On Sunday February 16th, I bought legal weed for the first time from a recreational cannabis store in Denver, Co. I spent a few minutes speaking with some of the employees, as I was eager to hear how things were going under this newly sanctioned marijuana market. Unsurprisingly, business was great. Some items were selling quicker than others, but everyone was in agreement that the rollout of Colorado’s legal cannabis retail system had been a great success, except for one crucial component that was as unsettling as it was expected – we were standing in one of a few dozen high profile stores, well-known for having excessive amounts of cash on hand (in the first week of sales, businesses generated $5 million in cash-only transactions) and no where to put it, because the banks won’t take it.
Clearly, denying pot stores the ability to safely deposit their earnings poses an imminent threat to public safety. These shops are easy targets for robbery and assault (as well as other forms of criminal activity), which puts customers and employees at serious risk. Some of these shop owners are considering banning backpacks or other large bags – others are arming their workers. Neither of those options are a viable solution.
This problem isn’t new however, nor is it going unnoticed. On February 14th, the Department of Treasury released a nonbinding memorandum, in conjunction with the Justice Department stating that banks may consider working with pot retailers without fear of prosecution – so long as they remain in compliance with state laws, and followed other instructions outlined in the memo. Though a truly historic and progressive action by the federal government’s leading financial regulatory body, these guidelines are largely symbolic, providing no actual legal protection to banks working with cannabis shops. As such, most financial companies remain skeptical about getting involved with a market working under so many contradictory laws.
According to federal law, these banks could technically be found guilty of money laundering (among other offenses) for handling the proceeds of what the US government still considers an illegal drug. The Colorado Bankers Association rightly notes that the guidance issued by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury ”only reinforces and reiterates that banks can be prosecuted for providing accounts to marijuana related businesses.” The Association further criticizes these new guidelines, stating that “Bankers had expected the guidance to relieve them of the threat of prosecution should they open accounts for marijuana businesses, but the guidance does not do that. Instead, it reiterates reasons for prosecution and is simply a modified reporting system for banks to use. It imposes a heavy burden on them to know and control their customers’ activities, and those of their customers.”
Is it any surprise then that these guidelines – which include a multi-tiered labeling structure and a requirement for banks to maintain ’suspicious activity reports’ – have left many financial institutions with cold feet? Two of Colorado’s largest banks, Wells Fargo and FirstBank have already announced they won’t work with weed-related enterprises. In fact, most financial trade associations have widely rejected these latest overtures because there are no tangible, legal policies in place.
Despite the skepticism held by many federal administration officials and other politicians, the government can and should be doing much more to enable the success of this new, legal market. Unfortunately, many are sitting on their hands, and holding their breath – hoping to quietly ride out this growing wave of support for legalization that shows no sign of subsiding. Over 50% of the US population supports a regulated marijuana retail system for adults.
Its time for these officials to concede to the will of the electorate, and address the legitimate needs of this new commercial market. Lawmakers now have an opportunity to show true leadership in this changing political landscape by supporting legislation that would give states and businesses the resources necessary to lead a responsible and successful implementation of this new “great experiment.” Specifically, they should get behind the ”Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act,” introduced by Colorado representative Ed Perlmutter. This bill (HR 2652), already endorsed by the Colorado Bankers Association, would alter various banking laws to protect
banks providing services to marijuana-related businesses from the threat of federal prosecution and other penalties.
Financial institutions don’t operate off good-faith statements (including non-binding memorandums) – even those from the Department of Treasury, or any other enforcement agency. They operate under explicit legal authorization. Only when the laws change will the banks truly be free to provide the services these businesses so desperately need, and their communities so rightly deserve.