After Repeatedly Opposing Marijuana Banking Reform, Cory Booker Says It Is Urgently Needed
The senator bemoans the "cannabis crisis" he helped maintain by blocking the SAFE Banking Act.
Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) says the dearth of financial services for state-licensed marijuana businesses constitutes a "cannabis crisis" that Congress must address as soon as possible. This is the same senator who, together with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.), blocked marijuana banking reform in 2021, when Booker promised he would "do everything I can" to prevent its approval.
At best, Booker's striking about-face on this issue is evidence of a grave strategic miscalculation he made when he joined Schumer in arguing that the SAFE Banking Act, which would eliminate the threat of federal penalties for financial institutions that serve state-legal marijuana suppliers, would undermine the prospects of broader reform. At worst, it indicates that Booker is less interested in addressing the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws than he is in scoring political points by misleadingly blaming Republicans for the lack of progress.
Because marijuana is still prohibited under federal law, banks worry that serving the cannabis industry could expose them to criminal charges, civil penalties, and ruinous regulatory sanctions. Marijuana businesses therefore have trouble financing their operations and are forced to rely heavily on cash, which makes them ripe targets for robbery. The results are apparent in states such as Washington, Oregon, and Michigan, where people who sell or deliver marijuana have to contend with armed criminals attracted by the money they handle. That sometimes deadly threat is the "cannabis crisis" that Booker bemoaned in a recent interview with NJ.com.
The SAFE Banking Act, which Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D–Colo.) reintroduced in March 2021, aims to resolve that problem. It has broad bipartisan appeal because it would simultaneously reduce the harm caused by federal prohibition, promote public safety, help small businesses, and respect the autonomy of the 37 states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.
The House of Representatives has approved marijuana banking reform more than half a dozen times, including an April 2021 vote in which the SAFE Banking Act attracted the support of 215 Democrats and 106 Republicans. The Senate version, which Sen. Jeff Merkley (D–Ore.) introduced five days after Perlmutter filed his bill, attracted 42 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans.
The SAFE Banking Act nevertheless has languished in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where Schumer and Booker initially insisted that their own marijuana legislation, aimed at repealing the federal ban, take priority. They released a 163-page discussion draft of that bill in July 2021 but did not actually introduce the legislation until a year later. By that point their Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act had expanded to 296 pages, and it was full of unnecessarily prescriptive, burdensome, and contentious provisions that belied Schumer's claim that he was keen to attract Republican support.
Given the need for at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster, even a straightforward repeal of marijuana prohibition was always a long shot in the Senate. By filling their bill with new taxes, regulations, and "social equity" spending provisions, Booker and Schumer guaranteed that it would go nowhere, which is what happened. The bill never attracted more than the four original co-sponsors: Schumer and three other Democrats.
In the meantime, Booker and Schumer portrayed the SAFE Banking Act as a threat to more ambitious reform rather than a politically feasible step that would make life safer and easier for people who work in an industry they were supposedly eager to normalize. "If we let this bill out," Schumer warned in 2021, "it will make it much harder and take longer to pass comprehensive reform."
Booker took the same position. "When it comes to legalizing recreational marijuana, we can't allow the creation of this massive, multibillion dollar industry unless the taxes from that industry get reinvested in the communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs," he said in July 2021. "I don't know about other members of the Senate, but I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that's going to allow all these corporations to make a lot more money off of this, as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspect."
Booker was true to his word. After the House approved a version of that year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that included the SAFE Banking Act, he and Schumer made sure it was excised from the final text of the bill.
Despite its long history of supporting piecemeal reforms, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) cheered them on. It warned that passing the SAFE Banking Act would "prioritize marijuana profits over people." The bizarre implication was that marijuana merchants, who face a daunting, life-threatening danger that is exacerbated by a lack of financial services, do not qualify as "people."
Perlmutter did not see it that way. "People are still getting killed and businesses are still getting robbed because of a lack of action from the Senate," he complained in December 2021. The SAFE Banking Act "has been sitting in the Senate for three years," he noted, "and with every passing day their unwillingness to deal with the issue endangers and harms businesses, their employees, and communities across the country."
Booker and Schumer's obstruction also drew sharp rebukes from other House Democrats. "I don't really quite know what the hell [Schumer's] problem is," House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D–Mass.) said. "But what he's doing is he's making it very difficult for a lot of small businesses…to move forward and to expand and to hire more people."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D–Wash.) shared McGovern's dismay. "As a practical matter, to not have the SAFE Banking Act is incredibly dangerous," he said. Under current law, he noted, state-licensed marijuana suppliers "basically have to run a cash business" and "can't do the normal banking" that other businesses take for granted.
Unfazed by such criticism, Schumer and Booker blocked the SAFE Banking Act again in June 2022, when the Senate removed it from the America COMPETES Act. They did not relent until late last year, when they were suddenly open to marijuana banking reform combined with grants aimed at encouraging expungement of marijuana records.
After the midterm elections, when Republicans won control of the House, Booker warned that marijuana reform could take "many years" unless Congress approved it during the lame-duck session. He lamented that "there's very little time in this lame duck and a lot of things that people want to do."
Schumer desperately scrambled to pass the SAFE Banking Act as an amendment to the 2022 NDAA or the Consolidated Appropriations Act. When those end-of-the-year negotiations came to naught, Schumer blamed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.), who had condemned the SAFE Banking Act as "liberal nonsense" that Democrats were inappropriately trying to include in unrelated bills. Booker likewise blamed Republican leaders in the Senate, who he said were "dead set [against] anything [involving] marijuana."
It's true that McConnell opposed the SAFE Banking Act. But Schumer and Booker opposed it first, and their misguided resistance doomed a meaningful improvement they claimed to favor.
"Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House and still couldn't get cannabis reform bills passed," Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), a co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, noted in December. "I would go much further and end the federal war on a plant entirely, but at LEAST let legal business operate as a legal business."
Now Booker is trying to erase this history. He told NJ.com he wants to "drive [marijuana reform] as far as we can go" but worried that "the dynamics have shifted pretty dramatically" now that Republicans control the House. It is "definitely going to be harder, but not impossible," he said. "I do think there's a chance. Remember there's always been a good bipartisan coalition of people that want to do something….The urgencies that pushed us towards some kind of partnership are still there, on the business side as well as the restorative justice side."
Where was this sense of urgency when Booker stubbornly resisted the "something" that could have been achieved thanks to that "good bipartisan coalition"? Even as he opposed the SAFE Banking Act in 2021, he conceded that passing it would have been "easy." He squandered that opportunity in favor of a quixotic effort to pass a broader bill that was dead on arrival. His self-righteous, anti-capitalist posturing, which was echoed by the DPA, made him complicit in maintaining a situation that puts lives at risk, all so he could claim a moral high ground he manifestly does not deserve.