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Passing cannabis banking reform is an act of faith

By Rev. Charles F. Boyer, Pastor, and Rev. DeForest Soaries. PUBLISHED: November 1, 2022 at 5:58 p.m. | UPDATED: November 1, 2022 at 6:29 p.m.

Seth Perlman — The Associated Press, File

FILE – In this Sept. 15, 2015 file photo, marijuana plants with their buds covered in white crystals called trichomes, are nearly ready for harvest in the “Flower Room” at the Ataraxia medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill. Marijuana-friendly doctors in states with similar medical cannabis laws face starkly different treatment by government regulators. When it comes to oversight of doctors, enforcement practices vary in the 23 states allowing medical cannabis. How governments oversee pot doctors has become an issue even in more tolerant states such as California and Colorado.

The scripture says that faith without works is dead. To that end, neither our works nor our faithfulness should be confined to the pews. We must practice works of faith every day in our communities. As faith leaders in communities across New Jersey, our congregants worship in different ways and have different views on many issues. But we are united in our belief that acting our faith includes upholding and reinforcing the fight for social justice. Each of us staunchly supports solutions that end social and economic disparities facing communities of color and reduce violence on our streets. This path led us to become advocates for cannabis reform to ensure all communities can safely benefit from this burgeoning industry. It’s also why we’ve joined 3 other New Jersey faith leaders to call on Congress to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (“SAFE”) Banking Act, a bill that would lift the federal ban that prohibits financial institutions from servicing cannabis business and has made entering the cannabis business a risky, unstable, and dangerous prospect for most working people in New Jersey and across the country.

Faith leaders and cannabis entrepreneurs may appear to be unlikely bedfellows. But the truth is that those most harmed by the federal cannabis banking prohibition are those communities that also bore the brunt of the nation’s cruel and race-fueled War on Drugs. Until Congress passes the SAFE Banking Act, New Jersey won’t be able to make good on its promise to make amends with cannabis legalization after disproportionately targeting Black and Latino communities for cannabis offenses through racial profiling and overpolicing.

Currently, federal law prohibits financial institutions from providing banking services to legitimate and state-licensed cannabis businesses. This deprives small cannabis operators of the essential financial tools to conduct business: from access to bank accounts or loans to the ability to host credit and debit card transactions, operate payroll, and pay taxes. Often, cannabis businesses are forced to operate as cash-only enterprises, making them targets of violent crime and putting our communities at risk.

The consequences of the cannabis banking ban disproportionately afflict Black and brown-owned businesses that have also historically confronted discriminatory barriers to accessing capital to grow and prosper. Current federal cannabis law is only perpetuating these economic inequalities. Although New Jersey’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which oversees licensing, lists “equity and safety” as main objectives, Black and Latino entrepreneurs face an “uphill” struggle trying to break into the cannabis business. Few Black entrepreneurs have been able to access the capital needed to open and operate cannabis businesses.

Ultimately, without the SAFE Banking Act, New Jersey’s efforts to promote social equity will continue to stall. The fact that minority-owned cannabis businesses cannot access capital under federal law will continue to favor independently wealthy entities entering the industry and undermine New Jersey’s best attempts to ensure that the communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition can gainfully participate in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

Ideally, we would like to see the SAFE Banking Act paired with restorative justice policies to address the myriad of barriers created by the criminal justice system and improve opportunities for people harmed by the War on Drugs. We recognize that the SAFE Banking Act addresses only a few pieces of the puzzle to repair five decades of harm from the War on Drugs.

But we also support the passage of SAFE Banking on its own, which would be a win for social equity that alleviates economic disparities and violence in our communities.

We have seen how our communities have long grappled with the effects of the War on Drugs — how cannabis was used to perpetuate racist policies and practices that inflict oppression and suffering on so many of our congregants. New Jersey took a step towards racial reckoning when Governor Murphy signed cannabis reform into law in 2021. Although President Joe Biden can do more, the pardons he granted this month for Americans with simple federal marijuana possession are a gesture towards racial equity. It’s now time for Congress to end 2022 by doing its part and passing the SAFE Banking Act so that Black and brown entrepreneurs see new doors open to start their cannabis businesses through access to capital and banking services.

Our call to compassion obligates the faithful to act. We call upon all Senators, who are elected to serve the interests of their constituents, to act as well.

Rev. Charles F. Boyer is Pastor of Greater Mt Zion AME Church in Trenton, NJ, and Rev. DeForest Soaries is Pastor Emeritus, First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, NJ.

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