Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minnesota's recent move to legalize low-THC edibles is further evidence of the swift shift underway toward greater acceptance and use of cannabis in the U.S.
"As of July 2022, 37 states, three territories and the District of Columbia have approved cannabis for medical use," reports the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "Nineteen states, two territories and the District of Columbia allow for the nonmedical use of cannabis by adults over age 21."
While states have embraced this change, the federal government has not. Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. This federal-state conflict is unlikely to be resolved soon. But in the meantime, Congress should take two measured steps to fix high-profile problems created by the ongoing disconnect:
- Pass the SAFE Banking Act, allowing the financial industry to provide services to legitimate cannabis businesses without fear of federal reprisal.
- Pass the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act. The bill would allow Veterans Affairs (VA) medical providers in states with an established medical marijuana program to discuss and recommend this option to veterans struggling with pain or other medical conditions. Clarity is needed because the VA is federally run.
Congress has much on its plate this fall with looming midterm elections and end-of-September deadlines for passing critical legislation, including a stopgap funding bill to avoid a government shutdown. But the targeted cannabis bills to aid banks and veterans are nevertheless worthy of attention. The other big bills could provide a vehicle to get the marijuana measures across the finish line.
That the SAFE Banking Act is still waiting for Senate approval is especially frustrating given that it's already cleared the House six times, according to the legislation's lead author, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.
The House most recently passed this sensible banking reform in February 2022 as an amendment to the America COMPETES Act. The House passed it in April 2021 as a stand-alone bill, with a vote of 321-101. More than 100 Republicans voted yes.
Of Minnesota's eight House representatives, only Republican Michelle Fischbach voted against the stand-alone bill, according to the April 2021 roll call vote. The state's other three House Republicans voted yes, as did all four Democratic representatives.
Minnesota's two senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, cosponsor the Senate version of the bill. The state's banking trade group also strongly supports the measure, with Minnesota's move to legalize edibles adding urgency.
"It's a complicated issue, but it's risky for a bank to provide service to somebody doing something illegal under federal law. A lot of banks won't even touch it," said Joe Witt, president and CEO of the Minnesota Bankers Association.
While Witt isn't aware of any situations in which a bank has faced recriminations, the problem is broader than bank risks. Firms locked out of the financial system may have to deal only in cash.
That could have public safety implications, with retailers targeted by criminals for this reason. A cash-only system also poses challenges for collecting tax revenue, one of the oft-heard arguments for legalizing marijuana products.
"Congress has to fix this," Witt told an editorial writer.
It's unclear why the SAFE Banking bill hasn't passed in the Senate. Obstacles likely include the inevitable controversy over anything involving marijuana. In addition, some senators want to attach other marijuana-related reforms to it that have less expansive support.
There's an urgency as well in ensuring that the VA will aid, not hinder, veterans seeking medical marijuana for pain or other medical conditions. Alternatives to opioid medications are especially important with the VA reducing its use of these powerful prescription painkillers to thwart addiction.
Klobuchar is a cosponsor of the Veterans Safe Harbor Act, and her continued advocacy on this is necessary and appreciated. Those who served and are in pain need help, not hurdles.
Marijuana momentum is likely to continue at the state level. Congress must reflect this reality and keep pace with responsible, incremental reforms.