Utah attorney general wants Congress to let marijuana businesses use banks

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference, Aug. 29, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes joined a bipartisan coalition of 34 state and territorial attorneys general asking Congress to let legal marijuana businesses access the federal banking system.

They are urging Congress to pass the federal Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act or a similar bill as part of upcoming COVID-19 relief legislation.

“This bill would allow Utah to make critically needed changes regarding legal medical cannabis transactions in our state,” Reyes said in a news release issued Friday. “Utah worked hard to find a sensible, humane and balanced approach to medical marijuana policy.”

In a letter to congressional leaders, the attorneys general said the pandemic has drawn attention to problems the SAFE Banking Act is intended to fix, including health and safety concerns associated with cash transactions.

“Threats to public safety caused by a cash-intensive business model, often the target of criminal activity, have intensified in the months since the pandemic began,” they wrote in the letter. “The presence of large cash transactions places law enforcement, tax regulators, consumers, and patients at heightened risk of exposure to the virus.”

Utah Treasurer David Damschen also supports this legislation. He said allowing cannabis businesses to have regulated and insured financial services gives law enforcement the transparency it needs to distinguish legal marijuana businesses from criminal activity.

“There is no silver bullet to address the cannabis banking problem on the state level,” he said in the news release. “We need the federal government to respect the move among states toward varying degrees of legalization and to better harmonize its laws regarding cannabis-related activities.”

Utah Banking Association President Howard Headlee also expressed support for the legislation.

The attorneys general argued that tax revenue from the marijuana industry, which generated about $15 billion in sales nationwide in 2019, would provide critical relief to state and local governments facing budget shortfalls because of coronavirus.

Under the current law, federal regulators prevent financial institutions from serving marijuana businesses in states where medical or retail cannabis sales are legal. This forces businesses to function as cash-only operations.

State and territorial attorneys general first pressed Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act in May of 2019 but the bill did not pass.

“Congress has had the opportunity to reform these laws for quite a while, there has been consistent support from attorneys general, from treasurers, from others to have this narrow change happen," Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank in Utah that has focused on medical marijuana, said in an interview. “And yet as we saw last year ... it ultimately is not prioritized by congressional leadership and there are certain people in Congress who appear to want status quo.”

Boyack said The Libertas Institute doesn’t support merging the proposal with coronavirus relief.

"We would prefer that there be a stand alone up and down vote on this issue so that Congress for once can start to signal its reasonableness on cannabis policy and change the law” Boyack said. “But We are encouraged to see so many state leaders, including here in Utah calling on Congress to make this change and we hope that it happens soon.”