US House passes 'hugely important' bill to let legal marijuana businesses access banks

Hailed by advocates as an important milestone on the road to full marijuana legalization, the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill that would open the door to banking services for the legal cannabis industry.

"As we continue to push forward with full legalization, addressing this irrational, unfair, and unsafe denial of banking services to state-legal cannabis businesses is a top priority."
—Rep. Earl Blumenauer

All House Democrats and more than half of Republicans in the lower chamber voted to approve the SAFE Banking Act, which passed by a vote of 321-101. If approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate and signed into law by President Joe Biden, the measure would allow banks and other financial institutions to serve state-legal cannabis businesses without running afoul of federal prohibition law.

The House passed a similar bill in 2019. However, the measure never made it past the Senate, which at the time was controlled by Republicans.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.)—who has introduced versions of the bill since 2013—said on the House floor ahead of the vote that "the fact is, you can't put the genie back in the bottle—prohibition is over."

"I hope this bill is an icebreaker for the House to take up other reforms and finally remove the conflict between state and federal laws," he said.

After the successful vote, longtime cannabis legalization advocate Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) tweeted that "this is a step toward ending the failed war on drugs and bringing restorative justice to our Black and Brown communities."

Other lawmakers and elected officials, especially in states where recreational or medical marijuana use is legal, applauded the bill's passage.

"As we continue to push forward with full legalization, addressing this irrational, unfair, and unsafe denial of banking services to state-legal cannabis businesses is a top priority," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in a statement after the vote. "This is a critical element of reform that can't wait, and I urge our cannabis champions in the Senate to take up this legislation as soon as possible."

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) asserted that "Colorado's multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry employs thousands of people. They should have the same security and access to banking as any other business."

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington—which in 2012 became one of the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis—said the SAFE Banking Act will provide legal marijuana businesses "a safer, more transparent financial market."

Cannabis legalization advocates also hailed Monday's vote. NORML—the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws—said that if signed into law, the bill "would improve the safety of legal marijuana marketplaces and foster more entrepreneurship in the emerging legal industry."

NORML political director Justin Strekal said that "for the first time since Joe Biden assumed the presidency, a supermajority of the House has voted affirmatively to recognize that the legalization and regulation of marijuana is a superior public policy to prohibition and criminalization."

"However, the SAFE Banking Act is only a first step at making sure that these state-legal markets operate safely and efficiently," he added. "The sad reality is that those who own or patronize the unbanked businesses are themselves criminals in the eyes of the federal government, which can only be addressed by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances."

Steve Hawkins, executive director of Marijuana Policy Project, called Monday's vote "hugely important."

"This will unlock banking services that certainly will be a benefit to small operators in the space as well as social equity businesses," Hawkins told Marijuana Business Daily.

"The SAFE Banking Act is only a first step at making sure that these state-legal markets operate safely and efficiently."
—Justin Strekal, NORML

The SAFE Banking Act has a much better chance of passage now that Democrats control a Senate whose members increasingly favor an end to federal marijuana prohibition. Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—whose home state legalized recreational cannabis use last month—is currently working on federal marijuana reform legislation with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Biden, however, remains opposed to full federal legalization. Cannabis activists hope that sustained grassroots pressure and the continuing parade of states ending prohibition could spur the president to reconsider his position. According to Business Insider, recreational marijuana is now legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia, with medicinal use allowed in 36 states.

Over 25 years, world's wealthiest 5 percent behind over one-third of global emissions growth: study

As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

"Rich people who fly a lot may think they can offset their emissions by tree-planting schemes or projects to capture carbon from the air. But these schemes are highly contentious and they're not proven over time."
—Peter Newell,
Sussex University

The report (pdf), entitled Changing Our Ways: Behavior Change and the Climate Crisis, found that nearly half the growth in absolute global emissions were cause by the world's richest 10%, with the most affluent 5% alone contributing 37%.

"In the year when the U.K. hosts COP26, and while the government continues to reward some of Britain's biggest polluters through tax credits, the commission report shows why this is precisely the wrong way to meet the U.K.'s climate targets," the report's introduction states.

The authors of the report urge United Kingdom policymakers to focus on this so-called "polluter elite" in an effort to persuade wealthy people to adopt more sustainable behavior, while providing "affordable, available low-carbon alternatives to poorer households."

The report found that the "polluter elite" must make "dramatic" lifestyle changes in order to meet the U.K.'s goal—based on the Paris climate agreement's preferential objective—of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial levels.

In addition to highlighting previous recommendations—including reducing meat consumption, reducing food waste, and switching to electric vehicles and solar power—the report recommends that policymakers take the following steps:

  • Implement frequent flyer levies;
  • Enact bans on selling and promoting SUVs and other high polluting vehicles;
  • Reverse the U.K.'s recent move to cut green grants for homes and electric cars; and
  • Build just transitions by supporting electric public transport and community energy schemes.

"We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute by far more than their share of carbon emissions," Peter Newell, a Sussex University professor and lead author of the report, told the BBC.

"These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most, and live in the biggest homes which they can easily afford to heat, so they tend not to worry if they're well insulated or not," said Newell. "They're also the sort of people who could really afford good insulation and solar panels if they wanted to."

Newell said that wealthy people "simply must fly less and drive less. Even if they own an electric SUV, that's still a drain on the energy system and all the emissions created making the vehicle in the first place."

"Promisingly, we have brought about positive change before, and there are at least some positive signs that there is an appetite to do what is necessary to live differently but well on the planet we call home."
—Cambridge Sustainability Commission

"Rich people who fly a lot may think they can offset their emissions by tree-planting schemes or projects to capture carbon from the air," Newell added. "But these schemes are highly contentious and they're not proven over time."

The report concludes that "we are all on a journey and the final destination is as yet unclear. There are many contradictory road maps about where we might want to get to and how, based on different theories of value and premised on diverse values."

"Promisingly, we have brought about positive change before, and there are at least some positive signs that there is an appetite to do what is necessary to live differently but well on the planet we call home," it states.

The new report follows a September 2020 Oxfam International study that revealed the wealthiest 1% of the world's population is responsible for emitting more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of humanity combined.

Emails reveal Amazon pushed USPS for private box at Alabama warehouse as union vote began

Leaders of the effort to unionize workers at Amazon's Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center were outraged following the revelation Thursday that the tech titan pressured the United States Postal Service into installing a private mailbox outside the warehouse just as employees began voting on the measure.

"By doing this, they could then pressure and monitor employees to submit 'no' votes. In short, Amazon violated a directive from the federal government when it placed a mail ballot drop box at the entrance of its Alabama warehouse."
—More Perfect Union

Last month, the advocacy group More Perfect Union first accused Amazon of violating federal labor law by having a mailbox installed outside the Alabama facility in order to collect the ballots of employees voting on the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU)-led effort to unionize the warehouse's 5,805 workers.

As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) began counting votes Thursday, More Perfect Union published emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that show Amazon pressing USPS to install what the group called "an illegal ballot drop box during the union election."

Although the emails are heavily redacted, More Perfect Union learned that starting a month before the Bessemer warehouse workers began casting their ballots, Amazon officials repeatedly called USPS' strategic account manager seeking the installation of a private box.

After considering the request, USPS informed Amazon that a "private box may not be utilized." However, after further consideration, the Postal Service decided to grant the company—its largest corporate client—the request. On February 3, USPS emailed Amazon officials saying it would send a manager to the Bessemer facility "to find an ideal location" for the mailbox "that is near the employee entrance."

That same day, Amazon demanded that the Postal Service install the mailbox by February 7—one day before the warehouse workers began voting. USPS replied that "maintenance will complete the installation by Monday" February 8.

More Perfect Union said that "the mailbox was critical for Amazon's strategy because it wanted to pressure employees to bring ballots to work that they'd received at home in the mail."

"By doing this, they could then pressure and monitor employees to submit 'no' votes," the group said. "In short, Amazon violated a directive from the federal government when it placed a mail ballot drop box at the entrance of its Alabama warehouse."

The mailbox, which bore no USPS identification, was installed inside a tent in a parking lot outside the warehouse, with a banner reading, "Speak for yourself! Mail your ballot here."

The Washington Post—which is owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos—reports one of the reasons why the mailbox is so controversial is that NLRB, which is supervising the Bessemer unionization vote, had denied the company's request to install boxes at the facility, citing concerns for worker safety amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum accused Amazon of voter intimidation.

"Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon's request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the Postal Service anyway to install one," Appelbaum said in a statement reported by the Post. "They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers."

Officials from both the USPS and Amazon denied any nefarious intentions behind the box's placement.

USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told the Post that the drop box was "suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point," with Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox adding that "this mailbox—which only the USPS had access to—was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less."

According to RWDSU, a total of 3,215 ballots were received from Amazon's Bessemer workers. NPR reports that as of Thursday evening, the unofficial vote count stood at 1,100 against unionizing and 463 in favor.

Nearly two-thirds of US voters back corporate tax hike to fund Biden infrastructure plan

Roundly rejecting Republican and conservative Democratic lawmakers who oppose President Joe Biden's proposed corporate tax increase to fund the American Jobs Plan, a poll published Wednesday revealed nearly two-thirds of U.S. voters favor higher taxes on businesses to pay for the administration's $2.25 trillion infrastructure and employment legislative proposal.

"On a broad level, nearly three-quarters of voters agree that corporations should pay higher taxes, including 85% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans."
—Morning Consult

Morning Consult pollsters surveyed nearly 2,000 registered voters and found that 65% of respondents somewhat or strongly support funding the American Jobs Plan (AJP) through 15 years of higher corporate taxes, compared with just 21% who somewhat or strongly oppose the move.

Among Democratic voters, 85% support—62% of them strongly—the tax hike, with only 15% against the increase. Sixty percent of independents and 42% of Republicans favor funding the AJP through higher corporate taxes, with 47% GOP voters opposing the proposed policy.

"On a broad level, nearly three-quarters of voters agree that corporations should pay higher taxes, including 85% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans," said Morning Consult.

According to an analysis published Wednesday by the Penn Wharton Budget Model, Biden's proposal—under which the corporate tax rate would rise from 21% to 28%—would increase government revenue by $891.6 billion between 2022 and 2031, and by nearly $1.49 trillion between 2022 and 2036.

The Wharton analysts further forecast that overall, the AJP would generate $2.1 trillion in tax revenue, while spending $2.7 trillion, between 2021 and 2030. The higher corporate tax rate, combined with improved U.S. infrastructure, is expected to decrease the nation's debt by 6.4% and its GDP by 0.8% in 2050.

A separate poll published Tuesday by Invest in America and Data for Progress found that a bipartisan majority of U.S. voters—73% overall, 93% of Democrats, 67% of independents, and 57% of Republicans—support the AJP in general.

The Morning Consult poll found even higher overall support for the plan when the proposed corporate tax hike is withdrawn, with approval rising to 83% among all voters.

While support for the AJP's corporate tax increase is strongest among progressives—whose biggest complaint about the plan is that it doesn't do enough—prominent capitalists and financial institutions have also said they favor the measure.

On Wednesday, International Monetary Fund officials endorsed Biden's proposal, with Vitor Gaspar, the organization's fiscal affairs director, telling reporters that "the IMF has been calling for a minimum global corporate income tax rate as a way to interrupt the race to the bottom in corporate income taxation."

Jeff Bezos, the outgoing CEO of Amazon and the world's wealthiest person, said Tuesday that "we recognize this investment will require concessions from all sides—both on the specifics of what's included as well as how it gets paid for," adding, "we're supportive of a rise in the corporate tax rate."

On the other hand, Republicans in Congress and conservative Democrats—led by Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)—strongly oppose the corporate tax increase component of the AJP.

Teens, fight for the future sell 'Invisiclip' to counter 'menace of facial recognition'

In a bid to make anti-facial recognition technology "more discrete, more affordable, and more effective than any previous solution," two self-described "high school scientists" have partnered with the digital rights group Fight for the Future to develop and market the Invisiclip, a small clip-on device that can easily attach to any pair of glasses or sunglasses.

"I remember reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in high school, but kids these days are living it. That's just wrong."
—Caitlin Seeley George,
Fight for the Future

Fight for the Future says Invisiclip—invented by high school seniors Evan Alfandre and Will McCormack—covers the wearer's nose, is "minimally invasive," and is effective against multiple facial recognition technologies.

McCormack told Fight for the Future that "the more that we learned about the dangers of facial recognition software, the more we desired to find a solution to the problem."

"Initially, we just wanted to get an A on our project," he added, "but when we realized we could really make a difference, our goals changed."

"We found out that Fight for the Future is a leading activist group in this area," said Alfandre, "so we connected with them in an effort to share ideas, publicize our invention, and keep people safe."

Fight for the Future campaign director Caitlin Seeley George said that "when Will and Evan reached out to us, we were both impressed by their ingenuity, and also a little sad."

"High school students shouldn't have to worry about how surveillance technology is threatening their rights and their future," she said. "I remember reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in high school, but kids these days are living it. That's just wrong."

Fight for the Future and the two teens produced a YouTube video to promote Invisiclip.

"Let's face it, facial recognition is a problem," says the video. "The United States has the most surveillance cameras per capita in the world... and lurking behind every one of those cameras is the menace of facial recognition."

"If you have a driver's license, a passport, or other form of government ID, in all likelihood the police have unrestricted access to your face," the video notes, as do private companies like Clearview AI, which "scan the internet for photos of your face" and "have accumulated databases of over three billion photos."

"We are looking to take on some of the world's most powerful governments and reclaim our personal liberties by democratizing technology," Alfandre says in the video.

Invisiclip is available for purchase for $25 on Fight for the Future's online store. Glasses/sunglasses not included; results may vary.

"Partnering with Invisiclip is an opportunity to share this tool that people can use against facial recognition, and highlight why a ban on facial recognition is important for young people who don't want a future where they're under constant surveillance," said Seeley George.

New analysis turns up a surprising detail about Trump's Capitol insurrectionists

While the overwhelming majority of individuals charged so far in connection with the deadly January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol are unconnected to organized militias or other known extremist groups, a preliminary assessment conducted by researchers at George Washington University found they comprise a "hodgepodge" of individuals inspired by far-right ideologies.

Researchers at GWU's Program on Extremism analyzed the cases of 257 alleged participants the mob attack on the Capitol—inspired by former President Donald Trump and his lie that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen"—and found them to be a "heterogenous group."

The researchers divided the 257 individuals, who include 221 men and 36 women, into three groups: "militant networks," "organized clusters," and "inspired believers."

Militant networks, the report states, represent "the apex of organizational planning by domestic violent extremist groups for and on January 6th," and are "characterized by hierarchical organization and chains of command."

"Leaders of established domestic violent extremist groups issued orders or directives to members of their groups, encouraging them to travel to Washington in advance of the siege," the report states. "Unlike individuals in the other categories, not only did these militant networks plan to attend protests on the 6th, but they are also alleged to have planned in advance to breach the Capitol and, in many cases, conduct violence inside the walls of the building."

The second category, organized clusters, is "composed of small, close-knit groups of individuals who allegedly participated in the siege together, usually comprising family members, friends, and acquaintances."

"Finally, the remainder of the alleged siege participants can be categorized as inspired believers," the report says. "These individuals, according to available evidence, were neither participants in an established violent extremist group nor connected to any of the other individuals who are alleged to have stormed the Capitol."

"Inspired by a range of extremist narratives, conspiracy theories, and personal motivations, individual believers made up a significant portion of the crowd at the Capitol," it says.

"Perhaps the most striking finding in this report is the range of far- and extreme-right actors who took part in the siege," the report states. "While such groups often splinter across various lines and form bitter rivalries with one another, it is clear that in some cases they have found enough common cause to mobilize together."

"The siege is not the first recent example of increased alliances among disparate right-wing groups in America," it continues. "The Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally in 2017, for example, while a different kind of event, also succeeded in bringing together a range of American groups over, among other things, their deeply-held conspiratorial anti-Semitism."

The report concludes:

The events of January 6th also allow us an opportunity to assess how the domestic violent extremist threat may take shape in the coming months and years, and if the siege may have some role in this. As law enforcement officials continue to identify and prosecute individuals involved in the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, new cases of domestic violent extremists inspired by the siege to conduct their own violent attacks have already emerged.
Since the siege, federal law enforcement arrested at least four individuals with links to domestic violent extremist ideologies—one involving a militia affiliate from Northern California and another involving two associates of the Boogaloo Boys in Kentucky, all of whom reportedly believed that the siege would spark a new civil war in the United States.

"Moving forward, it is highly likely that violent extremists of multiple ideological persuasions, inspired by the events of January 6th, 2021, will add to the already bloated federal domestic extremism caseload for prosecutors throughout the country," it warns.

Voters outraged as Georgia House passes 'reprehensible' GOP bill

Civil and voting rights organizations on Tuesday joined Democratic lawmakers in condemning Republican legislators in Georgia after the state House of Representatives approved a bill imposing new restrictions on voting that one group said "harken back to the dark days of Jim Crow."On Monday, the state House voted 97-22, largely along party lines, to pass H.B. 531, which requires more identification for absentee voting, limits the number of ballot drop boxes, and curtails weekend early voting days. The measure now heads to the Republican-controlled state Senate, where a committee voted Monday to end no-excuse absentee voting.

Speaking of her Republican colleagues, state Rep. Kimberly Alexander (D-#66) said after the House vote that GOP lawmakers "are trying to change the rules of the election here in Georgia, rules that you wrote, because you were handed defeat."

"You know that your only chance of winning future elections is to prevent Georgians from having their votes counted and their voices heard," Alexander told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Alexander's remarks were echoed by Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director at the advocacy group All Voting is Local, who said in a statement that "these new bills are a reprehensible power grab that were rushed through committee and never intended to solve the real issues that plagued our elections like long lines, machine malfunctions, and staffing scarcities."

"Georgia voters turned out in November and January, making their voices heard through ballot drop boxes, expanded absentee voting, and increased early voting hours," added Khondoker. "That increased access empowered voters to change Georgia's political landscape, and now, the legislature is trying to ensure it never happens again. Georgians must have the freedom to vote in the way that works best for them."

Aunna Dennis, executive director at the progressive watchdog group Common Cause – Georgia , said in a statement that "Georgia Republicans didn't like the results of the 2020 election so they decided they would try to dictate who they will let vote and who they won't let vote." Dennis continued:

Republican legislators have deliberately targeted Black and brown Georgians with a disgraceful string of bills that harken back to the dark days of Jim Crow in Georgia. If anyone has any doubts whatsoever about the racial targeting of this proposed legislation they need look no further than its ban on weekend early voting which will end Souls to the Polls, the longstanding tradition of Black congregations in Georgia going to vote after Sunday services...
The process of jamming these voter suppression bills through the Georgia House and Senate has been a travesty. Changes were being introduced right through the weekend and the opportunity for public input was woefully insufficient. And remarkably, the whole process was based on a lie that GOP legislators themselves perpetuated. They lied to their supporters about the result of the election and then used the doubts sown by those lies as justification for this strongarm attempt to install minority rule by keeping thousands of Georgians from voting.

Georgia's U.S. senators—both Democrats—weighed in on the bills, with Raphael Warnock calling them "blatant voter suppression" and Jon Ossoff noting that H.B. 531's passage came the same day the Senate unanimously passed his resolution honoring the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil and voting rights icon.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, tweeted that the Lewis resolution's passage "won't, but it should, shame those so hell-bent on passing voter suppression bills in Georgia right now."

Report of illegal $80 million arms transfer by Erik Prince to Libyan warlord raises key question

Erik Prince, the founder and former CEO of the mercenary firm Blackwater and a close ally of former President Donald Trump, sent weapons to a Libyan warlord in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, according to a confidential U.N. document reported Friday by the New York Times.

The U.N. report, which investigators sent to the Security Council on Thursday, reportedly details how Prince sent foreign mercenaries armed with attack aircraft, gunboats, and cyberwarfare capabilities to support renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar during a major 2019 battle in eastern Libya.

According to the U.N. report, the mercenary operation cost $80 million and included a plan to form a hit squad to locate and assassinate commanders opposed to Haftar.

Haftar, a one-time CIA asset considered Libya's most powerful warlord, has fought to overthrow the North African nation's internationally recognized government during the country's second civil war since the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. Haftar has enjoyed various degrees of support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia. British, French, U.S., and UAE warplanes have also assisted his forces.

In 2019, Trump reportedly granted permission for Haftar—who stands accused of ordering his troops to commit war crimes—to launch an air campaign against the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, attacks which killed hundreds of civilians in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

The U.N. report raises questions about whether Trump was complicit in Prince's violation of the international arms embargo against Haftar's forces.

Anas el-Gomati, director of Libyan think tank Sadeq Institute, told Al Jazeera that using mercenaries allows leaders to "outright refuse that you have any knowledge of what's going on."

"To what degree did Trump help facilitate this war alongside Erik Prince?" asked el-Gomati, who also wondered whether "Erik Prince was coordinating with Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in Libya, and has helped them establish a foothold in the way he helped the United Arab Emirates establish a foothold in Libya."

Another unanswered question is who funded Prince's $80 million operation. Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told the Times that Prince has "been linked to the Trump administration, the Emirati leadership, and the Russians."

"For me, the question is who is tacitly backing him?" asked Lacher.

Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, founded Blackwater—now called Academi after being sold twice—in 1997. He rose to prominence during the George W. Bush administration and the so-called War on Terror, in which the U.S. relied heavily upon private contractors. On September 16, 2007, Blackwater guards massacred 17 men, women, and children in Nisour Square in Baghdad, Iraq.

Last December, Trump pardoned four of the Nisour Square killers, who had been sentenced to 12 years to life in prison for crimes including first-degree murder.

Trump and Prince have long enjoyed warm relations. Prince was a major Trump donor whose sister, Betsy DeVos, was confirmed as secretary of education in 2017.

This isn't the first time Prince has been accused of breaking domestic and international laws against weapons transfers. In 2012 his anti-piracy security force in Somalia was accused by the U.N. of "the most brazen violation of the arms embargo by a private security company." Prince was also reportedly the target of an FBI investigation last year for weaponizing crop dusters.

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