Senator Cory Booker (D–NJ) says the shortage of financial services for state-licensed marijuana businesses constitutes a “cannabis crisis” that Congress must address as soon as possible. This is the same senator who, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), blocked marijuana banking reform in 2021, when Booker promised he would “do everything possible” to prevent it from passing. .
At best, Booker’s startling reversal on this issue is evidence of a serious strategic miscalculation he made when he joined Schumer in arguing that the SAFE Banking Act, which would remove the threat of federal penalties for financial institutions that serve the state’s legal marijuana providers, would undermine prospects for broader reform. At worst, he indicates that Booker is less interested in addressing the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws than in scoring political points by misleadingly blaming Republicans for the lack of progress.
Because marijuana is still prohibited under federal law, banks are concerned that serving the cannabis industry could expose them to criminal charges, civil penalties, and ruinous regulatory penalties. Therefore, marijuana companies have trouble financing their operations and are forced to rely heavily on cash, making them prime targets for theft. The results are evident in states like Washington, Oregon and Michigan, where people who sell or deliver marijuana have to deal with armed criminals lured by the money they handle. That sometimes deadly threat is the “cannabis crisis” that Booker lamented in a recent interview with NJ.com.
The SAFE Banking Act, which Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) reintroduced in March 2021, aims to solve that problem. It has broad bipartisan appeal because it would simultaneously reduce the harm caused by federal prohibition, promote public safety, help small businesses, and respect the autonomy of the 37 states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.
The House of Representatives has passed marijuana banking reform more than half a dozen times, including an April 2021 vote in which the SAFE Banking Act drew support from 215 Democrats and 106 Republicans. The Senate version, which Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced five days after Perlmutter introduced his bill, attracted 42 cosponsors, including nine Republicans.
Yet the SAFE Banking Act has languished in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Schumer and Booker initially insisted that their own marijuana legislation, aimed at repealing federal prohibition, take precedence. They released a 163-page discussion draft of that bill in July 2021, but didn’t actually introduce the legislation until a year later. By this time, his Cannabis Stewardship and Opportunity Act had expanded to 296 pages, and was filled with unnecessarily prescriptive, onerous, and contentious provisions that belied Schumer’s claim that he was eager to garner Republican support.
Given the need for at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster, even an outright repeal of marijuana prohibition was always a long shot in the Senate. By stuffing their bill with new taxes, regulations, and “social equity” spending provisions, Booker and Schumer guaranteed that it would go nowhere, which is what it did. The bill never attracted more than the original four cosponsors: Schumer and three other Democrats.
Meanwhile, Booker and Schumer portrayed the SAFE Banking Act as a threat for more ambitious reform rather than a politically feasible step that would make life safer and easier for people working in an industry they were supposedly eager to normalize. “If we allow this bill to pass,” Schumer warned in 2021, “it will be much more difficult and take longer to pass comprehensive reform.”
Booker took the same position. “When it comes to legalizing recreational marijuana, we cannot allow the creation of this massive multi-billion dollar industry unless taxes from that industry are reinvested in the communities most affected by the failed War on Drugs,” he said in July 2021. “I don’t know about other members of the Senate, but I will strive to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that will allow all these corporations to make a lot more money off of this, instead of focusing on the restorative justice aspect of it. “.
Booker was true to his word. After the House passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that year that included the SAFE Banking Act, he and Schumer made sure to remove it from the final text of the bill.
Despite its long history of supporting piecemeal reforms, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) encouraged them. He warned that passing the Safe Banking Act would “prioritize marijuana profits over people.” The strange implication was that marijuana dealers, who face overwhelming and life-threatening danger that is exacerbated by a lack of financial services, do not qualify as “persons.”
Perlmutter didn’t see it that way. “People keep getting killed and businesses keep being robbed due to lack of action from the Senate,” he complained in December 2021. The SAFE Banking Act “has been sitting in the Senate for three years,” he noted, “And with each passing day, their unwillingness to address the issue endangers and harms businesses, their employees, and communities across the country.”
The obstruction by Booker and Schumer also drew strong criticism from other House Democrats. “I really don’t quite know what the hell [Schumer’s] The problem is,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “But what you’re doing is making it very difficult for many small businesses … to move forward and expand and hire more people “.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D–Wash.) shared McGovern’s dismay. “In practice, not having the SAFE Banking Act is incredibly dangerous,” he said. Under current law, he noted, state-licensed marijuana vendors “basically have to run a cash business” and “can’t do the normal banking” that other businesses take for granted.
Undeterred by such criticism, Schumer and Booker blocked the SAFE Banking Act again in June 2022, when the Senate removed it from the America COMPETE Act. They didn’t budge until late last year, when they suddenly opened up to marijuana banking reform combined with grants meant to encourage the expungement of marijuana records.
After the midterm elections, when Republicans won control of the House, Booker warned that marijuana reform could take “many years” unless Congress passed it during lame duck session. He lamented that “there is very little time in this lame duck and a lot of things that people want to do.”
Schumer fought desperately to pass the SAFE Banking Act as an amendment to the 2022 NDAA or the Consolidated Appropriations Act. When those year-end negotiations failed, Schumer blamed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had condemned the SAFE Banking Act as “liberal hogwash” that Democrats were trying to include again. inappropriately in unrelated bills. . Booker also blamed Senate Republican leaders, whom he said were “totally [against] anything [involving] marijuana.”
It is true that McConnell opposed the SAFE Banking Act. But Schumer and Booker opposed it first, and their misguided resistance doomed a significant improvement they claimed to favor.
“The Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the White House and still couldn’t pass the cannabis reform bills,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, said in December . “I would go much further and end the federal war on a plant entirely, but at LEAST let the legal business operate as a legal business.”
Now Booker is trying to erase this history. He told NJ.com that he wants to “drive [marijuana reform] as far as we can go,” but worried that “the dynamic has changed quite dramatically” now that Republicans control the House. “It’s definitely going to be more difficult, but not impossible,” he said. “I think there’s a chance. Remember, there’s always been a good bipartisan coalition of people who want to do something… The urges that pushed us toward some kind of partnership are still there, both on the business side and on the restorative justice side.”
Where was that sense of urgency when Booker stubbornly resisted the “something” that could have been accomplished thanks to that “good bipartisan coalition”? Even when he opposed the SAFE Banking Act in 2021, he admitted that passing it would have been “easy.” He squandered that opportunity in favor of a quixotic effort to pass a broader bill that was dead on arrival. His self-righteous, anti-capitalist stance, echoed by the DPA, made him complicit in maintaining a life-threatening situation, all in order to claim a moral authority that he manifestly does not deserve.