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Support builds for bill to allow banks to assist pot businesses

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate bill that would shield financial institutions from being penalized for providing services to cannabis-industry businesses in states that have legalized marijuana has the Trump administration support needed to become law.

The Senate bill, co-sponsored by more than 20 Republican and Democratic lawmakers — including Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, both Nevada Democrats — would shield cannabis businesses and financial institutions from penalties due to the federal prohibition on marijuana.

Cortez Masto said the legislation would help “Nevada businesses, boost our economy and keep our communities safe from money laundering and other crimes.”

“Recreational marijuana use is now legal in Nevada and nine other states across the country,” she noted. “Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states.”

Even in states that have legalized marijuana, “many cannabis businesses are still being denied the ability to open bank accounts, accept credit cards or write checks, which creates security risks and regulatory uncertainty,” Cortez Masto said.

The lead sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Jeff Merkely, D-Ore., said that “forcing legal businesses to operate in all-cash is dangerous for our communities.”

“It’s absurd that cannabis business owners in Oregon have to shuttle around gym bags full of cash to take care of their taxes or pay their employees,” Merkely said.

Added Rosen: “Nevada’s marijuana businesses are continuing to operate as cash-only businesses as a result of federal laws blocking access to financial institutions and services, leaving many of these businesses susceptible to theft.”

Republicans from states where marijuana is legal, including Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, also support the legislation.

The House Financial Services Committee approved similar legislation this month that would exempt businesses in states where marijuana is legal from penalties under the Controlled Substances Act.

Also this month, Attorney General William Barr and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, in testimony before congressional committees, noted their support for proposed legislation that would provide financial services to the marijuana industry.

The Trump administration, under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had signaled opposition to providing regulatory shields for the cannabis industry. GOP and Democratic lawmakers in states that legalized recreational and medical use of marijuana had criticized that move.

Barr told a Senate panel that he favors one federal rule against marijuana, but without consensus, he would rather have a legislative approach under consideration over the current situation for the industry.

Nevada voters approved a ballot initiative in 2016 to make it legal to possess and consume marijuana for recreational purposes. A medical marijuana initiative was approved in 1998.

States that have legalized marijuana use revenue from taxes on cannabis sales for dedicated programs that include public education.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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