While marijuana businesses often struggle to find banks that are willing to take them on as clients due to risks caused by the ongoing federal prohibition of cannabis, a new study found that banking activity actually increases in states that legalize marijuana.
The research doesn’t make a direct connection between state-level marijuana reform and the increased activity, but it does strongly imply that there’s a relationship—even if the factors behind the trend aren’t exactly clear.
Researchers set out to investigate banking trends in states that have legalized cannabis, looking at bank regulatory filings with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 2011 to 2016. They found evidence that “banking activity (deposits and subsequent loans) increase considerably in legalizing states relative to non-legalizing states.”
That’s in spite of the fact that banks and credit unions run the risk of being penalized by federal regulators for working with businesses that deal with a federally controlled substance.
“While uncertainty can result in overly cautious behavior and hinder economic activity, we do not find evidence of this with cannabis laws and the banking industry,” the authors wrote in the new paper—titled, “THC and the FDIC: Implications of Cannabis Legalization for the Banking System.”
The study analyzed data from “150,566 bank-quarter observations from 6,932 unique banks located in 46 different states.” It found that deposits increased by an average range of 3.14-4.33 percent—and bank lending increased by 6.54-8.62 percent—post-legalization.
“Our results indicate that deposits and loans increased for banks after recreational cannabis legalization.”
Of course, it makes sense that legal states would see increased financial activity in the banking sector after opening a new market, even if only some banks choose to take the risk of working directly with cannabis businesses. The emerging marijuana industry also supports an array of ancillary firms and traditional companies that provide services to dispensaries and grow operations.
As of June 30, there were 706 financial institutions that had filed requisite reports saying they were actively serving cannabis clients. Thats up from 689 in the previous quarter but still down from a peak of 747 in late 2019.
But the question remains: why are some banks deciding to take on marijuana clients while others remain wary of federal repercussions?
The study authors—from the University of Arizona, Drexel University, San Diego State University and Scripps College—put forward two possibilities about why “the risk from regulatory uncertainty did not decrease banks’ willingness to accept deposits or make loans.”
The increase “may suggest that banks were either unconcerned about the potential risk associated with accepting cannabis related deposits or optimistic about the chances that regulations will adapt to the needs of legalizing states,” the paper reasons.
Confidence about working with a federally illegal industry may well have been bolstered in 2014 when the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) under the Obama administration issued guidance to financial institutions on reporting requirements for cannabis-related businesses.
The second option, optimism about federal reform, also seems possible. It was around the time that the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was first introduced that there was a notable spike in financial institutions reporting that they have marijuana business clients.
In the years since, that legislation has been approved in some form five times in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it’s continued to stall in the Senate. In general, banks reporting marijuana accounts has remained relatively stable since 2019.
“Although many have speculated about the increased legal risks to banks, there is a lack of evidence for instances where banks are criminally prosecuted or lose their federally insured status,” the study states. “If these negative repercussions rarely happen, it makes sense that banks would not respond to the legislative uncertainty.”
“As more state regulators issue statements in support of banks and credit unions serving the cannabis industry, the financial institutions can become more optimistic about the chances that regulations will adapt in their favor with time,” the authors wrote.
Despite optimism for future reform that certain lawmakers have expressed, it doesn’t necessarily take the sting out of the latest failed attempt to secure protections for banks that choose to work with state-legal cannabis businesses as part of a large-scale defense bill.
A pro-reform Republican senator recently slammed Democrats for failing to advance marijuana banking reform despite having a congressional majority and control of the presidency.
For what it’s worth, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department recently said that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.
With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.
A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.
Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.