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Lawmakers Press Treasury Official On Marijuana Business Banking Access

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Two members of a House appropriations subcommittee pressed a top U.S. Treasury Department official on the issue of banking access for the marijuana industry on Tuesday.

At a hearing, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) commented on what he described as a double standard whereby private sector cannabis businesses are put through hoops to secure bank accounts while government entities are able to deposit tax revenue from cannabis sales into federally regulated institutions and “there is no scrutiny whatsoever.”

The congressman said he generally understood why banks like Wells Fargo, which “hasn’t had a great couple of years,” would be sensitive to federal drug laws and avoid servicing state-legal cannabis businesses.

He gave another hypothetical example of a bank rejecting a “plumber, who may have done work on a rental property for the landlord, which is leased to somebody who grows or distributes King’s X,” which appeared to be a reference to a strain of cannabis called King’s Cross.

That situation is “maybe not OK,” he said.

“I’m not trying to put that all on you because Congress has to fill a void. I get that,” Amodei told Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury official testifying before the panel. “But right now, status quo is if you’re a government entity, putting your cash from marijuana in a federal depository institution, as near as I can figure, it’s just fine.”

“Why are all the private sector people being told, ‘find a way to launder your money,’ but you have the government political subdivisions are [told], ‘pay the IRS in cash?'” he asked. “As a matter of fact, some of them are overpaying them and getting Treasury checks back, so we’ve essentially laundered the money for them.”

Mandelker, the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, didn’t have a specific answer to that question. Instead, she said that marijuana remains federally illegal and there’s nothing her department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)  “does or can do in this area changes that.”

“That continues to be the state of federal law,” she said. “In that context, of course, banks have to make their own decisions about risk-based decisions as we ask them to do in a variety of circumstances about what they are and aren’t willing to bank.”

“We don’t tell them what to bank. They make those decisions based on a variety of circumstances, including their concerns about whether or not engaging in certain types of banking is going to bring regulatory scrutiny on them, or alternatively, concerns that it may be involved in money laundering or other illicit activity.”

Mandelker also assured the congressman that federal guidance on marijuana banking, which was issued in 2014 to inform financial institutions about the types of suspicious activity reports they should file with regard to state-legal cannabis companies, is still in effect.

“That guidance remains in place. We haven’t changed it. We continue to review it,” she said. “But as you mentioned, this is really something I think that Congress needs to look at because nothing that we do can or does change what is prohibited under federal law.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) brought up his state’s medical marijuana program and said that “between the economic impact and the benefit to seniors, veterans, persons with certain disability and other conditions, I think that medical marijuana is extremely important in my state.”

But because of federal law, his state’s cannabis businesses are essentially treated “like criminal enterprises that your office might have to approach,” he said.

Crist wanted to know whether it would make Mandelker’s job easier if “every dollar of every transaction were banked, traced and taxed within our banking system.”

“Would this give your department more control and oversight over illicit activities that contribute to the problem of financial crimes and money laundering?” he asked.

Again, the witness said her department didn’t have a role in setting federal laws, but she did say she knew that some banks in certain states were accepting marijuana business accounts. Those that choose to work with cannabis companies can at least adhere to the Obama-era guidelines she mentioned earlier, she said.

However, she was not prepared to comment specifically on whether giving marijuana businesses legal access to banking services would bolster the Treasury’s ability to monitor financial crimes.

“We’re happy to take that question and do additional analysis,” she said.

It might not be longer before Congress sees firsthand how expanding banking access to marijuana businesses will affect federal financial regulation, though. A bipartisan bill that would shield banks that accept marijuana accounts gained five more cosponsors on Monday, meaning that more than a quarter of the House is now officially backing the legislation.

A draft of that bill was also the subject of the first cannabis-related hearing of the 116th Congress last month.

Federal Reserve Head Calls For Clarity On Marijuana Banking Issues

Photo courtesy of YouTube/House Appropriations Committee.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Business

State Of Montana Launches Online Hemp Marketplace To Connect Buyers And Sellers

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Say you’re a Montana farmer who has planted acres of industrial hemp. As harvest nears, you’re looking to offload it. Where do you go to find a buyer?

Montana’s Department of Agriculture says it has the answer.

The state this week announced the launch of an online “Hemp Marketplace,” unveiling an online portal meant to connect the hemp farmers with buyers in search of seeds, fiber and derivatives such as cannabidiol, or CBD.

“The Hemp Marketplace concept originated from the same idea as the department’s Hay Hotline,” the Agriculture Department says on its website, “only instead of hay and pasture, the online tool connects buyers and sellers of hemp and hemp derivatives.”

Listings are free of charge.

Montana online Hemp Marketplace screenshot

Montana Department of Agriculture

Montana farmers have embraced industrial hemp since the state legalized its production under a federal pilot program. The first legal crop was planted in 2017, and in recent years the state has led the country in terms of space dedicated to the plant. In 2018, for example, licensed farmers in Montana grew more acreage of hemp than any other U.S. state. While other states have since eclipsed the state’s hemp production—the crop became broadly federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill—Montana remains an industry leader.

But to make revenue, farmers have to be able to sell their crop. That’s where the new hemp marketplace comes in. The online portal is essentially a sophisticated bulletin board for buyers and sellers, split into “Hemp for Sale” and “Hemp to Buy” categories.

“With hemp being a relatively new crop grown in Montana, the department recognizes that these markets are still developing,” Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement. “The Hemp Marketplace was designed to help facilitate connections between buyers and sellers. I’m looking forward to seeing how the marketplace will continue to advance the industry.”

Listings include what type of products are on offer (or being sought), whether a given crop is organic and even whether laboratory testing data is available. The portal also organizes products into one of four varieties based on whether the hemp seeds have been certified by regulators. None of the products may contain more than 0.3 percent THC—the upper limit for what qualifies as hemp under both state and federal law.

Meanwhile, Montana voters are set to decide on Tuesday whether the state will legalize hemp’s more infamous cousin, high-THC marijuana. According to a poll released this week, passage looks likely: The survey, conducted by Montana State University at Billings, found that 54 percent of likely voters plan to support legal cannabis on the ballot. Another 38 percent said they were opposed, while 7 percent remained undecided.

At the federal level, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration are still working to revise rules around marijuana and hemp to reflect Congress’s move to legalize hemp broadly in 2018. While the public comment on the proposals closed earlier this month, nine members of Congress cautioned the agency against adopting its proposed changes, warning some could put hemp producers at risk of criminal liability. Already a number of arrests and seizures have been made by law enforcement officers confused whether products were legal hemp or illicit marijuana.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which closed again this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Montana Marijuana Legalization Ballot Measure Has Solid Lead In New Poll

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak

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New Jersey Governor Steps Up Marijuana Legalization Push As New Ad Touts Economic Benefits Days Before Election

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With just a few days to go before Election Day, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is continuing to stump for marijuana legalization in that state, extolling the economic and social justice benefits he says the change would bring. His latest comments came shortly after the release of a new campaign ad focusing on legalization’s economic impact.

“We’ll build an industry, it would be a revenue-generator,” Murphy said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “I think at first it would be modest, but ultimately will grow, I think, into several hundred million dollars in the state budget.”

“Along with social justice,” he added, “that’s a pretty good, winning combination.”

Recent polling suggests voters are mostly on board with legalization, with surveys showing upwards of 60% support for Public Question 1, a referendum to legalize and establish a commercial industry around the drug. If it passes, some lawmakers hope legal sales to adults 21 and older could begin as soon as next month, though regulators and some advocates have pushed back on the plan to start sales in existing medical cannabis dispensaries, saying that it could lead to access and supply issues for patients.

Legalization would indeed likely bring in millions of dollars to the state budget, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic downturn. But Murphy claims his chief motivation for supporting the measure is racial justice.

“When I became governor, we had the widest white–nonwhite gap of persons incarcerated, believe it or not, of any American state. The biggest reason was low-end drug offenses,” he said. “So I get there first and foremost because of social justice.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, one of the campaign committees behind New Jersey’s legalization effort, NJ CAN 2020, released a new 30-second ad emphasizing the economic benefits legalization could bring the cash-strapped state.

“At a time when this crisis has created challenges we all face—a budget deficit and a lack of funding for services we need—New Jersey could raise hundreds of millions of dollars to support our local schools, vital health care services and community programs, by simply voting yes on Public Question 1,” the ad says.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also filmed a video in support of the measure. Appearing in a NJ CAN campaign video released Wednesday, he said prohibition “has not been a war on drugs, but a war on people.”

“Veterans, for example, are more likely to be arrested for drug use or possession of marijuana. Instead of getting help, they’re often hurt by a system that piles upon them criminal charges for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing,” he said.

Black, Latino and low-income communities are also disproportionately targeted by enforcement of drug laws, Booker added. “We can do this as a state so much more responsibly, and instead of destroying lives we can get more resources to help to empower the well-being of all New Jerseyans.”

In other legal states, cannabis has been a rare bright spot in terms of tax revenue. Oregon, for example, saw record sales this summer even as other areas of the economy slowed. State budget analysts said last month that they expect the strong sales to continue.

“Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis said in a recent report. “Expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”

Other established markets, such as Washington state, Colorado and Nevada, have also seen “strong gains” in marijuana sales amid the pandemic, Oregon’s budget office noted.

Big money has also been flowing into New Jersey’s legalization campaign itself. A report released Thursday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) shows that committees supporting the referendum have raised more than $2 million in campaign contributions. That’s compared to just $9,913 brought in by opponents.

“Assuming all available funds are spent, the marijuana ballot question already ranks eighth among the top ten most expensive public referenda in the Garden State,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said. “Keep in mind that marijuana interests already have spent $4.1 million on lobbying between 2017 and 2019. So the industry’s overall political investment in New Jersey already has topped $6 million.”

If voters approve the referendum, lawmakers will still need to pass a bill to establish a framework for the state’s legal marijuana market. A legislative hearing to get a head start on planning was scheduled for last week, but that was canceled when a state senator leading the proposal went into quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.

Friday’s appearance by Murphy is the latest effort by the governor to encourage voters to back legalization. He also recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month and recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

In July, Murphy described legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.

The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”

Also this month, the NJ CAN campaign scaled up its advertising push, releasing a series of English- and Spanish-language videos.

In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces of marijuana a civil penalty without the threat of jail time. The bill hasn’t advanced in the Senate.

Arizona Marijuana Opponents Release Five Misleading Attack Ads Ahead Of Legalization Vote Next Week

Photo courtesy of Gov. Phil Murphy

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Oregon Psilocybin Ballot Measure Can Help Dying People Find Peace, Doctor Says In TV Ad

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Oregon’s first-of-its-kind ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy has the potential to help ease mental suffering for terminally ill people, a medical doctor says in a new TV ad for the initiative.

“I’ve worked in end-of-life care for 28 years. In hospice, we believe when people are dying, we should treat their pain—physical or mental distress,” Dr. Nick Gideonse says in the 30-second spot. “There’s often mental suffering that comes with a terminal diagnosis.”

“So I support Measure 109 to allow psilocybin therapy for terminally ill people suffering from depression. It’s humane,” he said. “Yes on 109 will help those near death come to terms with their diagnosis and find peace.”

If approved by voters, adults would be able to access the psychedelic in a medically supervised environment. There aren’t any limitations on the types of conditions that would make a patient eligible for the treatment.

A previous ad released earlier this month by the campaign featured a state senator who is also a medical doctor saying that the measure “promotes safety for a therapy that can help people who are suffering.”

That followed an independent spot by the nonprofit Heroic Hearts Project going on the air in Oregon to tout the benefits of psilocybin therapy, but it didn’t mention the specific ballot measure.

A campaign working to pass a separate measure on the Oregon ballot to decriminalize drug possession and expand substance misuse treatment also recently released a series of ads.

The Oregon Democratic Party formally endorsed both measures last month.

Meanwhile, the psychedelic reform measure has drawn opposition from an unlikely source. Decriminalize Nature, which has led efforts to pass local policies reducing criminal enforcement against psilocybin and other entheogens, has argued that it could threaten equitable access to the substance.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in January that he was in favor of the psilocybin reform proposal and that he would be working to boost the campaign as the election approaches. In August, he wrote in an email blast that passing the measure is necessary “because it tackles an important issue in our community, mental health, and it does so in an innovative and responsible way.”

Arizona Marijuana Opponents Release Five Misleading Attack Ads Ahead Of Legalization Vote Next Week

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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