By Chris Reed.
Four months after a high-profile effort to find a way to provide California’s legal marijuana industry with access to financial services ended in failure, state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and state Treasurer Fiona Ma are back with a new proposal.
In his final weeks on the job, Ma’s predecessor as treasurer – John Chiang
– announced that he no longer believed the Cannabis Banking Working Group that he chaired for two years could come up with a solution to a basic problem: Most banks do not want to provide services to marijuana growers, delivery services and shop owners until federal regulators or Congress and President Donald Trump approved changes in federal policy. Though more than 30 states have legalized the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis, under federal law, it remains a Schedule 1 – meaning very serious – illegal drug.
“[The federal government] must either remove cannabis from its official list of banned narcotics or approve safe harbor legislation that protects banks serving cannabis businesses from prosecution,” Chiang said at a Dec. 27 public meeting of the Cannabis Banking Working Group.
But with the recreational marijuana industry off to a much-slower start than expected since 2016’s Proposition 64 began allowing recreational sales on Jan. 1, 2018, state elected officials are under pressure to help the industry. While other lawmakers have focused on reducing taxes and regulations and making it easier to get permits, Hertzberg and Ma see providing basic financial services as crucial to normalizing legal recreational cannabis and to limiting the corruption and employee safety risk of having a multi-billion-dollar cash-only industry.
That’s why Hertzberg introduced Senate Bill 51, which would let individuals or companies in the private sector seek state charters that would allow them to create credit unions and banks of limited scope specifically for the cannabis industry. The special banks could provide checking services allowing marijuana companies to “open and use checking accounts, make or receive electronic payments, or accept credit or debit cards.”
Oversight of the new banks would be assigned to the newly created Cannabis Limited Charter Bank and Credit Union Advisory Board, whose board would include the state treasurer and controller.
Last year, Hertzberg offered Senate Bill 930, a similar measure that easily passed the state Senate and two Assembly committees before dying in murky circumstances in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Ma co-sponsored that measure while still serving as a state senator.
In a recent Capitol Weekly story, Hertzberg’s spokeswoman suggested that SB 930 failed because of then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s tacit opposition.
“The bill itself this year is probably going to be extremely similar to last year, but a few outside aspects have changed,” said Katie Hanzlik. “We guessed that there wasn’t quite as much of an appetite in the previous administration, so the good thing on that front is that we have a new administration, and it’s our understanding that Gov. Newsom is really open to this whole field of cannabis and making this industry work in the state.”
While lieutenant governor, Newsom was perhaps the highest-profile supporter of Proposition 64.
The first legislative hearing on SB 51 has not yet been scheduled.