I'm not a pro-marijuana guy. I voted against Montana's adult-use cannabis initiative (I-190) in the 2020 election. However, since Montanans approved the initiative and recreational marijuana has taken effect in our state, I've been committed to following the will of the voters and making sure our new system works safely and effectively.
One of the biggest barriers to that objective is outdated federal law that causes problems for states that have legalized cannabis. In America, our system of government works best when federal and state policy are aligned and work toward common purpose. The fact that federal law, since 1970, still classifies cannabis in league with heroin and cocaine is emblematic of misalignment with Montana law.
The good news for Montana and the nation is that we have forward-looking federal lawmakers like Steve Daines serving in the U.S. Senate. He understands why and how federal and state cannabis policy are misaligned. Senator Daines's co-sponsorship of the landmark SAFE Banking Act to reform and modernize America's unworkable cannabis banking laws is reportedly advancing in the U.S. Senate. There, it has languished despite passing the U.S. House of Representatives seven times.
The SAFE Banking Act wouldn't legalize cannabis at the national level, but it would finally lift the ban preventing banks from providing legal medical and adult-use cannabis businesses access to the full range of services offered to every other industry. Legal state cannabis businesses should have access to basic business bank accounts, lines of credit and market-rate loans. These services are fundamental prerequisites to the ongoing viability and success of any business.
Besides needed sunshine on the industry and more transparency, the SAFE Banking Act would require federal banking regulators to provide uniform guidelines for cannabis-related business accounts. Depository institutions would be protected from civil and criminal sanctions for providing financial services to legally-operating cannabis firms.
Notably, the Montana Bankers Association joined 49 other state banking leaders in sending a letter to the U.S. Senate endorsing the SAFE Banking Act. In a separate letter to congressional leadership, the Cannabis Regulators Association-of which Montana is a member-noted that "access to traditional banking services would provide our regulatory agencies with greater insight into licensed operators and could help in efforts to prevent diversion and criminal enterprises."
Finally, and perhaps most important, the SAFE Banking Act will improve public safety by allowing businesses to stop holding so much cash. Dispensaries in other states, mostly on the West coast, are a constant target for violent criminals because Congress has been too slow to act. Robberies are commonplace and caravans of armed thieves target cannabis businesses. Some people have even died.
The SAFE Banking Act is commonsense legislation that will reduce crime, save lives, and benefit Montana business. We owe Sen. Daines a debt of gratitude for his persistence in pressing forward with his bipartisan bill.
Montanans should hope the U.S. Senate passes the SAFE Banking Act before the end of 2022.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth
Senator Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, represents Senate District 43 and is the incoming President of the Montana Senate. In 2021, he was appointed Chairman of the Select Committee on Marijuana Law.