A powerful congressional committee voted on Wednesday to reject a measure to protect banks that open accounts for marijuana businesses from being punished by federal financial regulators. Supporters then scrambled to craft a more limited measure focused on medical cannabis businesses, but it was ultimately withdrawn before a vote could take place.
The broader measure would have prevented the U.S. Department of Treasury from taking any action to “penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana or marijuana products” in accordance with state or local law.
After a lengthy and impassioned debate during which at least 19 lawmakers spoke, it was defeated on a voice vote by the House Appropriations Committee.
Despite the fact that a growing number of states are legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use, many financial institutions have remained reluctant to work with cannabis businesses for fear of running afoul of money laundering laws under ongoing federal prohibition.
As a result, many marijuana growers, processors and retailers operate on a cash-only basis, which can make them targets for robberies.
The issue is “not whether or not one approves of marijuana,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), the chief sponsor of both banking amendments, before the vote. “This is about public safety and financial transparency.”
Either rider, if it were successfully attached to legislation to fund the Treasury Department for Fiscal Year 2019, would have provided added assurance to banks that federal officials won’t close them down for working with the cannabis industry.
A similar measure was approved by the full House of Representatives in 2014 by a margin of 231 to 192, but was not included in final spending legislation that year, and congressional Republicans have since blocked floor votes on most cannabis measures.
In the lead up to the Wednesday banking vote, several advocates and Capitol Hill staffers expressed confidence in interviews that the measure would pass. But a number of likely Republican supporters were absent during the debate, and others who are sympathetic to marijuana law reform expressed varying concerns about the specific proposal. As a result, supporters did not force a roll call tally following the defeat on a voice voice.
Joyce then went back to the drawing board and crafted the narrower medical-focused amendment, which he hoped would find enough support to pass. But after a brief debate on the second proposal, Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asked Joyce three times to withdraw the amendment instead of forcing a vote. The Ohio congressman twice pressed ahead and said he wanted the committee to weigh in on the measure, only to give in at the last moment and pull the measure.
By seeking to adopt the language in the appropriations panel, before the overall spending bill heads to the Rules Committee, which is where marijuana amendments have gone to die for the past several years, advocates were attempting to circumvent an effective blockade that has prevented progress on cannabis reform in the House.
In a similar move last month, the Appropriations Committee approved a measure to protect state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department interference following several instances of that measure being blocked by the Rules Committee.
In a separate sign of the mainstreaming of marijuana politics on the other side of the Capitol, on Wednesday the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies included that far-reaching medical marijuana language in the initial version of the Justice Department funding bill as introduced by Republican leaders, meaning that no vote or amendment will even be necessary to advance the provision in that chamber this year.
The Senate panel is scheduled to take up its version of the Treasury Department funding bill, which is called the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, next week.
The Fraternal Order of Police, which opposes legalization, sent a letter this week urging House lawmakers to reject the cannabis banking move.
Letter to @USRepRodney & @NitaLowey advising them of our strong opposition to any amendment that would allow the marijuana industry full access to the American banking system. Drug cartels will be given the opportunity to launder money under the guise of marijuana normalization pic.twitter.com/y5a0gHPIUi
— National FOP (@GLFOP) June 12, 2018
While U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January rescinded Obama-era guidance that generally protected state marijuana laws from Justice Department interference, Treasury Department officials have for now kept in place a separate memo that provides some direction and limited protection to banks that work with cannabis businesses.
Also on Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell was asked about cannabis banking issues during a press conference.
“This is a difficult area, because many state laws permit the use of marijuana and federal law still doesn’t,” he said. “So it puts federally chartered banks in a very difficult situation.”
The Fed chairman implied that he would like the issue to be resolved with a change in policy.
“It would great if that could be clarified,” Powell said. “Our mandate has nothing to do with marijuana, so we just would love to see it clarified.”
Another top Trump administration official, Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin, has indicated on a number of occasions that he sees the importance of allowing marijuana businesses to store their profits in banks.
“I assure you that we don’t want bags of cash,” he testified 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.”
Prior to his confirmation by the Senate last year, Mnuchin said in response to written questions from a senator that marijuana businesses’ banking and tax issues are “very important.”
President Trump himself last week indicated that he supports broader changes to federal marijuana prohibition so that states can set their own legalization laws without interference.
“I really do. I support Senator Gardner,” the president said when asked by a journalist if he supports the legislation, filed last week by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The Treasury Department legislation, which also covers funding policy for the District of Columbia, contains provisions that prohibit the city from spending local or federal funds to enact a broader system of legal marijuana sales and from using federal monies to support supervised drug consumption facilities.
Meanwhile, separate standalone bills to permanently solve the marijuana industry’s financial services issues have record levels of support. House legislation filed by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) has 94 cosponsors and a companion Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has 18 lawmakers signed on.
The marijuana banking amendment, as proposed before the House Appropriations Committee, reads:
“None of the funds made available in this Act may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or Guam, to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana or marijuana products and engages in such activity pursuant to a law established by a State or a unit of local government.”
The medical cannabis banking amendment reads:
“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or Guam, to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling medical marijuana or medical marijuana products and engages in such activity pursuant to a law established by a State or a unit of local government as it pertains to medical marijuana. Any entity that engages in any activity involving marijuana that is not exclusively for medical purposes shall not be covered by this provision.”
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.