Marijuana business owners and those working closely with the growing cannabis economy were on Capitol Hill last week, asking for the same access to financial services as any other business in America.
Their testimony was submitted for a meeting of a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, during which lawmakers heard statements on the difficulties of opening and maintaining bank accounts for marijuana-related businesses.
Due to the marijuana’s current status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, many banks, which are federally insured and regulated, avoid providing services to businesses in or operating adjacent to the cannabis market. Regardless of what state law says, in the eyes of the federal government, funds deposited from cannabis businesses can be considered money laundering and are subject to enforcement action—even if no such actions have yet been carried out against the small but growing number of financial institutions that are willing to work with the marijuana industry.
In nearly 100 separate pieces of written testimony compiled by the National Cannabis Industry Association, marijuana business owners from states including California, Utah, Washington, Tennessee, Michigan and Maryland talked about the hurdles placed in their path by not having a place to store their money.
Leah Heise of 4Front Ventures told lawmakers that not only has the current federal prohibition caused problems for her business, but the she also “had my personal bank account shut down just for being employed by a cannabis company.”
Another statement came from Stephen Madigan, the senior vice president of Kidder Matthews, a real estate firm with offices on the west coast. Madigan has 20 years of experience as a real estate broker in southern California and, over the past two years, has represented landlords, tenants, buyers and sellers in cannabis-related commercial real estate. He described the roughly $50 million in transactions he’s been associated with as “a small piece of the larger Orange County/LA market” and said that the lack of banking is “the single biggest hurdle to growth, second only to the removal of cannabis as a Schedule I drug.”
Madigan said businesses looking for real estate to house their cannabis operations are unable to provide credit or banking history and are treated as high credit risks. As a result, many must provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in security deposits and prepaid rent. Since they are not entitled to the same loans as other peer industries, they are limited to taking loans with interest rates at nine to 15 percent, due in as little as three years.
“This is one step above predatory lending terms,” he said.
Victoria W. of Materia Medica Laboratories, Inc. described the rude awakening she experienced in moving from food safety testing into cannabis testing.
“I did not expect that we would have such a hard time simply opening a checking account in order to do basic things like paying vendors and receiving payments from customers,” she wrote. “In food testing there is no way we could have told our customers that we strongly prefer cash over check or card, but that’s what many cannabis labs have to do.”
Many of the complaints from other cannabis businesses that submitted testimony centered on feelings of physical insecurity at hauling around large quantities of cash to pay bills, employees or taxes.
“Our drivers deliver product and can collect as much as $80,000 in a day,” wrote Metrik Feurtado, the chief financial officer of Big Pete’s Treats, a brand of THC-infused cookies based in Santa Cruz, California. “We do not have an armored delivery van so our drivers face significant risk from criminals who may find them an easy target. Banking would allow our drivers to deliver product and not touch cash. Safe banking is common sense.”
Other testimony came from law firms that don’t sell marijuana—or “touch the plant,” in industry parlance—but have had their bank accounts closed simply because they represent clients who do.
The statements were part of broader discussion at the hearing about the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2019, a draft bill that Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) plans to file soon. He and bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a version of the legislation last year that generated a long list of cosponsors but didn’t receive a vote.
According to the draft’s text, federal regulators would be prohibited from punishing banks for providing services to a cannabis business or from discouraging financial institutions from working with marijuana industry clients.
Advocates are optimistic about the legislation’s chances under the new Democratic House majority, though it’s unclear what its prospects are in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Square Quietly Launches Program For CBD Cannabis Company Credit Card Processing
Companies that sell cannabis products—even those consisting of CBD derived from hemp, which was legalized in the U.S. through the Farm Bill late last year—are continuing to have trouble accessing basic financial services that are available to businesses in other sectors. That includes being able to maintain bank accounts and process their customers’ credit cards.
The latter problem could be solved under a new pilot program that has quietly been launched by the payment processing service Square.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Facebook Uses Marijuana And Broccoli To Show Off Its AI Tech
Marijuana buds and tempura broccoli can look oddly similar out of context, but Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology can tell the difference.
At its annual developers conference on Wednesday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer discussed how the social media giant is able to leverage visual AI to spot “policy-violating content,” including advertisements to sell cannabis on the platform. He explained the process by comparing images of the fried vegetable next to marijuana buds, which he described as the “most benign possible example” of prohibited content he could find.
— Queenie Wong (@QWongSJ) May 1, 2019
Five years ago, the company relied on “behavioral signals” to catch people advertising cannabis—things like whether the advertiser has been “caught for doing bad stuff before” or whether they used “obvious words” like “marijuana” or “drugs” in the post. But as AI advanced, Facebook developed a system that could visually distinguish cannabis from other miscellaneous items.
To drive the point home, Schroepfer put both images on the screen and challenged the audience to differentiate them.
— Tom Simonite (@tsimonite) May 1, 2019
A few people thought the tempura broccoli was marijuana, but most seemed to get it right. The visual algorithm was 94 percent sure that the marijuana was, in fact, marijuana, and 88 percent sure that the other image was the broccoli.
— john colucci (@johncolucci) May 1, 2019
For Facebook, the technology offers a convenient way to streamline its policy enforcement efforts. But for many cannabis reform groups and media companies that run Facebook accounts, the presentation is a window into an ongoing frustration.
The ban on content promoting the sale of federally illicit drugs has had collateral consequences for pages that post noncommercial marijuana material such as news outlets like Marijuana Moment and state regulatory bodies like the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. These pages have at times been hidden from search results (a technique referred to as “shadowbanning”) because the algorithm isn’t able to accurately differentiate commercial advertisements from cannabis-related news articles, for example.
Marijuana influencers and state-legal cannabis businesses have long complained about having their accounts on the Facebook-owned Instagram platform temporarily disabled or permanently blocked for depicting cannabis or advertising their services.
A policy change may be on the horizon, as the company said in March that it wants “to consider whether we can loosen this restriction, especially in relation to medical marijuana, legal marijuana and brick and mortar stores.” But for the time being, Facebook will continue to enforce the policy, and it hasn’t provided a status update on that front at the conference so far.
“It’s against our policies because it’s against U.S. federal law, so you can’t advertise marijuana on Facebook,” Schroepfer said.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.
FDA Sends Warnings To Three Companies Selling CBD Products
At the same time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to create a regulatory framework for hemp-derived CBD, it’s also cracking down on companies that are in its view irresponsibly marketing CBD products and making unsanctioned claims about their medical benefits.
FDA announced on Tuesday that it and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to three such companies last month: PotNetwork Holdings in Florida, Nutra Pure in Washington state and Advanced Spine and Pain in New Jersey. The letters were sent “in response to their making unsubstantiated claims related to more than a dozen different products and spanning multiple product webpages, online stores and social media websites,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release.
In a Twitter thread, the commissioner added that he was “concerned to hear recently that several national pharmacy chains and other major retailers have begun to sell or will soon begin to sell” CBD products and that the agency will “be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.”
CVS and Walgreens both recently announced they will begin selling CBD-infused products.
We’ll be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
In the press release about the warning letters his agency has already sent to CBD companies, Gottlieb asserted that they used their websites to “make unfounded, egregious claims about their products’ ability to limit, treat or cure cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, autoimmune diseases, opioid use disorder, and other serious diseases, without sufficient evidence and the legally required FDA approval.”
At the same time, the warning letters announced today make clear that #FDA has and will continue to monitor the marketplace and use our authorities to take action against companies illegally selling these types of products when they are putting consumers at risk
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
FDA is hustling to provide manufacturers guidelines on marketing cannabidiol following the federal legalization of hemp last last year, but the process is complicated by the fact that CBD is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug, Epidiolex, and remains the subject of intensive clinical testing. Gottlieb has indicated that it will take years to develop a regulatory plan for CBD without further congressional action.
In the meantime, companies that continue to choose to engage in CBD commerce should be wary about making health claims about their products. The commissioner said FDA has “limited resources” for enforcement operations, but it would take action against companies that make “over-the-line” statements.
In the press announcement, FDA listed some of the unauthorized claims that the three companies made. For example, the products were touted as being able to treat cervical cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and substance use disorder.
“I believe these are egregious, over-the-line claims and we won’t tolerate this kind of deceptive marketing to vulnerable patients,” Gottlieb said. “The FDA continues to be concerned about the proliferation of egregious medical claims being made about products asserting to contain CBD that haven’t been approved by the FDA, such as the products and companies receiving warning letters today.”
“Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims can put patients and consumers at risk,” he said. “These products have not been shown to be safe or effective, and deceptive marketing of unproven treatments may keep some patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
Questions about what constitutes an unauthorized claim that would put a company at risk of enforcement action will likely come up at the agency’s just-announced public hearing CBD issues on May 31. Stakeholders are invited to submit information about the public safety impacts of CBD and how to manufacture and market products that contain the cannabis compound.
This piece was updated to include Gottlieb’s tweets about national pharmacy chains.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.