Archive for the ‘banks’ category

Departments of Justice and Treasury Release Marijuana Banking Guidance

February 14th, 2014

Today, the Department of Justice and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network division of the Treasury Department released long anticipated guidance to banks and other financial institutions on how they can interact with marijuana businesses that are licensed under state law.

Under current regulations, financial institutions are required to file suspicious activity reports when they suspect the transaction has a drug connection. The new guidance creates a three tiered system for these reports: marijuana limited, marijuana priority, and marijuana termination. This will allow these institutions to work with marijuana businesses as long as they were operating in accordance with state laws and regulations. The Department of Justice reserved the right to pursue criminal charges when they suspect businesses are breaking the guidelines they released late last year and would still require banks to report any activity they suspect to be as operating outside of state regulations.

“Now that some states have elected to legalize and regulate the marijuana trade, FinCEN seeks to move from the shadows the historically covert financial operations of marijuana businesses,” noted FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery in a press release. “Our guidance provides financial institutions with clarity on what they must do if they are going to provide financial services to marijuana businesses and what reporting will assist law enforcement.”

“This reduces the burden on banks,” FinCEN stated during a briefing on the memo, “Marijuana under federal law requires a SAR. Now, the necessity is limited, reducing the banks’ burden a bit and more importantly clarifies where law enforcement focuses its attention.”

While this is a good start when it comes to allowing marijuana businesses to operate the same as those in any other regulated industry, memos such as these can be ultimately overturned by future administrations. To make this change lasting and binding, Congress must now act to codify it into law. The Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act is currently pending before the House of Representatives and would do just that. You can click here to quickly and easily write your representative and urge him/her to support this important legislation.

You can view the full text of the memo from FinCEN here. The DOJ memo can be viewed here.

Banks Say No To Marijuana Money, Legal or Not

January 13th, 2014

In his second-floor office above a hair salon in north Seattle, Ryan Kunkel is seated on a couch placing $1,000 bricks of cash — dozens of them — in a rumpled brown paper bag. When he finishes, he stashes the money in the trunk of his BMW and sets off on an adrenalized drive downtown, darting through traffic and nervously checking to see if anyone is following him.

Despite the air of criminality, there is nothing illicit in what Mr. Kunkel is doing. He co-owns five legal medical marijuana dispensaries, and on this day he is heading to the Washington State Department of Revenue to commit the ultimate in law-abiding acts: paying taxes. After about 25 minutes at the agency, Mr. Kunkel emerges with a receipt for $51,321.

“Carrying such large amounts of cash is a terrible risk that freaks me out a bit because there is the fear in my mind that the next car pulling up beside me could be the crew that hijacks us,” he said. “So, we have to play this never-ending shell game of different cars, different routes, different dates and different times.”

Legal marijuana merchants like Mr. Kunkel — mainly medical marijuana dispensaries but also, starting this year, shops that sell recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington — are grappling with a pressing predicament: Their businesses are conducted almost entirely in cash because it is exceedingly difficult for them to open and maintain bank accounts, and thus accept credit cards.

The problem underscores the patchwork nature of federal and state laws that have evolved fitfully as states have legalized some form of marijuana commerce. Though 20 states and the District of Columbia allow either medical or recreational marijuana use — with more likely to follow suit — the drug remains illegal under federal law. The Controlled Substances Act, enacted in 1970 classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous category, which also includes heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

As a result, banks, including state-chartered ones, are reluctant to provide traditional services to marijuana businesses. They fear that federal regulators and law enforcement authorities might punish them, with measures like large fines, for violating prohibitions on money-laundering, among other federal laws and regulations.

“Banking is the most urgent issue facing the legal cannabis industry today,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association in Washington, D.C. Saying legal marijuana sales in the United States could reach $3 billion this year, Mr. Smith added: “So much money floating around outside the banking system is not safe, and it is not in anyone’s interest. Federal law needs to be harmonized with state laws.”

The limitations have created unique burdens for legal marijuana business owners. They pay employees with envelopes of cash. They haul Chipotle and Nordstrom bags containing thousands of dollars in $10 and $20 bills to supermarkets to buy money orders. When they are able to open bank accounts — often under false pretenses — many have taken to storing money in Tupperware containers filled with air fresheners to mask the smell of marijuana.

The all-cash nature of the business has also created huge security concerns for business owners. Many have installed panic buttons for workers in the event of a robbery and have set up a constellation of security cameras at their facilities beyond what is required, as well as floor sensors to detect break-ins. In Colorado, Blue Line Protection Group was formed a few months ago, specializing in protecting dispensaries and facilities that grow marijuana, and in providing transportation security. The firm largely uses military veterans who have Special Operations experience.

Marijuana business owners have devised strategies to avoid the suspicions of bankers. A number of legal operations have opened accounts by establishing holding companies with names that obscure the nature of their business. Some owners simply use personal bank accounts. Others have relied on local bank managers willing to take chances and bring them on as clients, or even offer tips on how to choose nondescript company names.

But the financial institutions eventually shut down many of these accounts after managers conclude the businesses are too much of a risk. It is not unusual for a legitimate marijuana business to go through a half-dozen bank accounts in a few years. While they are active, however, these accounts may have informal restrictions placed on them — some self-imposed — so they do not draw the scrutiny of bankers who may file suspicious-activity reports or would be required to report deposits over $10,000 in cash. The account holders may make only small deposits, and only at night and at certain branches. Mr. Kunkel of Seattle has such an account.

At the largest credit union in Washington State, BECU, about 20 accounts have been shut down in the last three years after it was discovered they were for businesses in the legal marijuana trade, Todd Pietzsch, a spokesman for the credit union, said.

Kristi Kelly, 36, who owns two dispensaries and several marijuana growing operations in the Denver area, said six bank accounts of hers had been canceled in the last 18 months. “Opening the account is not necessarily the problem,” she said. “Our cash deposit levels flag a bank’s compliance division.”

Ms. Kelly, who had just paid $10,000 in cash to the City of Denver for licensing and application fees to expand her business, said that several times a week she carried around tens of thousands of dollars in a bag. “I never felt as illegitimate as the day I had to buy a cash counter,” she said, adding that she spends three hours or so a day just managing the cash from her business’s multiple locations.

A.T.M.s are common in marijuana outlets, but the business owners often have to use their own cash in the machines in case law enforcement authorities conduct a raid and seize the money.

Those marijuana operations that do have bank accounts or use the personal ones of their owners can use a cashless A.T.M. service in which a debit card is swiped at a dispensary and the money is transferred into the recipient’s account.

“It is operating over the A.T.M. network and not the credit card network,” said Lance Ott, whose company, Guardian Data Systems, provides this service. “The A.T.M. networks are not as regulated. This is the loophole.”

Since legal marijuana operations, for the most part, cannot get bank loans, these small businesses have to rely on short-term loans from individuals, usually with higher interest rates.

To help, High Times magazine is starting a private equity fund to invest in marijuana businesses. But many investors may feel uneasy about marijuana businesses that do not have bank accounts. And without bank references, entrepreneurs say, it is much tougher to get lines of credit from vendors.

Leaders in the marijuana trade point out that giving accounts to businesses would allow for more transparency and meticulous regulation and would help ensure that jurisdictions receive the taxes they are entitled to.

Marijuana entrepreneurs and banks both would like clear guidelines from the government on how financial institutions can serve the industry. On Friday, six members of Colorado’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the Treasury and the Justice Department requesting that they “expedite” that guidance.

In August, the Justice Department issued a memo indicating that it would not crack down on legal marijuana as long as eight regulatory requirements were met, like preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises and preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors. The memo did not address banking.

The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network hopes to circulate recommendations by the end of this month to officials at the Treasury and the Justice Department for their opinions, an official briefed on the situation said. There is no timetable for formal guidelines.

Richard Riese, senior vice president for regulatory compliance at the American Bankers Association, said banks wanted clear and comprehensive guidelines on how to do business with the legal marijuana industry.

Mr. Riese said, for instance, that banks would want to know that they were not “aiding and abetting” a criminal enterprise if they provided services to marijuana businesses. “Banks will need a lot of detail from regulators to get the satisfaction and comfort they are looking for,” he said.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

Source: New York Times (NY)
Author: Serge F. Kovaleskijan
Published: January 11, 2014
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters@nytimes.com
Website: http://www.nytimes.com/

Congressman Polis’ Grills Attorney General Holder About Fed’s Medical Marijuana Policies

December 8th, 2011

Update: Huffington Post article and C-Span video.

I’ve spoken to two reporters today inquiring about Colorado Congressman Jared Polis’ medical cannabis-related questions to Attorney General Holder at a congressional committee hearing that was otherwise a ‘bloodbath’ for Holder—getting grilled about the guns and Mexico fiasco—when Polis, who is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, was allowed to ask Holder two questions about medical cannabis enforcement.

Generally written…

Polis first wanted assurances that Colorado’s medical cannabis dispensaries/cultivation centers compliant with state laws—unlike California’s medical cannabis businesses that are not regulated by the state—are not a Department of Justice (DOJ) target. Holder affirmed the basic tenets of the previous Ogden and Cole memos, and wouldn’t provide assurances, but, re-iterated the DOJ stance that enforcing medical cannabis laws, notably in a state like Colorado with its rules and regulations, and with limited federal resources at hand, is a low law DOJ enforcement priority.

The second Polis question was about banking and medical cannabis businesses in Colorado, where he pushed Holder to acknowledge that the DOJ is not placing a priority on interfering with state compliant medical cannabis businesses and banking concerns.

I assume there will be news and industry coverage later today and tomorrow about this unexpected, but informative exchange between Representative Polis and Attorney General Holder.

Latest Casualty In Obama’s War On Pot: The First Amendment

October 14th, 2011

The First Amendment is the latest casualty of the Obama Administration’s stepped up war on cannabis.

On Wednesday, the US Attorney for the southern district of California, Laura Duffy, announced her intent to target media outlets — in particular alt-weeklies like the San Diego Reader and the San Francisco Bay Guardian — that accept advertising dollars from medical cannabis operations.

Feds to target newspaper, radio marijuana ads

via California Watch

U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy, whose district includes Imperial and San Diego counties, said marijuana advertising is the next area she’s “going to be moving onto as part of the enforcement efforts in Southern California.” Duffy said she could not speak for the three other U.S. attorneys covering the state but noted their efforts have been coordinated so far.

“I’m not just seeing print advertising,” Duffy said in an interview with California Watch and KQED. “I’m actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising. It’s gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate – one has to wonder what kind of message we’re sending to our children – it’s against the law.

… Duffy said she believes the law gives her the right to prosecute newspaper publishers or TV station owners.

“If I own a newspaper … or I own a TV station, and I’m going to take in your money to place these ads, I’m the person who is placing these ads,” Duffy said. “I am willing to read (the law) expansively and if a court wants to more narrowly define it, that would be up to the court.”

Whether or not Duffy’s unconventional interpretation of federal law has any legal merit is, of course, beside the point. Her intent is to create a climate of fear that is so pervasive that media outlets ‘willingly’ cease accepting advertising revenue from dispensaries and other like-minded business.

Such threats are nothing new for the federal government, which in recent months has successfully utilized similar tactics to coerce state and local banks to drop their accounts with state-sanctioned marijuana-related businesses and to intimidate landlords who rent their properties to tenants involved in medical cannabis facilities.

Yet despite the government’s heavy-handed behavior, California bureaucrats have remained largely — and disappointingly — silent regarding the Justice Department’s intimidatory tactics. That is why it is more important than ever that you send the Obama Administration a clear and consistent message here.

Banks Refusing To Deal With Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

September 20th, 2011
​Even as protesters decrying how out of touch bankers are with everyday Americans are occupying Wall Street, home of America's banking industry, many financial institutions in states where medical marijuana is legal are refusing to do business with cannabis dispensaries.Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana, but possession or sale of cannabis for any use is still illegal under federal law. It is this disconnect that is giving rise to an unwillingness on the part of many banks to do business with the marijuana collectives.The banks fear that federal regulators will target them, reports Kathryn Glass at Fox Business, because the federal government says that banks which do business with dispensaries are supporting activities that are illegal under federal law. Continue reading "Banks Refusing To Deal With Medical Marijuana Dispensaries" >