US House passes bill opening banking sector to cannabis sellers

A woman smokes a joint in 2014 in Seattle, Washington, one of the first states in the US to fully legalize marijuana, which is now legal to some degree in 47 of the 50 US states (AFP Photo/Meg Roussos)

Washington (AFP) - The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a measure opening the banking sector to sellers of cannabis, who have struggled to safeguard their earnings from the United States's booming marijuana industry.

Forty seven of the 50 states allow varying degrees of marijuana usage and cultivation, and the country's cannabis industry generates billions of dollars in revenues and employs some 200,000 people, according to NORML, the main pro-legalization lobby.

But federal law considers marijuana a dangerous drug comparable to LSD, cocaine and heroin, meaning companies struggle to access the federally regulated banking system.

That forces them to do business in cash, leaving them vulnerable to robbery and forcing many companies to hire armed guards and take other security measures.

The SAFE Banking Act, passed with 321 votes in favor and 103 against, "will improve transparency and accountability, and help law enforcement root out illegal transactions to prevent tax evasion, money laundering and other white collar crime," said Democratic Representative Ed Perlmutter, the bill's sponsor.

"This will also reduce the risk of violent crime in our communities. These businesses and their employees become targets for murder, robbery, assault and more by dealing in all cash," the lawmaker added.

Opponents of the bill have cited the risk that it will allow drug cartels involved in the marijuana industry easier access to the financial sector.

Cartels "are a significant problem and canvas legal states like California, Washington and Colorado," said Patrick McHenry, a Republican lawmaker.

"The cartels have found that it's easier to grow and process marijuana in legal states like Colorado and ship it throughout United States than it is to bring it from Mexico or Cuba," he said.

The bill must be approved by the Senate then signed by President Donald Trump before it can become law.