FALSE ALARM: Cannabis Co-Chair Says No Concrete Plan To Combine Expungement Bill With SAFE Banking Act

Recent headlines about a new catch-all marijuana package being crafted at the Capitol have been overstated. Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) says there’s no real effort to merge the SAFE Banking Act with his bill to expunge cannabis records.

Rather, Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had broad conversations with Republicans about weed, including a wide ranging one with Joyce where they discussed the possibility of combining the measures.

“I think we’re just discussing potential options and outcomes, and it was nice to engage in a bipartisan, bicameral discussion on what we think can work,” Joyce told The Outlaw Report.

Joyce and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are the lead sponsors of the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, which would use Department of Justice grants to incentivize states to expunge cannabis offenses from people’s criminal records.

Separately, House Democrats have been pressuring their Senate counterparts to pass their SAFE Banking Act – which protects banks working with state-legal weed firms, even though marijuana is still federally prohibited. That House measure is tucked inside a bill to boost American competitiveness with China – the America COMPETES Act – and proponents still see that as their best chance of passing any marijuana reform this Congress.

With all these acronyms floating about, The Outlaw Report sought direct clarification from Joyce on whether Schumer was really looking to pull cannabis banking reform from the COMPETES Act to combine it with the HOPE Act as a standalone bill.

“My discussion was just a discussion,” Joyce said. “We did not talk in particulars or what the bill looks like other than these are some ideas that Republicans may be able to rally around.”

The veteran prosecutor turned co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), who is the SAFE Act’s lead sponsor, inadvertently confused reporters by divulging part of their private conversations at a cannabis forum last week.

“Let me back up: Ed Perlmutter just sort of threw that out there,” Joyce said through laughter. “Afterwards I was like, ’Ed, you sort of threw me under the bus up there.’ When I have conversations with folks, I don’t talk about them. You know me, I’m not out there looking for press.”

Joyce said Perlmutter “wants SAFE no matter how it goes about, and he doesn’t care what gets linked with.”

Meanwhile, he said the Senate leader is still working out a strategy to advance weed reforms in his chamber.

“Sen. Schumer’s going to do what Sen. Schumer does. And then after that, if it goes anywhere, great,” Joyce said. “Sen. Schumer is having discussions with a lot of folks, trying to understand what the field of play is.”

The dust-up has brought attention to something progressives fear is being lost in the debate as major financial institutions rally behind the SAFE Banking Act, hoping they’ll soon be able to legally tap into the nation’s multi-billion dollar “green rush.”

“So if we don’t allow the expungement of people’s records, if we don’t allow a prioritization of any potential licenses to communities that have been disproportionately affected, this is really just going to be like a cannabis redlining,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Outlaw Report at the Capitol earlier this year. “And we can’t allow for that.”

The New York progressive doesn’t hide her cynicism when it comes to Wall Street’s efforts to jump the line in the burgeoning weed industry.

“I think there is a very strong need for those criminal justice components, to be frank,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Here’s the issue: the same private equity and private prison groups that lobby to uphold war on drugs level laws that profited from our private prison complex who are then, when those things get shut down, are the same private equity folks that are then going to invest in disproportionately white, rich, Wall Street led marijuana and cannabis [firms].”

Democratic Party leaders in the House have allowed the SAFE Banking Act to pass numerous times. As key Democrats continue to advocate for its inclusion in America COMPETES, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said he too wants to see expungements addressed in the near future – but he also supports passing the banking protections on its own.

“I think expungement for something that we now are saying is in fact not a criminal act, I think that’s an appropriate provision,” Hoyer told The Outlaw Report.

Generally considered a more moderate Democrat, Hoyer has recently undergone his own evolution on weed.

“I’ve come to this,” Hoyer said. “I don’t smoke and I don’t drink, so I’ve never really done those substances. So I’m not really into this in terms of taking it, but I’ve come to the conclusion. When Mississippi votes to legalize it, every other state where it’s been on the ballot, it’s clear the public does not believe this is a dangerous substance that ought to be prohibited.”

While most pot prisoners are confined at the state level, Hoyer said expunging cannabis records for even just a few thousand people at the federal level is more than just an attempt to incentivize states to follow suit.

“lt’s important because that’s what we have jurisdiction over. We don’t want to take jurisdiction away from the states on criminal law statutes, because that has been there,” Hoyer said, adding it also “will be a signal that the federal government, at least, believes this is not an item that ought to continue to besmirch somebody’s record, if in fact, that’s all they have [on their record].”

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) agrees.

“I just think it’s a national issue, you have laws that have been on the books for a long time, that have had an impact on different communities,” Cardin told The Outlaw Report.

“Some of it is part of the systemic, discriminatory problems we have in our criminal justice system,” he said, So I think criminal justice reform very much involves recognizing that we need to modernize the way that we deal with people who have criminal records.”

Schumer and other key Senate Democrats continue to push back against House efforts to pass SAFE Banking this Congress and tackle expungements later. Many Republicans oppose criminal justice-focused proposals, and it’s unclear what, if anything, can pass in the Senate, in part because Schumer’s never allowed a marijuana vote in his chamber.

“It’s not a question of overcomplicating it – it’s a question of can it pass? That’s been the issue,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) told The Outlaw Report. “So Sen. Schumer is the leader of the caucus. If he thinks he can get the Republican support necessary and put in some of that restorative justice, then I’m fully supportive.”

“But those votes aren’t there,” this reporter replied. “I’ve talked to those Republican senators.”

“I haven’t yet and I plan to,” Hickenlooper said. “I’m plugging my way through it.”

Back in the House, Democrats say Schumer and other senators are losing sight of the important social equity provisions they built into the SAFE Banking Act.

“In general, I always believe in codifying equity on the front end rather than trying to retrofit it on the back end,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) told The Outlaw Report.

The Squad member helped craft a progressive cannabis licensing measure while a city councilwoman in Boston, and she said it’s time to pass SAFE Banking – while also continuing their fight to win the expungement of records for current cannabis prisoners.

“The bottom line is you have a multibillion-dollar industry. We want to make sure that people who were disproportionately locked up are not now locked out of this industry,” Pressley said. “And then we want to make sure that we are undoing the harm that was done through the war on drugs, through disparate sentencing that locked all those folks up for now – majority people of color.”

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