The U.S. House of Representatives killed an attempt to make it harder for marijuana businesses to use banks, marking the second time in two months Republican lawmakers have backed protections for the weed industry.
The House voted 236-186 July 16 to stop an effort by U.S. Rep. John Fleming, Republican of Louisiana, to bar the federal government from enforcing rules that allow banks to work with legal pot shops and medical marijuana providers.
Fleming’s move would have blocked the Department of the Treasury from applying the rules, which the department announced in February. The guidelines provide a way for banks to report their business with cannabis providers without facing prosecution under money-laundering statutes.
“Whereas the federal government once stood in the way of marijuana reform at every opportunity, the changing politics of this issue are such that more politicians are now working to accommodate popular state laws so that they can be implemented effectively,” said Tom Angell, a pro-marijuana activist.
Weed is legal under the laws of two states, Colorado and Washington, and it has been adopted for medical use in 21 more. Another 11 states have enacted laws allowing a limited, non-intoxicating form of the drug for medicinal purposes.
But pot remains entirely illegal under federal laws, and banks are subject to laws that prevent them from working with anyone who violates those laws. Bankers who break the rules could face professional discipline or even prosecution.
The guidelines from the Treasury Department were designed to prevent those consequences. It’s important for both the pot industry and the federal government that banks be allowed to work with weed providers, since marijuana companies are currently forced to deal in large amounts of cash – an invitation to armed robbery.
“They are operating just in cash, which creates its own potential for crime, robbery, assault, and battery,” said Rep. Ed Perimutter, Democrat of Colorado. “You cannot track the money. There is skimming and tax evasion. So the guidance by the Justice Department and the guidance by the Treasury Department is to bring this out into the open.”
All but seven Democrats voted against Fleming’s bill, as did 46 Republicans, mostly moderates and libertarian-leaning lawmakers.
The vote came a little more than a month after lawmakers in the House passed a bill to prevent the DEA and other agencies of the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana where it’s legal under state law.
That represents a major change in Congress, where the winds have always blown against legal weed. Unfortunately, it isn’t an unbroken streak. Late last month, the House passed an amendment blocking the District of Columbia from enforcing a recent vote to decriminalize cannabis.
The amendment, pushed by Rep. Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland, would deny funding to the District for enforcement of decriminalization. The District Council voted in February to remove criminal penalties for pot possession and replace them with a simple $25 civil fine.
The move to overturn that law must still win approval from the Senate and President Obama, neither of which is likely to happen. Obama said in July that he opposes Harris’s amendment. Without the president’s signature, it’s exceedingly unlikely Congress could enact the plan.
The House vote to beat back Fleming’s proposal doesn’t mean much in legal terms, since Treasury had already moved forward with its guidelines. But it could be evidence of a coming sea change in Congress, the current best hope for federal marijuana reform.