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Pot Brings a Divided Congress Together

Cannabis sativa

Photograph by Aaron McCoy/Getty Images

Cannabis sativa

It’s not easy, these days, to get much done in Congress. Midterm elections loom. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss to a Tea Party-backed primary opponent last month certainly hasn’t encouraged anyone to cross party lines to get things passed.

As Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates wrote in an op-ed article in the New York Times recently, “the current stalemate—in which greater pride is attached to thwarting the opposition than to advancing the nation’s interests—is depressing to most Americans and virtually all of its business managers. The impasse certainly depresses the three of us.”

A bipartisan effort to help marijuana entrepreneurs, however, is emerging as a bright spot in the gloom. The House passed an amendment this week that should help marijuana businesses get banking services in the 23 states where marijuana is legal in some form. Specifically, the amendment prohibits the Treasury Department from spending money to penalize financial institutions that serve legal marijuana businesses. It passed 231 to 192.

Last May, the House passed another appropriations bill amendment forbidding the Drug Enforcement Administration from undermining state medical marijuana laws, with 219 members voting yes. Also passed were two measures to keep the DEA from interfering with state hemp production or research programs.

What’s making marijuana one of the few issues Democrats and Republicans can agree on? At least as far as the banking amendment, it’s partly about public safety and transparency. Businesses forced to operate in cash because they can’t get bank accounts are a juicy target for crime and more difficult to track for tax purposes. The bigger attraction for Republicans, though, is as a states’ rights issue, says Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.

“It’s about an overbearing federal government, but it’s also about these marijuana dispensaries and marijuana businesses that are being continually harassed by the federal authorities for doing what is completely legal under state law,” he says.

The Obama administration has seen the appeal of that frame as well. A White House statement issued on July 14 explicitly calls marijuana a states’ rights issue—a first, according to Piper.

Let’s not overstate the point. Another amendment that passed this week is a measure to prohibit the District of Columbia from spending local funds on efforts to legalize or decriminalize marijuana. A bipartisan mixed message—so it goes in Congress.

Lawrence is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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