Just days after abandoning their effort to pass cannabis banking reform legislation in 2022, Democratic US senators are back with a new bill that will combine safe banking, gun protections, and expungements.

This bill, dubbed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Plus Act, is largely focused on reforming federal restrictions that block financial institutions from opening accounts for businesses that handle THC products. These restrictions force state-legal cannabis businesses to operate on a cash-only basis, which makes them a prime target for robberies

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), a lead sponsor of the bill, recently said that SAFE Plus has “a path forward in 2023” and that he “won’t rest until we get it done.”

“I won’t stop pushing to pass the SAFE Banking Act,” Merkley tweeted. “We pursued every legislative avenue possible this year, and our bipartisan coalition is closer than ever before to getting this to the finish line. Cannabis businesses can’t wait—we must pass it in 2023… For those who lost loved ones in dispensary robberies, for legal cannabis businesses who can’t access the financial services they need, for communities where cannabis is legal, we can’t let politics block meaningful, commonsense public safety and cannabis legislation.”

In addition to implementing cannabis banking reform, Merkley suggested that the new bill would also include provisions to expunge minor cannabis offenses. Full details have yet to be released, but the provisions may be modeled on the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, which would allocate $20 million in federal funding to help states automatically clear the criminal records of minor cannabis offenders.

The bills’ sponsors have actually been fighting to pass the SAFE Banking legislation for years now. The House has approved this legislation on six separate occasions since Democrats regained majority control in 2018. GOP senators blocked the bill until Democrats took control in 2020, but then new Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) shut it down in favor of his own comprehensive legalization bill. After this bill fizzled out, Schumer launched a last-minute effort to get SAFE Banking passed by the end of 2022 — and failed to do so.

Now that Schumer is finally on board, the bill will likely be able to pass the Democrat-majority Senate in 2023. But the Republicans will retake majority control of the House next year, and they have a long history of saying no to weed. The GOP killed the first drafts of the SAFE Banking Act when they had control of the House, but Democrats finally have a trick up their sleeve that may help drum up bipartisan support. 

Although SAFE Plus has yet to be officially published, Merkley has confirmed rumors that the new legislation will legally allow cannabis users to own firearms. The 2nd Amendment of the Constitution grants Americans the right to bear arms, and the NRA has spent millions to ensure that state and federal lawmakers do not restrict or limit these rights in any way. Yet in spite of these rights, the feds still prohibit anyone who uses any federally-prohibited drug, including marijuana, from legally buying a gun.

Some states have threatened to take medical marijuana patients’ guns away, but none has actually been bold enough to try. Other states, like Illinois and Oklahoma, have advanced legislation to specifically protect cannabis users’ rights to bear arms. Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, also recently challenged the feds’ gun restrictions, only to be told that medical cannabis users were too “dangerous” to be trusted with firearms.

The new SAFE Plus bill would potentially protect cannabis users’ 2nd Amendment rights, although it’s not yet clear if these protections would apply to both medical and recreational users. In either case, the inclusion of these rights would force gun-loving Republicans into a difficult situation — they must either vote against protecting Americans’ right to bear arms or agree to finally pass this necessary legislation.

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