The governor, attorney general and other top officials in Washington State sent a letter to congressional leaders, again emphasizing the urgent need to pass marijuana banking reform as a public safety imperative.

Gov. Jay Inslee (D), Lt. Gov. Denny Heck (D), Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) and Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti (D) sent the letter on Monday, explaining how the state was among the first to enact adult-use legalization but how the industry continues to lack access to critical financial services due to federal prohibition.

“This has resulted in a limited number of financial service companies available to cannabis businesses,” the officials wrote. “While we are making every effort to ensure our cannabis businesses are aware of these services, this restriction has become a catalyst for a very real public safety crisis in the state of Washington.”

“Many of our cannabis businesses still rely largely on cash transactions and have increasingly become targets for armed robbers,” the letter continues. “In the first two months of 2022, reports indicate that there have been more than 50 armed robberies of state-licensed cannabis retail stores. This surpasses the number of robberies in all of 2020 or 2021.”

The letter urges congressional leaders to find a vehicle to advance the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act from U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), which has cleared the House in some form six times now but continues to stall in the Senate.

One of Washington’s representatives in the U.S. Senate, the third-highest-ranking Democratic member in the chamber, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), has taken special interest in the issue, describing it as a priority as an appointed member on a bicameral conference for a separate bill that could serve as a vehicle for getting it enacted.

While Senate leaders who are working on a comprehensive legalization bill say that they want to see the broader reform enacted first, there are growing calls to pass the incremental, bipartisan measure to mitigate the risk of violent crime targeting the state-legal industries.

“It is not hyperbole to call this a matter of life and death,” the officials said. “The SAFE Banking Act could address this specific and urgent need by allowing cannabis retailers to use cashless payment options, such as credit and debit cards.”

The letter also says that the Washington officials “applaud” the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a cannabis legalization bill early last month, and they “look forward” to the introduce of the separate reform bill that’s being finalized by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and colleagues.

“Consideration of these bills is a great step forward for addressing the longstanding inequity that the federal prohibition on cannabis continues to perpetuate, and Congress should move swiftly to pass comprehensive reform,” they wrote. “However, we understand the road to either of these measures becoming law is uncertain and will take time. Time is something Washingtonians being hurt by robberies in our cannabis businesses do not have.”

“While the House and Senate work together towards a vehicle that will address legalization and reform nationally, as we have already done in Washington, we urge you to act now on the SAFE Banking Act. Lives have been lost and others continue to be at stake due to the ongoing public safety crisis in our state. We urgently need federal action to ensure that these legal businesses cease to be a target of violence.”

Heck, the lieutenant governor, previously was a lead sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act when he served in Congress.

In the new letter, the officials didn’t specify what type of vehicle leadership should pursue, but advocates and stakeholders are hopeful that the SAFE Banking Act will be reincorporated into a wide-scale manufacturing and innovation bill that’s moving to bicameral conference. The House including the cannabis language in its version, but it was stripped in the Senate.

A top aide for Schumer tempered expectations about the prospects of moving marijuana banking through the America COMPETES Act, but other key lawmakers have indicated that they’re willing to put up a fight for the reform.

Meanwhile, Washington State officials also recently held a virtual roundtable to address the spate of deadly robberies targeting marijuana retailers, with regulators reiterating their call for a federal policy change and discussing steps the state can take on its own while Congress fails to act.

The reluctance from the Senate to pass the SAFE Banking Act prior to enacting comprehensive legalization was also the subject of a letter from Perlmutter that was sent to Senate leadership last month.

Pellicciotti, Washington State’s treasurer, has also been especially vocal about the need for congressional reform, and he wrote in a recent letter to his colleagues in other states that it’s “just not safe to have this financial volume in cash.”

He made similar remarks at a recent conference of the National Association of State Treasurers (NAST). And Colorado Treasurer Dave Young echoed that sentiment in a recent interview with Marijuana Moment.

In the absence of congressional action, more states are moving to enact marijuana banking reform policies on their own. For example, Pennsylvania House lawmakers filed a companion bill to a Senate-passed measure last week that would provide banking protections and tax relief for marijuana businesses.

But the issue hasn’t been entirely lost on Congress. Perlmutter, for his part, has even made a point to talk about enacting the reform legislation during committee hearings on ostensibly unrelated or wider-ranging legislation, like at a recent House Rules Committee hearing.

Despite recently saying that he’s “confident” that the Senate will take up his bill this session, the congressman recognized that while he’s supportive of revisions related to criminal justice reform, taxation, research and other issues, he knows that “as we expand this thing, then we start losing votes, particularly Republican votes and we got enough votes in the Senate to do it” as is.

Meanwhile, the number of banks that report working with marijuana businesses ticked up again near the end of 2021, according to recently released federal data.

It’s not clear if the increase is related to congressional moves to pass a bipartisan cannabis banking reform bill, but the figures from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) signal that financial institutions continue to feel more comfortable servicing businesses in state-legal markets.

Some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, too. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue in December.

Read the letter from Washington State officials on passing marijuana banking reform below: 

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