New House coronavirus stimulus includes language for cannabis banking relief

May 12, 2020

In a tense exchange on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul excoriated Dr. Anthony Fauci in a passive-aggressive back-and-forth that highlighted how the coronavirus has become ground zero for a bitter political battle between trained scientists and armchair epidemiologists. Paul, who earlier this year held the public’s ire when he recklessly made use of public spaces in the Senate building in Washington while waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test that turned out to be positive, subtly accused Fauci of being the “end-all” when it comes to decisionmaking concerning the deadly virus.

"I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what's best for the economy, and as much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don't think you're the end-all," Paul said in a near-empty Senate chamber. The junior senator from Kentucky argued the point of many on the COVID-truther right that the country was too quick to close down, causing unnecessary harm to the economy.

In his defense, Fauci agreed with the senator’s sentiment that he wasn’t the “end-all” but warned that many like Paul are taking a cavalier point-of-view.

"[W]e don't know everything about this virus ... we've really got to be very careful, particularly when it comes to children," said Fauci.

The divide between Dr. Fauci and Sen. Paul illuminated what many see as the government’s lackluster response to the economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, one that’s exposed fault lines in scores of once strong industries. Perhaps no sector has been hit harder by the near-depression than the once-booming cannabis trade, which today can’t even find help amidst the billions of dollars of federal stimulus due to marijuana’s prohibition status at the on the national stage.

All of that may change, however, as House leadership on Tuesday unveiled a new arm of stimulus legislation to boost the economy and help struggling Americans. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, the ‘‘HEROES Act,” is a massive relief bill that offers assistance to state and local governments, frontline health care workers, and those with student debt, Medicaid, and Medicare.

It also comes with a small surprise for the cannabis industry, as the bill includes language referring to HR 1595: The SAFE Banking Act, which was the House bill passed last year to allow banks and other federal institutions to work with cannabis businesses. According to a statement put out by NORML, they pushed for the language to be included in the bill, along with language that would allow companies to access to Small Business Administration Loans to help them through the pandemic.

As of today, over 240,000 Americans are employed by the cannabis industry — over four times the amount in the coal industry, which receives so much attention from the president and other political leaders.

According to NORML, however, the SBA language was not included in the bill.

“The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the CARES 2 package is a positive development, but one that’s akin to applying a band-aid to a gaping wound,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal in a statement. “In the majority of states, these cannabis businesses have been deemed essential during this pandemic. But at the federal level, they are being cast aside by Congress. Those small cannabis businesses facing tough economic times are essentially being told by Congress to shutter their doors and fire their employees.”

Over the past few months, many governors have labeled cannabis as an “essential” business, allowing pot shops and dispensaries to stay open during statewide closures. Doing so has been beneficial for economic reasons and as a harm reduction protocol, allowing many vulnerable people to continue to receive access to their medication while staving off withdrawals from deadlier drugs.

“While larger, better capitalized players may be able to weather this storm, smaller cannabis businesses may not be able to do so absent some economic stimulus,” added Strekal. “By continuing to deny these small businesses eligibility to SBA assistance, it is possible that we could see an acceleration of the corporatization of the cannabis industry in a manner that is inconsistent with the values and desires of many within the cannabis space.”

On a high note, Congress added a provision in the bill requiring the SBA not to discriminate against applicants “solely because of the applicant’s involvement in the criminal justice system.”  

“This development will help individuals who have suffered under the lasting legacy of marijuana criminalization, and will ensure that they no longer face undue economic discrimination when it comes to being eligible for SBA assistance," said Strekal.

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