The legislation, years in the making and possibly closer to passage than ever before, would protect financial institutions that work with cannabis-related businesses from federal enforcement action.
"It's the states that are leading on this issue, and the federal government has failed to respond," Gardner said. "It's closed its eyes and plugged its ears and pretended and hoped the issue would just go away, but it won't."
Marijuana’s federal status as a Schedule I controlled substance affects how dispensaries track income — with many forced to operate only in cash, pay bills through personal accounts or pay extra for scarce banking services. Banks and lenders are also hesitant to serve dispensary employees, who often have trouble buying cars and homes.
Gardner, an original cosponsor of the bill (it's sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon), said that while he's been skeptical about cannabis in the past — and opposed the state amendment legalizing recreational weed — improving banking for businesses in the 47 states where some form of weed is legal is something both parties should be able to agree on.
"At a time when all the talk is about how divided we are in our country, we are remarkably united on this issue," Gardner said.
Joanne Sherwood, the president and CEO of Denver-based Citywide Banks and chair of the Colorado Bankers Association, said financial institutions risk coming under federal enforcement action by serving "any person or business that derives revenue from a cannabis firm, including utilities, vendors, employees of cannabis businesses, as well as investors."
Sherwood urged lawmakers to provide clearer regulatory guidance for banks, and emphasized the SAFE Banking Act's benefits for collecting taxes and tracking of cannabis-related financial activities.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado, is sponsoring the House's version of the SAFE Banking Act, and has pushed the legislation for years. While the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee (which held the most recent hearing) hasn't yet voted on whether to move the legislation forward, the House measure has passed through several committees and awaits a vote of the full chamber.
Colorado's Attorney General Phil Weiser recently led a bipartisan group of 38 state attorneys general in standing behind the legislation.
Though the landscape around cannabis has certainly changed since Perlmutter first introduced the bill in 2013, not everyone is on board with cannabis banking.
Garth Van Meter, the vice president of government affairs for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, expressed his organization's view that allowing banks to work with cannabis-related businesses would give way to increased drug use and harmful effects on public health and safety.
"It took us over a hundred years to reverse the public health impacts of the tobacco industry, who continually cast doubt on public health advocates with industry-funded bunk science," Van Meter said. "We have an opportunity today not to repeat those mistakes."