A recent robbery at Best Buds, a marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon, was "so violent" that it "sent shockwaves through the industry," Willamette Week reports. "Thieves pistol-whipped one employee and shot at another as he emerged from the restroom with his hands up."
That was not an isolated incident. Willamette Week notes that "crime at cannabis shops exploded during the pandemic, culminating in the killing of a North Portland budtender in late 2020." During the first half of this year, the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission counted 12 robberies of licensed pot stores, which are ripe targets because a dearth of financial services forces them to rely heavily on cash.
That situation is a by-product of the continuing federal ban on marijuana, which makes banks leery of serving cannabis suppliers. The problem would have been solved by now but for resistance from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.), who has insisted that his own legalization bill take priority over the SAFE Banking Act, which would eliminate the threat of criminal, civil, and regulatory penalties for providing financial services to state-authorized marijuana businesses.
Amazingly, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has long supported marijuana reform, joins Schumer in opposing the SAFE Banking Act. When the bill was included in the House version of last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the organization said it was essential to "keep the SAFE Banking Act OUT of this omnibus bill" because enacting the legislation would amount to "prioritiz[ing] marijuana profits over people." The bizarre implication was that marijuana merchants, who face an ongoing danger aggravated by the failure to approve banking reform, do not qualify as "people."
Michael Arthur, the 44-year-old Portland budtender killed in the 2020 robbery that Willamette Week mentioned, was a person. So was Jordan Brown, the 29-year-old employee who was killed last March during an armed robbery at World of Weed, a dispensary in Tacoma, Washington. The employees who were pistol-whipped and shot at during the Best Buds robbery this month are also people.
Schumer and the DPA argue that passing the SAFE Banking Act would relieve pressure for more ambitious reforms. But Schumer's Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act—which he filed last week, more than a year after unveiling a discussion draft—is doomed in the Senate, where it would need the support of at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster.
By contrast, the SAFE Banking Act has been repeatedly approved by the House with broad, bipartisan support, and the Senate version has nine Republican cosponsors. Last year and this year, it was included in broader legislation passed by the House, which so far has approved the SAFE Banking Act six times in one form or another, but excised from the final versions thanks to Schumer's opposition.
The SAFE Banking Act, which Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D–Colo.) reintroduced in March 2021, attracted 180 cosponsors in the House, including 26 Republicans. It passed the House that April by a vote of 321–101, with support from 106 Republicans. Perlmutter's amendment adding his bill to last year's NDAA was approved by a voice vote in September. His amendment adding the bill to the America COMPETES Act was approved along with a bunch of others by a vote of 221–211 in February.
Both times, Senate leaders nixed the SAFE Banking Act. "People are still getting killed and businesses are still getting robbed because of a lack of action from the Senate," Perlmutter said after his bill was stripped from the NDAA. "The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate for three years and with every passing day their unwillingness to deal with the issue endangers and harms businesses, their employees, and communities across the country."
Perlmutter reiterated that complaint after his bill was removed from the America COMPETES Act. "The Senate continues to ignore the public safety risk of forcing cannabis businesses to deal in all cash," he said on Twitter. "In the wake of the Senate's inaction, people continue to be killed and businesses continue to be robbed."
The SAFE Banking Act would by no means address all of the problems created by the conflict between federal prohibition and the laws of the 37 states that have legalized the medical or recreational use of cannabis. State-licensed marijuana businesses would still be subject to onerous federal income tax rules that prevent them from claiming standard business deductions. They would still be committing federal felonies every day by selling marijuana and handling the proceeds, compounded by additional felonies if they dare to arm themselves against the potentially deadly threat they face because of the failure to approve banking reform.
In March, a security guard at Euphorium Marijuana Shop in Covington, a Seattle suburb, shot and killed an armed robber who had taken a fellow employee hostage. "Anybody that would put their life out there to protect someone else is absolutely a hero," Lindsey Evans, the store's general manager, told the Fox station in Seattle.
Federal law does not view that guard as heroic. For discharging a weapon possessed "in furtherance of drug trafficking," he would face a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. And since he "cause[d] the death of a person through the use of a firearm," he could face up to life in prison under the same statute.
How so? This month, the Justice Department bragged about a federal guilty plea by a Roanoke, Virginia, drug dealer who had been acquitted of murder in state court. Even though a state jury concluded that he had acted in self-defense, the plea deal called for a 12-year federal prison sentence. "Drug dealers with firearms should take heed," Christopher Kavanaugh, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, warned. "You cannot shoot someone during a drug deal and then claim self-defense when you are carrying that firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking."
A state license to sell marijuana makes no difference under federal law. Even if they never brandish or fire a gun, state-authorized marijuana merchants who exercise their Second Amendment rights by keeping guns for self-defense are guilty of possessing firearms "in furtherance of drug trafficking," which is punishable by a five-year mandatory minimum the first time around and a 25-year mandatory minimum for subsequent offenses. Even the customers of pot shops could face up to 10 years in prison (maybe more) if they own guns, since federal law prohibits cannabis consumers from possessing firearms.
The SAFE Banking Act would do nothing to address the manifest injustice of those laws or the broader prohibition regime. Nor would it expunge the records of that regime's victims or free those who remain in federal prison. But it would make the business of selling cannabis less difficult and dangerous. And unlike broader reforms, it demonstrably could become law in the near future if Schumer were less concerned about signaling his virtue to progressives and more concerned about protecting people who work in the industry he says he wants to legalize.