HEROES ACT COVID 19 relief bill

The Democrat-led US House of Representatives passed a second coronavirus relief bill that contains provisions to shield banks from federal interference for providing financial services to state-legal cannabis businesses.

In a 208 to 199 vote, the House approved the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), which would surpass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) as the largest stimulus package in US history if passed by the Republican-led Senate.

As well as providing relief to hard-hit states, the newly-unemployed, and ensuring hazard pay for essential workers, among various other measures, the 1,815 page bill includes the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would ensure that financial institutions could provide basic services to cannabis businesses in legalized states without fear of federal reprisals.

The SAFE Banking Act was passed by the House as a standalone bill in September, 2019 – the first time that cannabis reform legislation had received a full floor vote in Congress. Since then, the bill has languished in the Senate Banking Committee, though Sen. Cory Gardner (R-C) insists negotiations are coming to a close.

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning cannabis businesses have been unable to access any of the federal assistance made available in the CARES Act. The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act is a way to remedy this at a time when state-legal marijuana businesses have largely been deemed an “essential service” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some jurisdictions have included specific marijuana provisions in their emergency coronavirus-related relief measures.

A summary of the provisions to allow marijuana banking within the HEROES Act reads as follows:

“This section (SAFE Banking) would allow cannabis-related legitimate businesses, that in many states have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential services, along with their service providers, to access banking services and products, as well as insurance. This section also requires reports to Congress on access to financial services and barriers to marketplace entry for potential and existing minority-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”

The HEROES Act’s chances of passing the Senate aren’t looking promising though. GOP members, led by Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have lined up to dismiss the measure as a Democratic “wish list” masquerading as coronavirus relief, focusing in particular on the number of times the word “cannabis” appears in the bill.

Marijuana reform advocates such as NORML, on the other hand, think the HEROES Act does not go far enough. They argue for provisions to ensure that state-legal cannabis businesses can access loans and other financial instruments through the Small Business Administration (SBA). Marijuana businesses are currently explicitly excluded from the SBA owing to federal prohibition.

“The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the CARES 2 package is a positive development, but one that’s akin to applying a band-aid to a gaping wound. In the majority of states, these cannabis businesses have been deemed essential during this pandemic. But at the federal level, they are being cast aside by Congress. Those small cannabis businesses facing tough economic times are essentially being told by Congress to shutter their doors and fire their employees,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal.

While such provisions did not make it into the HEROES Act, more than 40 member of Congress added their names to letters submitted to congressional leaders urging SBA access for small cannabis businesses. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) then introduced a separate bill to achieve this last month, but it’s unclear if this stands any better chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.

The HEROES Act does, however, include another provision that would ensure the SBA does not dismiss applications “solely because of the applicant’s involvement in the criminal justice system.”

“This development will help individuals who have suffered under the lasting legacy of marijuana criminalization, and will ensure that they no longer face undue economic discrimination when it comes to being eligible for SBA assistance,” NORML’s Justin Strekal said

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