in a statement to Marijuana Moment on Friday. “There are a number of bipartisan cannabis bills on the table, many of which could pass the Senate today if given the chance. I plan to continue working to ensure the SAFE Banking Act and/or other necessary cannabis reforms get across the finish line this year.”
Schumer is reportedly pushing back against attempts to include the SAFE Banking language in the America COMPETES Act. A source familiar with separate discussions between the leader’s office and another top Democratic senator told Marijuana Moment that Schumer has urged his colleagues not to push for the banking reform’s inclusion in the final package of the large-scale bill, as it may undermine the ability to pass a slightly broader cannabis reform package such as the possible one including expungements that has been preliminarily discussed with Joyce.
Given the political reality, top lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders have been working behind the scenes to figure out if there’s some way to get a cannabis reform bill through both chambers—legislation that wouldn’t go so far as to federally deschedule marijuana, but would contain provisions that could garner the supermajority support it needs to get to the president’s desk.
“Senator Schumer has demonstrated that he’s committed to passing some sort of cannabis legislation this year,” Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.
Another source with an extensive background in drug policy issues compared the issue to the gun reform debate that’s surfaced and resurfaced repeatedly in the U.S. amid an epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings.
Public support for marijuana legalization, like modest gun reform policies like universal background checks, is high. But when Democrats push for more comprehensive laws to combat the issue, many Republicans balk, leaving the issue in a seemingly unending legislative limbo.
“I think if the leader is really serious about moving [marijuana reform] forward as a priority—and I think that he is genuine about it—I think he expects that you will have to find a middle ground that is not perhaps as sweeping as the CAOA, but maybe something that can get Republican votes,” they said.
Other sources told Marijuana Moment that they’ve been involved in conversations about potentially adding to the in-progress cannabis package language that would provide for record sealing of federal misdemeanor convictions, as would be prescribed under the standalone Clean Slate Act from Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE).
It’s the type of reform that presumably would not compromise GOP support given the widespread recognition that offenses like simple possession should not lead to long-term consequences like the loss of access to housing and job opportunities.
While Thursday’s news about high-level conversations on the potential cannabis omnibus legislation generated enthusiasm, some are still holding out hope that the marijuana banking measure will still advance through the manufacturing bill that’s being debated by negotiators in both chambers.
The conference committee on the America COMPETES Act held its first meeting on that bill last month, with multiple appointed conferees urging the body to attach the SAFE Banking Act language in the interest of economic competitiveness and public safety. A top aide for Schumer recently tempered expectations about the prospects of moving marijuana banking through that manufacturing legislation.
Marijuana Moment reached out to Schumer’s office for comment on the idea of a more expansive package of incremental cannabis reform proposals on Friday, but a representative did not immediately respond.
For his part, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), an appointed conferee on the manufacturing bill and longstanding champion of legalization, separately said that he feels there “tremendous momentum” to get the marijuana banking job done through their negotiations.
Asked by Marijuana Moment last month whether there are any specific, equity-centered policies that he’s discussed adding to the SAFE Banking Act with Senate leadership, Blumenauer said that he’d “prefer not to go into” discussions he may have had with Senate colleagues, and he put the onus on the opposite chamber to propose any specific changes that would make the legislation more palatable to them.
“They have the opportunity to move something forward, and I welcome those efforts,” he said. “I’m perfectly willing to work with them as far as they can go as long as it doesn’t get in the way of solving this.”
The idea of amending the banking bill to assuage equity concerns from Senate leadership isn’t new. Perlmutter, for his part, told Marijuana Moment in February that he’s spoken with Schumer, Booker and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about possible revisions to push it across the finish line before he retires at the end of this Congress.
“If they’re interested in X, Y or Z, we certainly would be interested in X, Y and Z,” he said. “It’s just time to pass something that rationalizes the banking.”
Based on conversations with those familiar with the latest negotiations, though, there are far more letters of the alphabet under consideration. And advocates will be following closely as talks advance and potentially produce legislation.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.