Lawmakers seek to establish marijuana banking protocols

Sen. Cory Booker says businesses that sell even medical marijuana can’t get bank accounts, issue payroll checks or get loans — even in states like New Jersey, which legalized medical marijuana in 2010. That’s because federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I illegal drug — the same as heroin — and federal treasury officials might prosecute.

“You literally have people sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash because they can’t find places to bank. They’re paying their bills in cash. They’re paying their employees in cash. It’s just not a safe system,” Booker said.

“I’d like to make sure that we’re going through a transparent process that is legal. Versus the other process where, in fact, that money is flowing totally in cash because it is unbankable under existing banking laws,” Sen. Bob Menendez said.

New Jersey’s two Democratic senators spoke at a roundtable sponsored by NJ Spotlight at Capital Medical Center in Pennington.

Booker’s sponsoring the Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize weed and expunge criminal records for possession. A Menendez bill would establish marijuana banking protocols. He criticized U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch legal weed foe who once said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

In January, Sessions suddenly reversed the Obama administration’s 2013 memo urging restraints on prosecution.

Ironically, the opposition’s pushing Congress to action.

“For states that have legalized either for recreational use, or certainly medical marijuana, we need the Department of Justice to stand down and allow the states to ultimately operate,” Menendez said.

New Jersey’s health commissioner agreed, saying banking reforms will diversify the marijuana marketplace, especially if New Jersey legalizes recreational marijuana.

“Access to capital is a huge barrier for the medical dispensaries, so with the current laws you end up with a phenomenon where only the big players can compete. So these types of reforms will allow us to really amp up our diversity criteria to make sure we get folks from the communities that are serving the patients,” Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal said.

The panel vowed to oppose Trump administration efforts to weaken the Affordable Care Act, which is likely to be a major issue in New Jersey congressional campaigns this fall. Elnahal said New Jersey will advertise the individual market and set up a command center to aggressively publicize the next Obamacare open enrollment period despite federal funding cutbacks to health care navigators. It’s a political battle line.

“I just want to fight, fight, fight to protect people with pre-existing conditions, to protect people from lifetime caps, to protect people from all the things the Affordable Care Act was put in place to get us to the place, the point in America, where people aren’t living in fear of an illness, disease, or an injury, that it could bankrupt their families,” Booker said.

The Democrats said these issues do get come bipartisan support, but they say they also underscore the importance of these upcoming midterms in preserving health care for the future.