The largest group representing U.S. banks is asking its members to share stories demonstrating problems caused by the growing gap between marijuana’s ongoing federally prohibited status and its legalization in an increasing number of states.
In an email announcing the cannabis survey last week, the American Bankers Association (ABA) said that responses will be used by the national organization and its affiliated state bankers associations “to help illustrate to regulators and legislators the need for greater clarity” on the issue.
“[B]anks face significant risks in serving this industry, including criminal and civil penalties as well as bank regulatory action,” the email said, adding that the group wants to “learn more from bankers about how the lack of legal clarity regarding cannabis and banking is impacting banks and their communities.”
While the Treasury Department under the Obama administration released guidance to banks on serving marijuana businesses in 2014—and a steadily growing number of institutions are opening accounts for cannabis growers, processors, retailers and related operations—many financial services providers have remained wary about working with the industry in light of continuing federal criminalization.
“Can you provide an example of a situation where you had to close an existing account, terminate a banking relationship or turn away a potential customer due to their association with marijuana?” the new ABA survey asks. “This could include relationships with mainstream businesses that are not directly related to marijuana, but may generate a portion of their income from marijuana-related businesses (e.g., landlords, security companies, etc.).”
Concerns about federal prohibition have caused a number of banks close accounts for ancillary service providers such as law firms that work with marijuana businesses but don’t actually touch the plant themselves.
ABA, a trade association founded in 1875, is also querying members on whether they have ever seen a customer try to “disguise their affiliation with a marijuana business” and if state or local officials have ever initiated contact “urging you to bank marijuana businesses.”
And the organization wants to know about communications from federal regulators as well, particularly whether their feedback “on how to manage marijuana related accounts” has been “consistent.”
While ABA hasn’t endorsed cannabis reform—the group “takes no position on the moral issues raised by legalizing marijuana,” its website says—it has increasingly focused attention on highlighting financial services issues caused by federal prohibition.
For example, last month the group’s vice president and associate chief counsel for regulatory compliance published a lengthy report outlining what he called the “cannabis conundrum” that bankers in an increasing number of states now face.
And over the summer, the ABA Banking Journal’s podcast featured an interview on the topic with the head of the Colorado Bankers Association.
The banking trade group also asked in the survey whether respondents would offer services to marijuana businesses if the “state/federal conflict is resolved,” and if they are willing to allow their responses to be attributed to them, suggesting that the organization may be preparing public advocacy materials featuring the stories of members that could be used as part of an increased push to amend federal policy.
Legalization advocates say that ABA’s effort to build support for cannabis reform on Capitol Hill will be welcome.
“As more and more states implement regulated markets for the medical or personal use of cannabis, no industry can operate safely, transparently, or effectively without access to banks or other financial institutions,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in an interview. “If the ABA is able to hasten congressional change in federal policy so that these growing number of state-compliant businesses, and their consumers, may operate in a manner that is similar to other legal commercial entities, then it is yet another sign that the end of prohibition is near.”
A number of key Trump administration officials have indicated they want to see a clarity on cannabis banking issues.
For example, Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, has hinted in congressional testimony that he wants state-legal marijuana businesses to be able to store their profits in banks.
“I assure you that we don’t want bags of cash,” he said during an appearance before a House committee in February. “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 a separate hearing he said that resolving the marijuana banking issue is at the “top of the list” of his concerns.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in June that the disparity between local and national marijuana laws “puts federally chartered banks in a very difficult situation.”
“It would great if that could be clarified,” he said.
And that same month, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chairwoman Jelena McWilliams said that while she directed her staff to consider ways to address the issue, the agency’s hands are “somewhat tied” until federal law changes.
Pressure is also coming from the states. In August, a coalition of the top financial regulators in 13 states sent a letter demanding Congress take action to protect banks that work with marijuana businesses.
Despite the growing call for clarity on the issue, key committees in the House and Senate rejected amendments this summer that would have prevented federal banking regulators from punishing financial institutions for serving the marijuana industry.
Standalone legislation to provide permanent protections to banks that work with cannabis businesses have garnered increasing numbers of cosponsors in both chambers, but haven’t been scheduled for hearings or votes.
Number Of Banks Reporting Cannabis Business Clients Dips After Hemp Rules Change
The number of accounts that banks and credit unions informed federal regulators they are maintaining for cannabis businesses dipped slightly at the end of the last quarter, according to new data. But that seems to be primarily related to revised reporting requirements for financial institutions servicing hemp-specific businesses following that crop’s federal legalization, rather than a decline in the number of marijuana companies with bank accounts.
Under guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2014 that remains in effect, banks and credit unions are required to submit suspicious activity reports, or SARs, if they elect to provide financial services to marijuana businesses. As more states have legalized marijuana, the number of cannabis-related SARs filed has consistently increased, though it began to level off late last year, a federal report released this week shows.
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) reported that SARs for marijuana businesses declined from 747 as of November 2019 to 739 by the end of the following month.
While the overall number is higher than was reported in the previously quarterly data (723), the recent dip appears to coincide with updated guidance to financial institutions that FinCEN and other federal regulators issued at the beginning of December.
Those memos clarified that because the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, banks are no longer required to automatically submit SARs for businesses that produce, process or sell the crop and products derived from it.
Some in the industry expected to see a sizable spike in the number of banks that work with marijuana firms after the House of Representatives passed a bill last year that would protect financial institutions from being penalized for doing so by federal regulators. Even though the legislation has stalled in the Senate and has not yet been enacted into law, the bipartisan margin of support it got in the House has ben seen as a signal that formal federal changes are likely on the way.
While the new data doesn’t show that expected big increase, that could be partially explained by the change in hemp’s legal status.
Of the 739 depository institutions servicing marijuana businesses, 203 “indicated that they were providing banking services to hemp-related businesses,” the agency said. Based on the language of the SARs, FinCEN said it was likely that 61 financial institutions provide services to companies that exclusively market hemp and not marijuana.
As more banks and credit unions become aware of the updated guidance on hemp reporting standards, it’s possible that fewer institutions will issue SARs for what FinCEN defines as a “marijuana-related business.”
The agency also said that short-term declines in overall numbers “may be explained by filers exceeding the 90 day follow-on Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) filing requirement.”
All that said, if Congress passes the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, the number of financial institutions working with marijuana firms will likely increase substantially, as banks would then have the security of a codified law to protect them against adverse actions.
“Hemp-related reductions in filings aside, I think these latest FinCEN numbers continue to show that most banks are extremely hesitant to work with cannabis businesses in the absence of clarifying legislation,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “I would imagine that this problem still exists for hemp producers given the relatively small drop in banks filings SARS that is attributed to changes in filing requirements for hemp-related activity.”
“This level of banking access does not come close to fulfilling the needs of regulated cannabis businesses or their employees, and ensures that issues we are seeing with public safety and lack of access to capital for small businesses will continue,” he said. “The Senate must act now to remedy these problems, and it can start by holding a markup on the House-approved version of the SAFE Banking Act in the Senate Banking Committee as soon as possible.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), a lead sponsor of the bill, said last week that he expects the Senate to take it up within months and revealed that lawmakers are “close” to reaching a compromise with Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID), who has proposed several restrictive changes to the House-passed legislation.
USDA Touts Hemp Industry’s Growth But Says Challenges Remain
Hemp production in the U.S. has scaled up rapidly since lawmakers lifted federal prohibition of the crop, with more acres of hemp grown in the country today than at any point since the 1940s. But the fledgling industry is still very much in flux, and reporting practices that vary wildly from state to state have hampered efforts to fully understand it.
Those are the top-level takeaways of a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that explores the economic viability of the American hemp industry as the country transitions to a legal era.
After decades of prohibition due to hemp’s close relationship to its high-THC cannabis cousin marijuana, Congress in 2014 approved state-level pilot programs, allowing growers in certain states to produce and sell hemp as part of limited research initiatives. In 2018, lawmakers went further, ending federal hemp prohibition entirely. Since then, the sector has exploded.
“Under the pilot programs, United States industrial hemp acreage reported by States increased from zero in 2013 to over 90,000 acres in 2018, the largest U.S. hemp acreage since the 146,200 acres planted in 1943,” the USDA study found. “By December 2019, hemp could be grown legally in every State except Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota.”
As of last year, more than 146,065 acres of planted hemp were reported to the agency.
— Economic Research Service (@USDA_ERS) February 19, 2020
The 83-page report, “Economic Viability of Industrial Hemp in the United States: A Review of State Pilot Programs,” attempts to draw conclusions about the legal, logistical and economic challenges that might arise as US farmers return to a crop that hasn’t been grown in the country for generations.
One of the biggest obstacles, the study shows, is keeping everyone on the same page.
“There is no systematic comprehensive data source regarding the emerging United States hemp industry or requirement to report a consistent set of data for the pilot programs,” noted the authors, who said they drew on annual reports, website information, internal USDA data, unstructured discussions with state agencies and other third-party information to compile the document.
“States collected data at various times and levels of aggregation,” the study says. “For example, some States report hemp data by intended end use (i.e., grain, fiber, cannabidiol (CBD) or other extracts) while others do not report data.”
Inconsistency between state requirements was one of the main obstacles highlighted by the report. USDA found that state-level hemp programs ran into a handful of common problems, starting with the difficulty of passing state-level legislation to regulate the new programs. Other problems arose in obtaining “critical production inputs,” such as seeds and insecticides, or in trying to easily distinguish industrial hemp from high-THC marijuana, which remains federally illegal.
A fundamental problem, the USDA report found, was “lack of basic data and information for decision-making”—something that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched a legislative hearing on cannabis.
Getting stakeholders involved early seemed to help smooth some wrinkles, the study found. In some states, authors wrote, “hemp legislation failed repeatedly, typically because of law enforcement concerns or lack of public support.”
“Colorado and Kentucky are two examples of States that included law enforcement stakeholders early when establishing their pilot programs,” the report notes. “This allowed an early basis for dialogue and shared knowledge.”
Data from state pilot programs also led analysts to conclude that while industrial hemp is a burgeoning industry in the U.S., it likely won’t emerge as a strong economic player in every state.
“As with other crops, it is not likely that hemp will be economically viable in every State,” the study concludes. “States that moved quickly to establish pilot programs were not leading producers of competing major field crops,” it found, and “growers are not likely to plant or process hemp if more profitable options exist.
Hemp-producing states could also run into competition internationally, the report says, acknowledging that the U.S. is one of many hemp-producing regions globally. “While the reintroduction of hemp production in the United States is relatively recent,” it says, “hemp production has already been legal in other parts of the world,” including Canada, Europe and China.
Under a recent trade deal with the U.S., China agreed to import more American-grown hemp and other agricultural products over the next two years.
For now, the rising tide of interest in hemp-derived CBD appears to be lifting all boats. “Global production was small and relatively stable until the recent worldwide interest in CBD oil,” the USDA study found. “There is some demand for hemp as a sustainable natural fiber, hemp seeds and protein as a food ingredient, and hemp extracts for cosmetics and food, but CBD oil has been the primary source of demand growth.”
Earlier this month, USDA officials said they won’t be able to comply with a request by farmers and some state lawmakers to increase the federal THC limit on industrial hemp, which is currently defined as cannabis that contains no more than 0.3 percent THC. Advocates had asked for that limit to be increased to 1 percent, but the agency said that’s a job for Congress.
They did, however, say that a new public comment period will be opened before hemp rules are finalized.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Businesses Are More Profitable And Innovative In States With Legal Marijuana, Study Finds
States have been experimenting with various forms of marijuana legalization for years and, according to new research, business is better where cannabis is legal.
To investigate the impact legalization has on the economy, researchers at the University of Iowa analyzed 9,810 corporations between 1991 and 2017, finding “a multitude of positive effects” after a state enacts medical marijuana laws.
“Firms headquartered in marijuana-legalizing states receive higher market valuations, earn higher abnormal stock returns, improve employee productivity, and increase innovation,” the authors said.
The study, which was reviewed by Marijuana Moment but has yet to be published, found that having cannabis laws on the books can unleash the previously untapped potential of employees and helps companies attract new talent.
Corporations “become more productive and hire more productive human capital from out of state after the passage of the law,” the authors wrote.
They also report that “firms earn higher net income per employee” after a medical cannabis law is passed, and “the positive impact is sustained over the next two years.”
Additionally, the study found a 4.2 percent increase in company value, which translates into an average increase of the market-value of corporations by $166 million after a medical marijuana law is enacted.
“Firms experience an increase in profitability likely due to the positive shock to the human capital post-legalization,” the study finds.
“State-level medical marijuana laws have a considerable positive impact on firms in the state, likely by having a positive impact on the human capital of firms.”
Higher profits and more productivity aren’t the only benefits a company sees after marijuana is legalized. When it comes to stock prices, companies located in states with medical cannabis fare better than those in jurisdictions where the plant is prohibited.
Additionally, the stock value of corporations in medical marijuana states increased by 4.56 percent. An “equal-weighted portfolio” composed of similar stocks located in states without a medical marijuana program showed a loss of about two percent annually.
Returns on stocks were also 4.44 percent higher per year for companies in states that have legalized.
What’s the source of such financial benefits? The authors suggested that companies will ramp up innovation after marijuana laws are passed, making the company more profitable over time, compared to their counterparts in areas that don’t permit cannabis at all.
“Our results imply that after marijuana legalization, firms not only apply for more patents and receive more citations on those patents, but also are more productive and efficient in generation innovation output from labor and [research and development] input,” the study determined.
“We also find an increase in both entrepreneurial activity and venture capital funding in states that legalize marijuana.”
Finally, the study measures the “innovation productivity” of those working, living and moving to the state, following the passage of a medical marijuana law.
“The inventors that are in the state both before and after legalization become more creative” post-legalization, the authors found.
And when it comes to attracting new talent from other states, “more inventors relocate to states after medical marijuana legalization than before passage of the law.”
The benefit is two-fold for such corporations. In addition to being “able to attract more productive inventors” in states with medical marijuana “relative to states that do not legalize,” existing employees also see an uptick in innovation after a cannabis law is passed, the study concluded.