Marijuana banking bill backed by Daines & Tester up for consideration again

Posted at 5:48 PM, May 19, 2023

HELENA — Montana marijuana sales totaled around $300 million in 2022 – the first year of legal recreational sales in the state.

But even though almost half of U.S. states now have some form of legalized sales, the industry has few options when it comes to moving that money through the banking system. That’s because marijuana is still considered an illegal drug on the federal level.

Montana’s two U.S. senators are again backing a bill that would let marijuana businesses access more financial institutions. The SAFE Banking Act has been proposed each of the last three sessions of Congress – and earned bipartisan support – but it’s never made it through the Senate. Advocates are hoping this can be the year that changes.

The bill had its first hearing in the Senate Banking Committee this week. It would prevent federal banking regulators from taking action against banks or credit unions that work with marijuana businesses, if those businesses are licensed and following the laws in their own states.

For the last two sessions, Montana Sen. Steve Daines has been the lead Republican sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act. In an interview with MTN this week, he said he’s heard from local law enforcement concerned about safety risks when a business is so reliant on cash.

“I don't support the legalization of cannabis personally; Montanans voted that in, though, overwhelmingly, in the last election,” he said. “This is really dealing with, what do we do now about the public safety issues when you have an all-cash business? It creates a lot more crime. So putting that cash in the bank is one way to take some of that crime off the street. That's an appealing argument for many Republicans.”

Daines said there have been tweaks to the bill this year that he believes will help draw GOP support, and he thinks there’s a lot Democrats can also get behind.

“I think we've got a chance here to get a bipartisan, pretty strong vote on the floor of the United States Senate and to get it passed into law sometime this year,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has been a co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act since 2019. When the bill was reintroduced this year, he said the current laws opened the door to possible tax evasion and safety issues and created barriers for businesses.

“As a third generation Montana farmer, I know how important it is for small businesses in rural America to have access to capital,” he said in a statement to MTN this week. “Our bipartisan Safe Banking Act is a commonsense fix that allows legally operated Montana small businesses to access the financial services that they need to thrive, and it makes our communities safer by cutting down on cash-motivated crimes. I'm proud to be a leader on this bipartisan bill, and I'm looking forward to getting it across the finish line.”

In 2021, supporters of the SAFE Banking Act tried to get it attached to a must-pass defense funding bill at the end of the year, but that attempt fell short.