Editorial: Marijuana banking bill off to a strong start

Oregonians in the marijuana business know all too well the problems that arise when the nation’s banking system is unavailable to an industry. So, too, does Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, and his Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is a step toward preventing those problems.

The bill got a major push forward Wednesday when the U.S. House of Representatives approved its version of the measure on a 321-103 vote. Every member of Oregon’s House delegation, including Republican Greg Walden of Hood River, voted for the bill.

The measure is aptly named. Because the production and sale of marijuana are illegal under federal law, those in the marijuana business generally cannot take advantage of even the most basic banking procedures. The National Credit Union Administration, meanwhile, has said credit unions may accept marijuana business deposits so long as all banking regulations, including reporting regulations, are met.

Still, the banking limits themselves work to make marijuana a cash-only business, and that creates more problems. Merkley tells a story that makes that clear. He talks about following a cannabis businessman as the latter went to pay his state taxes, and the tale sounds like something out of an old Western movie.

The man loaded his backpack with $70,000 in $20 bills, Merkley says, and drove 50 miles to the Oregon Department of Revenue to pay his state taxes. After passing through a variety of security checks, the businessman took his backpack of cash to a heavily guarded room where guards kept their eyes on millions of dollars in similar payments from other Oregon cannabis businesses.

The House and Senate versions of the banking bill are not identical, but if the Senate bill is passed and the two are reconciled and signed by President Trump, banking could become a badly needed reality for the marijuana industry. Getting Senate approval may be an uphill battle. The possibility of that did improve a bit when the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he’d allow a vote on the Senate bill. It’s enough to keep at least a glimmer of hope alive.