There has been a ton of speculation about what President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, will do about state-legal marijuana in the next four years. Some industry and political experts think a renewed War on Drugs is coming, while others believe neither Trump nor Sessions will undertake the politically unpopular task of undoing state-by-state cannabis legalization and some version of the status quo under the Cole Memo will prevail. What is likely to happen with access to banking for cannabis businesses under this new administration? Next to 280e, the inability to secure and maintain a bank account is probably the biggest business problem for marijuana entrepreneurs.
Marijuana businesses and ancillary service providers (those businesses that provide services to the industry but that are not cultivating, manufacturing, or distributing marijuana) often cannot get bank accounts or bank financing because marijuana is federally illegal. Regulations issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) dealing with money laundering are what make it so tough for cannabis businesses to secure banking. The Bank Secrecy Act FinCEN enforces requires banks investigate their customers and neither negligently or knowingly do business with bad actors. State-legal marijuana businesses and even many ancillary businesses are viewed as bad actors for banks and so they generally avoid those businesses and the potential fines that can come with them.
Nonetheless, in 2014, FinCEN finally issued some guidance that allows financial institutions to at least provide bank accounts to marijuana businesses — no mention was made in this guidance about access to banking for ancillary service providers. Under these FinCEN marijuana guidelines, banks are expected to:
- Verify with state authorities that a marijuana business is duly licensed and registered.
- Review state license applications and related documentation the marijuana business used to obtain its state license to operate its marijuana-related business.
- Request from the state licensing and enforcement authorities available information about the business and related parties.
- Develop an understanding of the normal and expected activity for the business, including the types of products to be sold and the types of customers to be served.
- Monitor publicly available sources for adverse information about the cannabis business and related parties.
- Periodically refresh information obtained as part of customer due diligence using methods and timetables commensurate with the risk.
- File Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) with FinCEN for all of their marijuana business customers. Banks use SARs to notify regulators that someone may be using their services for an illegal purpose. There will be no direct consequences arising from these SAR filings, but this means the federal government knows exactly who you are as a marijuana business, and with whom you are banking.
- File SARs if they believe one of their cannabis business customers has violated a state law or has failed to act in accordance with the Cole Memo.
With these guidelines FinCEN essentially dragooned banks into acting as on-the-ground investigators to snitch on marijuana businesses that are not being as compliant or careful as the federal government believes they should be. These guidelines do not change federal banking laws and they are pretty onerous, but they were a positive step towards alleviating the marijuana banking epidemic.
With eight states, including California, electing to legalize/”medicalize” marijuana this past November, I questioned in a recent blog post what FinCEN/the Department of Treasury will do with the 2014 FinCEN guidelines, especially with Trump soon to be our President. In December, Senator Elizabeth Warren (and several other senators) sent a letter to FinCEN requesting it issue increased guidance to banks, given we now have 29 states with some form of legal marijuana and no federal resolution of the banking issue. Specifically, Senator Warren and the other senators wrote that more guidance is necessary to address how ancillary services providers can secure financial services as the 2014 FinCEN guidelines are silent on this issue. The senators’ letter specifically stated that:
The 2014 FinCEN guidance did not distinguish between state-sanctioned marijuana businesses and the [ancillary] businesses that service the marijuana industry, leaving it up to individual financial institutions to determine how to classify and treat [ancillary] businesses. Limitations on access to financial services have become increasingly problematic for legal businesses and will only present a larger problem as more states legalize marijuana . . . since FinCEN’s 2014 guidance was released, less than 3% of the nation’s 11,954 federally regulated banks and credit unions have chosen to serve the cannabis industry.
The senators’ letter also accurately noted that an inability of cannabis businesses to bank promotes tax fraud and creates a public safety issue due to the large amounts of cash marijuana businesses must handle.
If Congress will not adjust the banking laws to accommodate state-legal marijuana businesses, pressuring banking regulators to change their enforcement policies is the logical next step and we need to see more congressional representatives and senators from marijuana-friendly states standing up for marijuana banking. If we expect the state-by-state democratic experiments with cannabis to succeed, we need to equip marijuana and ancillary businesses with the tools for success, including access to banking.