Post date: 1/16/2019

There is a movement afoot in Washington to provide greater clarity to banks and others that want to provide credit and debit card and other services to businesses that selling cannabis products. Bipartisan legislation introduced this week in the U.S. House of Representatives would require the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to reinstate the so-called Cole Memo.

The Cole Memo, penned in 2013 by then Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, provided guidance on how banks can serve state-sanctioned cannabis businesses, and how those business can operate without running afoul of federal regulators or law enforcement agencies. The memo also suggested that it would not be an efficient use of federal enforcement resources to go after businesses engaged in state-sanctioned cannabis activities.

The Cole Memo was rescinded last year, however, by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The new House legislation – the Sensible Enforcement of Cannabis Act – drafted by Representative J. Luis Correa (D-CA), would require DOJ to reinstate the memo. It is backed by 6 co-sponsors, both Democrats and Republicans.

Correa, in introducing the legislation, argued that the Attorney General’s action last year was a rebuke to states that “in good faith” implemented regulatory frameworks for cannabis businesses. He said his legislation would prohibit DOJ from prosecuting individuals engaged in state-sanctioned cannabis businesses

“The repeal of the Cole Memo contravenes the will of the American public,” Rep. Correa said. The 30 or so states that have legalized sales of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes account for more than half the U.S. population, he noted. “Furthermore, this decision will negatively affect numerous Americans who utilize cannabis for medicinal purposes. We need to provide consumers, patients, businesses and regulators with certainty,” Correa insisted.

The Sensible Enforcement of Cannabis Act is one or at least 4 bills that have been introduced in the new Congress, which began earlier this month. Another bill, the Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol Act, was introduced by Representative Earl Bluemenauer (D-OR), who founded the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. That bill would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, and place it under the regulatory jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

While several bills were introduced in the last Congress to protect state-sanctioned cannabis businesses, and/or to legalize cannabis outright, none ever enjoyed serious consideration. But that could change now with new leadership in the House. The Speaker of the House controls what legislation comes up for votes in the chamber. And the new Speaker, Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), has co-sponsored several pro-cannabis bills in the past, including several aimed at protecting state-sanctioned cannabis businesses from federal prosecution.

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