The heads of five federal financial regulatory agencies have replied to a letter from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) that requested clarification on banking services hemp businesses.
The responses, which Bennet’s office provided exclusively to Marijuana Moment, each recognize that hemp was legalized through the 2018 Farm Bill—meaning the rules governing how financial institutions interact with these businesses have changed.
The chair of one body clarified that federal reporting guidelines in place for institutions that work with marijuana businesses no longer apply to hemp companies and said she has “personally discussed the changes during banker outreach meetings both in Washington, D.C. and across the country.”
But the five letters—from the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), Farm Credit Administration (FCA) and National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—varied with regard to what the agencies said they were actively doing, or plan to do, to clear up remaining confusion within the financial sector.
Bennet, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has made much of the hemp industry’s potential, especially as it concerns his home state of Colorado. His initial June inquiry emphasized the role hemp is playing for his constituents and raised concerns about instances in which hemp businesses are still unable to access credit and other banking services despite the crop’s legalization.
“Hemp farmers and processors have made clear that the lack of access to the banking system is a significant hurdle to growing their business,” Bennet told Marijuana Moment. “While I appreciate the response from the banking regulators, it’s clear that more needs to be done to provide banks and credit unions with the assurance and clarity needed to remove this major barrier facing the hemp industry.”
Here’s what the agencies said in response to the senator’s request that they issue guidance clarifying hemp businesses’ ability to access financial services:
Chairman Jerome Powell said that the agency expects banks it supervises to apply “adequate policies, procedures, and processes to address appropriately the risks associated with the particular relationship as required under the Bank Secrecy Act,” and that includes hemp businesses.
“The decision to open, to close, or to decline a particular account is generally made by the financial institution without involvement of the federal regulator,” he wrote.
“The Board does not currently plan to issue guidance specific to this area, because it is our expectation institutions will apply their established policies, procedures and practices to their hemp industry customers, but we will continue to monitor this issue,” Powell said.
FDIC has “received a number of questions regarding the changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill, some of which we are able to answer, but many of which are outside our jurisdiction,” Chair Jelena McWilliams said.
“Nevertheless, we have taken a number of steps to inform financial institutions and our examiners about the changes,” which includes discussing the issue at a meeting of community bankers in March as well as personal conversations McWilliams has had during banker outreach events.
Additionally, FDIC is “in the process of providing training to our examiners on changes to the legal status of hemp and instructing them that the suspicious activity filing requirements prescribed by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network for cannabis do not apply to hemp.”
McWilliams wrote that financial providers should assess risk on a “case-by-case basis, rather than declining to provide banking services to entire categories of customers.”
“You have my assurance that we will continue to maintain a dialogue with the institutions we supervise to reinforce this policy regarding the provision of services to legal hemp businesses,” she concluded.
Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting said that his agency “supports the institutions it supervises in providing banking services to any category of customers operating in compliance with applicable law” and that “[d]ecisions on the provision of financial services are bank business decisions and matters of banker judgement,” which also applies to hemp businesses.
“We expect these general requirements to apply to relationships established and maintained with legal hemp farms and producers,” he wrote.
“The OCC does not currently plan to issue guidance specific to this area,” Otting said, “because we expect OCC-supervised banks to apply their established policies, procedures, and practices to legal hemp farmers and producers. Nevertheless, we will continue to monitor this issue.”
Jeffery Hall, acting CEO of FCA, directed Bennet to a memorandum the agency previously issued in April that “outlines our exception for System institutions to develop underwriting standards for hemp production and processing to take into account applicable federal and state laws, growing conditions, and marketing opportunities.”
The memo stated that “now that there is more clarity and direction regarding the legality of hemp production, each individual System institution should determine when and under what conditions to finance producers or processors of hemp.”
Hall told Bennet that his agency “will continue to closely monitor USDA’s development of hemp program authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill and will provide additional guidance as necessary.”
“I share your concern that hemp farmers and processors may lack access to the financial services system,” NCUA Chairman Rodney Hood wrote. “Full access to the system will better enable these farmers and processors across the country to make investments in their businesses and create jobs.”
“Unfortunately, until the Department of Agriculture completes their regulations and guidelines for this program, the uncertainty for financial institutions will likely remain,” he said, referring to the ongoing rulemaking process at USDA that Secretary Sonny Purdue said would be in place in time for the 2020 planting season.
“The NCUA is working on possible future guidance to financial institutions in this area, and we are consulting with FinCEN and other federal banking agencies,” he said. “Opening, closing, or declining a particular account is a business decision for the credit union.”
“Once we are able to provide more clarity, credit unions will be able to make more informed decisions,” Hood added. “As with any such business decision, credit unions should consider their objective, evaluate the risks, and determine their capacity to manage those risks.”
Bennet isn’t the only lawmaker pushing for clarification post-hemp legalization. Another champion of the crop, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a similar letter seeking guidance on the issue from federal financial regulators on Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a chief proponent of hemp legalization, has also put pressure on financial institutions to ensure that hemp businesses have the same access to banking services such as federal crop insurance since the crop was legalized. The senator wrote to federal regulators about the issue in April and this week penned an op-ed detailing his work to ensure that the hemp industry is properly supported.
A top Federal Reserve official was also pressed on what the agency is doing to resolve confusion around hemp during a Senate hearing in June. The official told Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) that her agency “will try to clarify” that servicing hemp businesses is not illegal.
Outside of the hemp realm, there’s also a growing, bipartisan call to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses. The House Financial Services Committee approved legislation to allow banks to service these businesses in March, and the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on the issue last month.
Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID), who earlier this year indicated that his panel wouldn’t hold a hearing on marijuana banking while the substance was federally illegal, has since backed developing a legislative resolution to the issue.
Read Bennet’s initial letter on hemp banking and the agencies’ replies below:
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.