One day after federal financial regulators issued guidance relaxing requirements for banks doing business with hemp companies, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) called for further input on how financial institutions can work with the industry—particularly when it comes to credit card processing.
“I have heard from Kentucky bankers about this. They welcome this guidance, and it will go a long way to help the hemp industry thrive,” Barr said on Wednesday at a House Financial Services Committee hearing.
But after thanking witnesses—including Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC) Chairwoman Jelena McWilliams and National Credit Union Association (NCUA) Chairman Rodney Hood—he reminded them that there is still much work to be done to give hemp businesses fair access to financial services.
Specifically, Barr called credit card processing services for Kentucky hemp companies “unreliable” and “unavailable” while pointing out that Tuesday’s hemp banking memo failed to clearly address the problem.
“I’ve read the guidance closely, as you can tell, and I didn’t see that in there,” Barr said. “That’s the financial service that has really been unreliable and spotty, so if you need to update that guidance to give more clarity to card processing businesses, that might be in order.”
It represents an understanding by our federal regulators that hemp is a LEGAL product.
— Rep. Andy Barr (@RepAndyBarr) December 4, 2019
McWilliams replied that her agency would “certainly take a look” at the issue and offered that “to the extent that we need to do additional explaining, we are more than happy to engage in that process.”
In response, Barr reminded her of the broader goals of congressional action to legalize hemp products under the 2018 Farm Bill.
“Congressional intent is not only that the regulators confirm the legality of industrial hemp and hemp related retailers under the Farm bill, but that those retailers and merchants can use card processing services to sell the product itself,” he said.
Watch Barr press federal regulators on hemp business credit card processing below:
This isn’t the first time Barr has raised the issued of hemp businesses’ ability to accept payments with cards.
“I’ve had constituent businesses tell me that their access to financial products, specifically card services, have actually deteriorated since we descheduled industrial hemp in the Farm Bill,” he said at an earlier hearing in May. “This obviously conflicts with congressional intent.”
The congressman’s questions and comments at the most recent hearing are emblematic of a larger bipartisan push to provide updated regulations to the hemp industry and banks that work with it.
Most notably, the House overwhelmingly approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in September. The legislation would protect banks and credit unions from being penalized by federal regulators for working with marijuana businesses, and Barr added an amendment clarifying that the protections also apply to hemp companies.
However, the vote came later than some observers expected, which may help explain why the growth in the number of financial institutions working with cannabis companies seems to have slowed down in the prior quarter of the fiscal year.
NCUA’s Hood, whose agency’s earlier hemp guidance released in August was among the first federal clarifications on the issue after the Farm Bill became law, testified on Wednesday about the steps NCUA is taking to open up access to financial services for companies in the industry.
“We are continuing to work with the industry to provide training to our examiners,” Hood said. “We will now be working with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and other related parties to ensure that we get it right. We will be hosting a series of roundtables to gain insights from entities around best practices.”
In submitted testimony, he wrote that NCUA expects “to continue updating the credit union community now that the USDA has published its interim final rule [for hemp]” and said the agency has “received interest from credit unions eager to know the rules of the road for serving hemp-related businesses in their communities, and we want to make sure those credit unions have what they need to make informed decisions in this area.”
Jospeh Otting, comptroller of the currency, also discussed the latest guidance from federal regulators in testimony he submitted to the panel, writing that the joint statement from federal regulators “provides clarity regarding the legal status of commercial growth and production of hemp and relevant requirements for banks.”
Also discussed at the hearing was NCUA’s recent regulatory action on employment at credit unions by people with criminal records. Initially proposed by the agency in July, the move to allow participation by people convicted of minor offenses like simple drug possession was officially enacted by this week.
Asked by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) “what are you doing, and what can Congress do” to assist in the advancement of the so-called “second chance” decision, Hood responded that NCUA “recognized that individuals who have committed nonviolent criminal offenses who have paid their debts to society should have opportunities to work in federal credit unions.”
SECOND CHANCE: I am glad my @theNCUA Board colleagues and I approved the final second chance rule today. This rule is more than just about regulatory relief. It is simply the right thing to do. See my full statement here: https://t.co/JV5neDqbFi pic.twitter.com/bYCnaHH6fx
— Rodney E. Hood (@Rodney_e_hood) November 21, 2019
McWilliams called the second chance decision an “important social justice issue” and said FDIC is currently seeking input on how best to move forward. “I personally believe we can go a long way to enabling those individuals to re-enter the workforce,” she said.
Watch lawmakers and regulators discuss financial services employment by people with prior convictions below:
Outside of the House Financial Services panel, several lawmakers on Capitol Hill have recently pushed to make business easier for hemp companies.
Last week, for example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on USDA to extend its public comment period for proposed hemp regulations. And in October, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to USDA asking for five specific changes in the rules.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Illinois Saw Record-Breaking Marijuana Sales In June, Including From Out-Of-State Visitors
In the middle of a global pandemic and one of the worst unemployment crises in American history, Illinois marijuana retailers saw their busiest month on record in June, racking up more than $47.6 million in total sales.
No matter how you slice the data, released by the state on Tuesday, recreational cannabis sales last month shattered existing records in the state, which began legal sales to adults on January 1 of this year. Stores in Illinois sold nearly a million (994,545) cannabis items in June—5,000 more than any previous month—and brought in record sums from in-state residents ($35.3 million) and out-of-state visitors ($12.4 million) alike.
Tax figures are set to be released later this month by the state Department of Revenue. Until then, they’re difficult to accurately estimate. Unlike many other states to have legalized cannabis, Illinois collects different tax rates based on product type and potency. Local jurisdictions can also impose taxes of their own.
While some might be surprised to see such high sales figures in the midst of a global pandemic, the strong sales month is hardly an isolated incident. Sales in May also set new records after a relatively slow March and April. Prior to May, the top sales month was January, when stores first opened. On the inaugural day of legal sales, this past New Year’s Day, customers bought more than $3.1 million worth of products.
Oregon, which began commercial sales to adults in 2015, has also seen record cannabis sales this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Relative to 2019, an unusual spike in sales came in March, which officials attribute to consumers stocking up on products as stay-at-home orders took effect. Oregon then saw a record-high sales month in April, the first full month under the coronavirus lock lockdown, boosted in particular by sales around April 20.
But while Oregon analysts expect the strong sales to continue awhile longer, they warned this spring of a coming downturn as COVID-19’s consequences—on both Oregon’s population and its economy—work to diminish consumer demand and purchasing power.
“Expectations are that some of these increases are due to temporary factors like the one-time household recovery rebates, expanded unemployment insurance benefits, and the shelter in place style policies,” the state’s Office of Economic Analysis said in a May report. “As the impact of these programs fade in the months ahead, and bars and restaurants reopen to a larger degree, marijuana sales are expected to mellow.”
For states, the busy cannabis sales have brought in record tax revenue at a time when many cities and states need it most. As the Chicago Daily Herald reports, state sales taxes are off by more than $181 million compared to the 2019 fiscal year. Also down are hotel taxes ($64 million), automobile taxes ($7 million) and public utility taxes ($64 million).
While Illinois cannabis tax revenue for June has yet to be reported, it’s likely that amount will also set a record given its close relationship to total sales.
The state has consistently brought in tens of millions of dollars from legal marijuana sales each month since sales launched. Per state policy, 35 percent of that money goes to the state’s general fund, 25 percent goes to aid communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, 20 percent goes to substance use treatment and mental health programs and 10 percent goes toward the state’s bill backlog.
In May, Illinois officials announced they would use $31.5 million of marijuana tax revenue to fund restorative justice grants to communities harmed by the drug war. “Equity is one of the administration’s core values,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton (D), who made one of the state’s first legal cannabis purchases, “and we are ensuring that state funding reaches organizations doing critical work in neighborhoods most impacted by the war on drugs.”
Summer Dreams Of Marijuana-Infused Slushies Are Melted By Oklahoma Regulators
Bad news for Oklahoma medical marijuana patients trying to beat the summer heat with a marijuana-infused slushy: State regulators say the icy beverages “are unlikely to meet requirements set forth in Oklahoma statutes and rules” for cannabis products.
As the weather heats up, THC-infused slushy machines have been popping up at more and more Oklahoma dispensaries. Made by companies such as Glazees, which offers flavors such as watermelon and blue raspberry, the THC-infused drinks sell for about $12-$15.
But despite their popularity with some patients, regulators say the slushies fail to comply with a number of state rules, such as a requirement that products be packaged in child-resistant containers. Dispensaries themselves also “are not allowed to alter, package, or label products,” regulators said.
State rules further require that all medical marijuana products be tested in their final form. “In this instance, the finished product is the slushy mixture to be dispensed to patients/caregivers, not the syrup,” regulators said. “If water, ice, or any other substance is added to the product, additional testing is required to ensure the product is safe for consumption and final-product labeling is accurate.”
The OMMA has received multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries. Learn more here: https://t.co/3b6XFzYe2f pic.twitter.com/MPq4Z3PWft
— Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (@OMMAOK) July 2, 2020
Regulators didn’t specify how adding water or ice to cannabis products could affect consumer safety, however.
The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the update on Thursday in what it called a “slushy-machine guidance” memo. The office said it had received “multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries.”
It’s not the first obstacle encountered by Oklahoma marijuana businesses, which began popping up across the state voters passed a medical marijuana law in 2018.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging medical cannabis expansion bill, which would have allowed out-of-state residents to obtain temporary licenses, permitted licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers and eliminated jail time for for first-time possession convictions. But Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) then vetoed the bill, and lawmakers didn’t hold a vote to override the action.
Oklahoma activists also filed a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure in December, but it’s unlikely the campaign can gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this November. Their signature-gathering was largely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only last week did the state Supreme Court rule that the campaign could initiate petitioning. Supporters now have about 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel
Yelp Blocks Marijuana Businesses From Two Key Advertising Features
Yelp is no longer offering two key advertising features to marijuana-related businesses, the company confirmed to Marijuana Moment.
Two cannabis businesses have shared an email from Yelp announcing the policy change. It states that the company had “unfortunate news” and that it will be removing both the “Business Highlights and Portfolio advertising options for cannabis-related businesses, effective immediately.”
“We will be removing these programs from your Yelp page over the course of the next few business days,” the email continues.
The Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), which is the longest-running cannabis dispensary in the country, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it has already seen a significant impact since receiving the notice two days earlier.
“This is yet another blow for us—amidst a devastating pandemic, no less,” BPG Director of Marketing Lauren Watson said. “Yelp was one of only a few effective advertising channels available to legal cannabis companies, and now, without warning, we’re being shut out. Just two days after the new policy was implemented, we’re seeing over a 60 percent decline in page views.”
In a tweet, the chief technology officer of cannabis delivery company Bud.com shared a screenshot of the email from Yelp.
Two features forward – one feature back? We just got this email from Yelp: they have elected to discontinue a few of the few advertising options for cannabis businesses on their platform: pic.twitter.com/ZbidzrNbrG
— Justin Hall (@jah) June 16, 2020
“It’s frustrating to pay taxes and compete with unlicensed folks who can advertise digitally against you,” he said.
Yelp has listings for both licensed cannabis operators and unlicensed cannabis operators. All of them could purchase advertising features. It's frustrating to pay taxes and compete with unlicensed folks who can advertise digitally against you. Difficult for Yelp to check & manage
— Justin Hall (@jah) June 16, 2020
The Business Highlights service allows individuals to pay to feature up to six descriptors on their page showing what “makes their business unique” such as “family-owned.” The separate Portfolio option is another paid feature where businesses can include photos of projects they’ve completed “to showcase their quality of work, expertise, and specializations along with additional details such as cost and project timelines.”
A Yelp spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the company made the policy change in February—though these two marijuana businesses said they only received notice of the change this week. Just prior to when the company says it made the decision to block marijuana firms from the premium products, an NBC News investigation found that Yelp’s site included pages for unlicensed cannabis dispensaries, prompting the launch of the verification process.
The company allows “cannabis businesses on our platform in all states where it is either recreationally or medically legal, as it’s important that consumers have access to first-hand information about these businesses,” the spokesperson told Marijuana Moment.
The representative did not directly reply to a question about the reasoning for the policy change. Instead, they discussed how Yelp does not “take revenue from cannabis businesses that have not purchased our Verified License product.”
“By verifying their license to operate, Yelp is able to confirm to consumers that the business has satisfied the requirements of their local regulator to operate legally,” they said. “Once verified these businesses are then eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product only, at this time.”
Asked for clarification about whether verified marijuana businesses are eligible for the two advertising services mentioned in the email announcing the change to current clients, the spokesperson confirmed they are not.
“If a cannabis company purchases Verified License, they’re then only eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product, at this time,” they said.
The company did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about why at least some businesses were not notified about the policy change until this week even though the company says it made the decision four months ago.
“This is just one more example of prohibition discouraging companies from working with legal cannabis businesses, depriving them of the basic and vital services enjoyed by every other industry,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Given Yelp’s size and accessibility, this unfortunate decision will certainly be a blow to many cannabis businesses which are already hurting because of the pandemic, as well as lack of access to relief funds and other financial services.”
“Thankfully, there are some other services out there that can provide business information to consumers which are either tailored to cannabis or are willing to work with related businesses,” he said.
While Yelp provides the verification service for licensed marijuana businesses, the cannabis-focused directories Weedmaps and Leafly have both taken steps in recent months to prevent unlicensed shops from being advertised on their sites. WeedMaps said it removed about 2,700 listings for illegal dispensaries as of January and Leafly reported that it booted about 1,000 as of September 2019.
Photo element courtesy of Flickr/StickerGiant.