Feds eye rules for banking with marijuana industries

Washington DC Bureau

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — Recreational and medical marijuana is a budding billion-dollar business for many states across the country.

However, banks won’t work with the cannabis companies because the use and sale of marijuana is still a violation of federal law.

Bankers and cannabis industry experts were at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday asking senators to pass a law that would allow marijuana businesses to access traditional financial services.

“Imagine running a business with hundreds of employees and having to make all payments, including payroll, in cash,” said John Lord, owner of LivWell Enlightened Health. “It is difficult and, frankly, it’s dangerous.”

Lord runs a marijuana company in Colorado that brings in $100 million a year, but he can’t use a checking account.

“I had no choice but to walk in the IRS in Denver with more than $3 million in cash in order to pay federal taxes,” Lord said.

Lord is just one of the thousands of businesses caught between states that allow marijuana sales and federal regulations that won’t allow banks to work with them.

“The federal government has failed to respond,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican. “It has closed its eyes and plugged its ears and pretended and hoped that the issue would just go away, but it won’t.”

Both the American Bankers Association and Credit Union National Association want to change to protect those directly and indirectly involved with the marijuana business.

“In Denver, cannabis businesses make up less than 1% of all local businesses but have accounted for 10% of all reported business burglaries from 2012 to 2016,” said Joanne Sherwood with the American Bankers Association.

Some banking officials argued that other companies are legally allowed to do business with marijuana companies while they cannot.

“A company like Walmart based in Arkansas where recreational use is illegal could and likely does sell paper and lightbulbs to recreational businesses legally operating in California,” said Rachel Pross with the Credit Union National Association.

But, groups like the Virginia-based nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana say using banks would make marijuana sellers appear more legitimate.

“By skipping ahead to a technicality over banking rules, the marijuana industry is hoping to gain many of the benefits of federal legalization without a debate over the public health effects,” said Garth Van Meter, vice president of government affairs for Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Congress still clashes over federal legalization of marijuana.

For now, lawmakers seem comfortable leaving it up to the individual states where only three have refused some form of cannabis.

Sens. Cory Gardner and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, have teamed up on the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, which is designed to protect the financial institutions and the noncannabis companies that interact with marijuana sellers.

“Let’s fix this. Let’s honor the states’ rights’ vision of all of these states that say this makes sense in our location for our citizens,” Merkley said.

Lawmakers said the current situation also gets tricky for employees at marijuana companies. Some have lost their accounts once the bank found out about their employer.

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