The Loudmouth Project

The Marijuana Money Dilemma

In this episode, Rep. Ben McAdams discusses the Safe Banking Act (H.R. 1595) with Washington Rep. Denny Heck. With 34 states legalizing marjiuana to some degree, including Utah (medicinal), federal lawmakers are now grappling with how to allow those businesses dispensing or selling marijuana to use the federally insured banks or credit unions. Running cash-only businesses has made these dispensaries targets for criminals, and Rep. Heck shares a tragic story in his conversation with Rep. McAdams.

The Utah State Treasurer and the Utah legislature have asked Congress to solve the problem and the SAFE Banking Act provides help. Nationally, the financial services industry has been calling for guidance on how to do business with companies that are legal in many states but are not legal at the federal level. Compliance burdens and fear of violating anti-money laundering laws have kept the number of financial institutions willing to do business with marijuana companies to only a few dozen.

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Ben 0:03
Testing 1-2-3; 1-2-3 testing.

I'm Ben McAdams, and I represent Utah's Fourth Congressional District. Before I was elected last November, I was the mayor of Salt Lake County. It's my belief that Washington might work better if we thought about governing the country, the way mayors approach leading their communities. In this podcast, I'm hoping to show you what being a member of Congress is really like, and whether it's possible to run this country the way we run our local governments.

Welcome to WashingTown.

(Interview begins) So I'm talking today with Representative Denny Heck, who is sponsoring the safe banking at this would create a banking safe harbor for marijuana. Utah legalized as I was telling you, Representative Heck, Utah legalized medical marijuana by ballot initiative in the last election. And then the legislature modified that legalization... but kept largely intact, with some pretty significant changes, but kept intact the possibility for medical marijuana in Utah. So that that gives rise to this question about banking and financing... Why don't you explain a little bit the challenge and then what your legislation would do?

Rep. Heck 1:18
Thank you, Congressman. First of all, I believe Utah became the 47th state to legalize some form of marijuana consumption either on the medical end up to full blown adult recreational use. The purpose of the Safe Banking Act is very straightforward. It's a public safety measure, designed to enable growers, or processors, or retailers to actually use the banking system. That is to bank at a credit union or to bank at a bank. So that they do not have to be all cash businesses. Now I say this is a public safety measure, because the fact of the matter is, if these retail shops in particular, are operating on what is perceived to be all cash, they become a very attractive magnet for crime. Indeed, I never talk about this issue ever one time, without mentioning the name of Travis Mason. Travis was a 23-year-old security guard at a marijuana retail establishment in Colorado. He was a marine veteran, as was his wife. He was studying to be a law enforcement officer. In fact, he just got notice that he could take the test to enter the Denver police force. He and his wife had three children at the age of 23. They had a pair of twins, and one night, while on duty at the marijuana retail establishment, somebody came in to rob it, because they thought it was all cash, shot him dead and left his wife a widow, and his three children without a father. So the purpose of this bill is to get cash out of the operation of marijuana businesses in states that have legally constituted marijuana businesses.

Ben 2:59
So when... we introduced this bill in committee earlier this year, and you...shared a personal story that I thought was really compelling. I don't know if you're willing to talk about that, or if it's too personal.

Rep. Heck 3:10
I presume you're referring to my brother? Yeah, I don't talk about that very much, but I'm glad to answer the question, of course. So I had an older brother, Bob, five years older, and was somebody that I looked up to very much, was an exceptional athlete had a actual football college scholarship, but chose instead to enter the Marine Corps after being out of high school just a year; and that sent him to Vietnam where he served during the Tet Offensive in some of the most violent times of that unfortunate war. He came home and within two years, developed a large lump on his neck. We finally persuaded him to go to a doctor where he was diagnosed with the single most common manifestation of exposure to Agent Orange, namely Hodgkin's disease. And like any good Marine, which is probably redundant, he fought it valiantly for almost 12 years, and it took an incredible toll on his body - first through cobalt treatment, later chemotherapy.

And one of the only ways in which he was able to gain relief during the chemotherapy, during the later stages of his life, was through smoking marijuana. I've always thought it was an incredible irony that the same country that asked him to put on the uniform and put himself in harm's way, then also made him a criminal for seeking relief, in the only way that was possible for him at the time. And well, that's that story, Congressman.

Ben 4:47
So one of the things that I thought was really interesting from the hearing earlier this year. Thank you for sharing that story about your brother. I think that highlights really...why Utah legalized marijuana is compassion for patients who are suffering and need some relief, and we don't want to make criminals out of them. We wanted to provide them some relief from from some of their suffering. One of the things that I thought was really interesting about the committee hearing of earlier this earlier this year, was I think there was some some concern expressed from both sides of the aisle to the bill, but more importantly, I thought that there was really bipartisan support for what you were trying to accomplish. So we're going into markup today on the bill. Tomorrow, I should say, and how are you feeling? You feel optimistic that you're going to get bipartisan support for this at the end of the day? And, and and maybe see this bill become law?

Rep. Heck 5:39
Yeah, I don't have any doubt that we're going to get bipartisan support. I should probably mention to the listeners that you and I are taping this, in the cloakroom, behind the floor of the House of Representatives, where some members are engaged in loud side conversations. So we apologize to your listeners.

Ben 5:57
And I would add that... you and I just voted in people are trickling in and voting on the resolution to overturn the President's veto on the emergency declaration. You and I voted in support of it, and...as we're waiting, waiting to see if it gets the two thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Rep. Heck 6:12
And none of us are holding our breath on that (laughing). Yes, the Safe Banking Act will receive bipartisan support. The fact of the matter is that it very notably has a couple of strong champions on the other side of the aisle in the form of Steve Stivers from Ohio, and Warren Davidson, also, coincidentally, from Ohio. I think it's notable because Steve Stivers, who's a good guy, and you will learn if you haven't already, that he's pretty good to work with, was actually the most recent Chair of the House Republican Campaign Committee. So nothing could represent bipartisanship more than having Steve on the bill in some ways, but he won't be the only one. We'll have several others. In fact, on test votes in years past, when we were never able to get to a vote on a bill, per se, but did on occasion, several years ago have votes on amendments to the appropriations bill along these lines - they passed with strong bipartisan support - and it has grown over the years, as states continue to adopt this, and the kind of common sense nature of giving businesses access to the banking system becomes more and more apparent. Even for people who don't believe we should legalize marijuana in any form, that's not what this bill is about. This is about making sure that those who do operate in states that have legalized it often by the voters, like in Utah, but sometimes by state legislatures simply have access to the banking system. So we don't have people walking around with backpacks full of cash every night dealing with this. It's simply an unsafe situation and not good for anybody.

Ben 7:52
Yeah, I think in terms that would resonate with some of Utah's voters in particular is the federalism. You know, that this the states rights issue the state of Utah has chosen to legalize to to a degree marijuana consumption for medical purposes, and should the federal government override that...by closing access to the banking system, or should we accommodate what a state has chosen to do, and I think that's an argument and part of why, you know, I saw republican elected officials from the state of Utah talking to me about why they wanted to see your bill pass and how it would be useful beneficial to the state of Utah. So whether it's the voters...who boldly voted in support of legalization of marijuana, or the legislature who has acted to endorse that with some with some controversial modifications, but nonetheless, to maintain the legality of medical marijuana in the state of Utah. I'm hopeful that we see your bill passed. I think it's needed for the states. It's needed for the industry to make sure it's safe and most importantly, so that patients can have safe access to a medicine that, a painkiller, that that they may need.

Rep. Heck 9:01
Virtually all of the states that have adopted some form of legalization have adopted medical marijuana. And look, you asked that I share my story, that of my family, I should say. My brother passed away December 9, 1981. He was 34 years old. He didn't get to live a complete life, and those end stage symptoms associated with the side effects of chemotherapy ravaged his body in a way that I can't... I just don't even like to think about, bu you know what, that's not an unusual story at all. There are very few of us if you were in a room full of people and you ask them, raise your hand if you've had a family member suffer from or die from cancer. Virtually every hand would go up, and frankly, if you ask them, How many have sought palliative care through the use of marijuana related product? You'd be stunned. One of my staff members came in this morning, in shock, because she just learned that in 1994 her 80 year old grandfather, who was dying of cancer, relieved his symptoms with marijuana (laughing) Frankly, far before it was legal, but it's been amply demonstrated that can help in instances of relief like that. It's even been demonstrated, I think, fairly adequately, that it can relieve some of the symptoms associated with epilepsy. There are lots of ways. In fact, one of the things that the federal government should be doing is doing a better job of more scientific research about other ways in which it might help relieve people from pain and suffering.

Ben 10:42
Well, Representative Danny Heck, thanks for taking a minute to talk with me. Let's go in and see how the rest of the votes going, but thanks for stepping off the floor.

Rep. Heck 10:48
Thank you, Congressman McAdams, and thanks for being such a great new member of Congress.

Ben 11:04
(Music) I want to thank you for listening to WashingTown. What I'd really love to hear is from you. To follow this journey, subscribe for free on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, the KSL radio app, and anywhere you find interesting podcasts. To be part of this experiment in making the world's most powerful city responsive to citizens. Please email me at tips@loudmouthproject.com.

Amy Donaldson 11:29
We would like to thank the village that made this podcast possible. Andrea Smardon, Dani Akana, Alyson Heyrend, and of course, Congressman Ben McAdams.

Daphne Brass 11:40
WashingTown is a production of the Loudmouth Project.

About the author, Amy

For nearly three decades, Amy has been telling other people’s stories. As a professional journalist, she’s covered everything from crime to education, spending the last 19 years in sports. As an award-winning writer and columnist, she wrote about high school and college athletics, as well as covering six Olympic Games. Born in Utah, Amy moved to Alaska in junior high and graduated from Robert Service High School in Anchorage. She graduated from both Snow College and the University of Utah, and she has worked as a journalist in Salt Lake City since 1990. She co-hosted a high school radio show for over a decade, and she co-founded Voices of Reason podcast with her Deseret News colleague Jasen Lee. She is a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a devoted foster to animals hoping to find a home of their own.

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