According to a recent report from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crime Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), a growing number of financial institutions are willing to work with cannabis businesses. As of September 30, 375 banks and 111 credit unions were managing marijuana business accounts.
These numbers reveal a steady growth in the number of financial providers willing to engage with the cannabis industry, despite its federal illegality. The report confirms what our cannabis business lawyers have observed over the past few years in Washington and Oregon: namely, most of our licensed cannabis business clients in those states are banked, and it isn’t as hard as it used to be to acquire a basic merchant account. (California is a different story.)
Nationwide, though, most financial services providers have been reluctant to serve the marijuana industry for years, fearing the federal cannabis prohibition would trigger liability under money laundering laws. Earlier this year, many concluded that banks would refuse to associate with cannabis businesses following the decision by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to retract policy protections for licensed marijuana businesses from federal interference. However, the latest FinCEN report reveals that those fears were mostly speculative.
The American Bankers Association, which recently conducted a survey on the issues faced by banks that are serving cannabis businesses, is advocating for greater legal clarity to banks operating in states where recreational and medical cannabis has been legalized. Indeed, the guidelines currently used by the financial services industry are those published in 2014 by the FinCEN and could use an update given the continued ascendance of marijuana reform.
Several key officials of the Trump administration have also expressed the need to clarify cannabis banking issues. For instance, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated in congressional testimony that he wants businesses operating in states where marijuana is legal to be able to store their profits in banks.
I assure you that we don’t want bags of cash … We do want to find a solution to make sure that businesses that have large access to cash have a way to get them into a depository institution for it to be safe.”
In June, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chariwoman Jelena McWilliams explained that she instructed her staff to consider ways to address the banking issues, but that the agency’s hands were “somewhat tied” until federal law legalizes cannabis.
Support for clarification and for fixing marijuana banking problems also comes from the states. A few months ago, a coalition of the top financial regulators located in thirteen states asked Congress to take action to protect banks working with the cannabis industry.
In their letter, the regulators wrote:
It is incumbent on Congress to resolve the conflict between state cannabis programs and federal statutes that effectively create unnecessary risk for banks seeking to operate in this space without the looming threat of civil actions, forfeiture of assets, reputational risk, and criminal penalties.”
Finally, back in June, a bipartisan group of twelve governors urged lawmakers to pass the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (“STATES”) Act, which proposed to amend the Controlled Substance Act to exempt state-legal marijuana activities.
This growing support for permanent protections of banks that serve cannabis businesses is a promising sign that legal reform is on its way. The newly formed Democratic House has expressed a strong desire to move cannabis legislation, including banking issues, in the new year. Only time will tell whether the Republican-controlled Senate will allow it.