The United States Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill on Thursday, July 23,

2015, allowing the nation’s capital to establish regulated marijuana retail stores, and to allow

banks to provide financial services to state-legalized marijuana dispensaries. These are two of

the major marijuana reforms advancing in Congress.  In addition, sentencing reform is gaining

support, and the U.S. Federal Government is shifting its attitude towards treating drug use as a

health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Last November, 72% of D.C. voters approved a

ballot measure making it legal to possess and grow marijuana for personal use. The campaign to

pass Initiative 71 was driven by public demands to end racially-biased enforcement of marijuana

laws. It was seen as the first step at taking marijuana out of the black market. A wide-ranging

coalition of community organizations from many civil rights organizations, faith leaders, and

community advocacy groups supported Initiative 71. They viewed it as an opportunity to restore

the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.

After a political tug-of-war, House Republican leadership was able to push through a

controversial spending amendment that prohibited D.C. from legalizing and regulating marijuana

sales, but the amendment allowed Initiative 71 to take effect. Therefore, it is legal to possess,

use, and grow marijuana in the nation’s capital but the sale of marijuana remains illegal and

unregulated. D.C. officials, police, and drug policy experts have complained that Congress is

undermining public safety by preventing the city from regulating marijuana sales, with some

calling the situation “the dealer protection act.”

The Financial Services spending bill adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee

deletes the congressional ban passed by the House of Representatives. If the bill becomes law,

D.C. could finally regulate marijuana sales. This bill allows for the city to set time and place

restrictions, require proper labeling and content control, establish age restrictions, and tax

marijuana as well as using the proceeds for treatment, education, and rebuilding communities

devastated by the failed War on Drugs. While the House version of the funding bill contains

language restricting sales, the Obama Administration’s budget included language that would

allow DC to move forward with regulated sales. A funding deal is expected to be hashed out by

the House, Senate, and the Administration later this year when these bills go to conferencing.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved, an amendment today by Senators

Merkley (D-OR) and Murray (D-WA) allowing banks to provide services to marijuana stores in

localities where marijuana is legal.  Currently, because marijuana is illegal under federal law,

both medical and non-medical marijuana businesses are unable to access banking services like

any other business. Consequently, many marijuana businesses operate as cash-only, leading to

public safety issues as businesses become the target of robberies, and are forced to hire armed

security to protect their revenues. Conducting business in all cash makes it difficult for

regulators and police to oversee marijuana businesses, track money, ensure people are paying

their fair-share of taxes, and keep the marijuana industry transparent and accountable. By

allowing marijuana stores to have access to checking accounts, credit cards, payroll companies,

and other financial services the Merkley-Murray amendment improves public safety and


These major steps towards reform are just two more dominoes that must fall and will

eventually lead to the end of Federal Prohibition.



By Christopher Cano | Executive Director, Central Florida NORML