A bipartisan group of senators is stepping up the push to let marijuana businesses store their profits in banks, with a possible vote coming as soon as this week.
Under the current federal prohibition of cannabis, many banks refuse to do businesses with marijuana growers, processors and sellers that operate legally in accordance with a growing number of state laws. As a result, many cultivators and dispensaries operate on a cash-only basis, which makes them targets for robberies.
That could soon change under a proposal that ten U.S. senators filed on Wednesday.
The measure, led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), would prevent federal officials from punishing a financial service provider “solely because the depository institution provides or has provided financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business.”
It is an amendment to a larger bill being considered on the Senate floor this week that would remove some restrictions that were enacted on financial institutions as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.
Despite a U.S. Department of Justice move in January to undo protections for state marijuana laws, a top Trump administration official has repeatedly indicated he wants to solve cannabis businesses’ banking access problems.
During a separate House hearing last month, Mnuchin indicated he wants cannabis businesses to be able to store their profits in banks.
“I assure you that we don’t want bags of cash,” he said. “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 being confirmed 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.”
In 2014, under the Obama administration, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) published a memo outlining how banks can open accounts for cannabis businesses without triggering federal enforcement actions. But because the document did not change overarching federal laws, many banks have remained reluctant to work with marijuana providers.
In January, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a broader Obama-era policy that had generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws without Justice Department interference. That decision spurred concern that the Trump administration will delete the banking memo too.
Late in January, a Treasury official wrote in a letter to lawmakers that the department is “consulting with law enforcement” about whether to keep the cannabis guidance for depository institutions.
The policy remains in effect for now, a Mnuchin deputy testified at a Senate hearing.
Along with Merkley and Murkowski, the other cosponsors of the new cannabis banking amendment are Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Edward Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).
It is currently unknown if the measure will receive a floor vote as part of the consideration of the broader banking reform bill.
Documents released by FinCEN late last year showed that the number of banks willing to work with the marijuana industry has steadily grown over time, but that data was compiled prior to the revocation of the Justice Department guidance on state cannabis laws.
Read the full text of the bipartisan marijuana banking amendment below:
SA 2107. Mr. MERKLEY (for himself, Ms. Murkowski, Mrs. Murray, Mr. Wyden, Mr.Paul, Mr. Bennet, Mr. Markey, Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders, and Ms. Harris) submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill S. 2155, to promote economic growth, provide tailored regulatory relief, and enhance consumer protections, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows:
At the appropriate place, insert the following:
SEC. ___. SECURE AND FAIR ENFORCEMENT BANKING.
(a) Short Title.–This section may be cited as the “Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act” or the “SAFE Banking Act”.
(b) Safe Harbor for Depository Institutions.–A Federal banking regulator may not–
(1) terminate or limit the deposit insurance or share insurance of a depository institution under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (12 U.S.C. 1811 et seq.) or the Federal Credit Union Act (12 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) solely because the depository institution provides or has provided financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business;
(2) prohibit, penalize, or otherwise discourage a depository institution from providing financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business or to a State or Indian tribe that exercises jurisdiction over cannabis-related legitimate businesses;
(3) recommend, incentivize, or encourage a depository institution not to offer financial services to the owner, operator, or an individual that is an account holder of a cannabis-related legitimate business, or downgrade or cancel financial services offered to an account holder of a cannabis-related legitimate business solely because–
(A) the account holder later becomes a cannabis-related legitimate business; or
(B) the depository institution was not aware that the account holder is the owner or operator of a cannabis-related legitimate business; and
(4) take any adverse or corrective supervisory action on a loan to an owner or operator of–
(A) a cannabis-related legitimate business solely because the business owner or operator is a cannabis-related business without express statutory authority, as in effect on the day before the date of enactment of this Act; or
(B) real estate or equipment that is leased or sold to a cannabis-related legitimate business solely because the owner or operator of the real estate or equipment leased or sold the equipment or real estate to a cannabis-related legitimate business.
(c) Protections Under Federal Law.–
(1) In general.–In a State, political subdivision of a State, or Indian country that allows the cultivation, production, manufacturing, transportation, display, dispensing, distribution, sale, or purchase of cannabis pursuant to a law (including regulations) of the State, political subdivision of the State, or the Indian tribe that has jurisdiction over the Indian country, as applicable, a depository institution and the officers, director, and employees of the depository institution that provides financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business may not be held liable pursuant to any Federal law (including regulations)–
(A) solely for providing the financial services pursuant to the law (including regulations) of the State, political subdivision of the State, or Indian tribe; or
(B) for further investing any income derived from the financial services.
(2) Forfeiture.–A depository institution that has a legal interest in the collateral for a loan made to an owner or operator of a cannabis-related legitimate business, or to an owner or operator of real estate or equipment that is leased or sold to a cannabis-related legitimate business, shall not be subject to criminal, civil, or administrative forfeiture of that legal interest pursuant to any Federal law for providing the loan or other financial services solely because the collateral is owned by a cannabis-related business.
(d) Rule of Construction.–Nothing in this section shall require a depository institution to provide financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business.
(e) Requirements for Filing Suspicious Activity Reports.–Section 5318(g) of title 31, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:
“(5) Requirements for cannabis-related businesses.–
“(A) Definitions.–In this paragraph–
“(i) the term `cannabis’ has the meaning given the term `marihuana’ in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802);
“(ii) the term `cannabis-related legitimate business’ has the meaning given the term in section 6 of the SAFE Banking Act;
“(iii) the term `financial service’ means a financial product or service, as defined in section 1002 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (12 U.S.C. 5481);
“(iv) the term `Indian country’ has the meaning given the term in section 1151 of title 18; and
“(v) the term `Indian tribe’ has the meaning given the term in section 102 of the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act of 1994 (25 U.S.C. 479a).
“(B) Reporting of suspicious transactions.–A financial institution or any director, officer, employee, or agent of a financial institution that reports a suspicious activity related to a transaction by a cannabis-related legitimate business shall comply with appropriate guidance issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. The Secretary shall ensure that the guidance is consistent with the purpose and intent of the SAFE Banking Act and does not inhibit the provision of financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business in a State, political subdivision of a State, or Indian country that has allowed the cultivation, production, manufacturing, transportation, display, dispensing, distribution, sale, or purchase of cannabis, or any other conduct relating to cannabis, pursuant to law or regulation of the State, the political subdivision of the State, or Indian tribe that has jurisdiction over the Indian country.”.
(f) Definitions.–In this section:
(1) Cannabis.–The term “cannabis” has the meaning given the term “marihuana” in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802).
(2) Cannabis product.–The term “cannabis product” means any article which contains cannabis, including an article which is a concentrate, an edible, a tincture, a cannabis-infused product, or a topical.
(3) Cannabis-related legitimate business.–The term “cannabis-related legitimate business” means a manufacturer, producer, or any person or company that–
(A) engages in any activity described in subparagraph (B) pursuant to a law established by a State or a political subdivision of a State; and
(B)(i) participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling cannabis or cannabis products, including cultivating, producing, manufacturing, selling, transporting, displaying, dispensing, distributing, or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products; or
(I) any financial service, including retirement plans or exchange traded funds, relating to cannabis; or
(II) any business services, including the sale or lease of real or any other property, legal or other licensed services, or any other ancillary service, relating to cannabis.
(4) Company.–The term “company” means a partnership, corporation, association, (incorporated or unincorporated), trust, estate, cooperative organization, State, or any other entity.
(5) Depository institution.–The term “depository institution” means–
(A) a depository institution as defined in section 3(c) of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (12 U.S.C. 1813(c));
(B) a Federal credit union as defined in section 101 of the Federal Credit Union Act (12 U.S.C. 1752); or
(C) a State credit union as defined in section 101 of the Federal Credit Union Act (12 U.S.C. 1752).
(6) Federal banking regulator.–The term “Federal banking regulator” means each of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the National Credit Union Administration, or any Federal agency or department that regulates banking or financial services, as determined by the Secretary of the Treasury.
(7) Financial service.–The term “financial service” means a financial product or service, as defined in section 1002 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (12 U.S.C. 5481).
(8) Indian country.–The term “Indian country” has the meaning given the term in section 1151 of title 18, United States Code.
(9) Indian tribe.–The term “Indian tribe” has the meaning given the term in section 102 of the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act of 1994 (25 U.S.C. 479a).
(10) Manufacturer.–The term “manufacturer” means a person or company who manufactures, compounds, converts, processes, prepares, or packages cannabis or cannabis products.
(11) Producer.–The term “producer” means a person or company who plants, cultivates, harvests, or in any way facilitates the natural growth of cannabis.
(12) State.–The term “State” means each of the several States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, any territory or possession of the United States.
California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.
Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.
“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.
In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”
Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.
Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.
For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.
Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).
The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.
Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”
“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.
Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.
“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”
Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.
“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”
Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.
The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.
“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore
Oregon Marijuana Sales Spike Could Continue As Consumers ‘Permanently Adjust Their Behavior’ Following COVID
Record-setting Oregon marijuana sales continue to be a bright spot in the state’s coronavirus-slowed economy, state analysts reported this week, but a convergence of unknowns—including the end of federal coronavirus relief and a possible rise in cannabis prices due to devastating wildfires—could still mean a rocky road ahead for consumers.
“Marijuana sales continue to be strong,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis wrote in a quarterly revenue forecast published on Wednesday. “Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”
The increase tracks with other more established cannabis markets, such as those in Colorado, Washington and Nevada, which have also seen “strong gains” since the pandemic, the office said. “There are a number of likely reasons for these higher level of sales and expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”
Analysts also expressed a rosier outlook on the future of the state’s marijuana market than they did in last quarter’s report, which acknowledged a spike in sales since the pandemic began but concluded that business was eventually “expected to mellow” as incomes fell and bars reopened. Officials now forecast Oregon will see “somewhat more” in sales than previously projected.
The state has recently seen a string of record-setting months for cannabis sales. Over the summer, monthly cannabis sales had averaged more than $100 million, according to an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) report.
The projected uptick in sales will mean an extra $30 million in marijuana tax revenue for the state during its two-year budget period ending in 2021. Total adult-use cannabis taxes for that period are now forecast to end up at more than $276 million.
“Factors leading to increases in sales include higher incomes due to federal support, increased stressors in everyday life, reductions in other forms of entertainment or recreational opportunities, and simply more time on one’s hand be it due to a COVID-related layoff, or increased working from home,” the report said.
“A key question is now that the federal aid is gone and other entertainment options return in the months ahead, will some of this increase in sales in recent months subside?” the Office of Economic Analysis wrote in the new report. “In a recent meeting of our office’s marijuana forecast advisory group, the broad consensus was that yes, some of these sales will come off, but not entirely so. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely customers will permanently adjust their behavior as they become accustomed to their new routines and buying patterns.”
For now, the bulk of the increases appear to be driven by existing consumers. While “indications are that the customer base is broadening some as the market grows due to more users trying an increasingly socially acceptable product and ongoing converts from the black market to the legal market,” the report said, the increase “is more likely to be due to larger or more frequent sales to existing consumers than due to more consumers alone.”
“One item to watch moving forward are prices,” analysts wrote. “In recent years the supply of marijuana has greatly outstripped the demand, leading to lower prices. This is great news for consumers. Given that marijuana is a normal good, lower prices have led to larger quantities sold. But now that demand has increased, while supply has held steady, and with the potential impact of the wildfires right as growers are prepping for harvest, this balance in the market may shift… As such, it may be that prices rise, or at least not decline like they have in recent years.”
As far as tax revenue goes, any price increase would likely lead to more money for the state, “as the decline in quantity sold is not large enough to outweigh the price impact,” the report said.
How cannabis revenue is spent would also be affected by a drug decriminalization ballot proposition, Measure 110, that voters will decide in November. While the initiative isn’t expected to change the amount of taxes collected, it would redirect marijuana tax funds to expand drug treatment programs. “Whether current programs receiving marijuana tax revenue would ultimately see budgetary impacts,” analysts said, “would remain up to the Legislature should voters approve the measure this fall.”
Measure 110, which broadly seeks to reframe problem drug use in medical rather than criminal terms, is one of two key drug-reform measures on Oregon’s ballot in less than six weeks. The other would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. That measure would be the first of its kind in the U.S., although Canada has recently granted some patients immunity from that country’s prohibition on psilocybin.
Texas Ban On Smokable Hemp Lifted Until 2021, Judge Rules
A Texas ban on smokable hemp products hit another roadblock in court last week when a state judge barred officials from enforcing the prohibition until an industry challenge can be heard in court.
A group of four hemp producers sued the state last month over the ban, which began when lawmakers passed a hemp legalization bill last year that explicitly forbade the production of products intended for smoking or vaporization. State health authorities extended its reach earlier this year to prohibit the sale and distribution of such products made outside Texas, a move the hemp companies claim was an unconstitutional overreach of their authorities.
In a ruling issued Thursday, Travis County Judge Lora Livingston wrote that the hemp companies may have a point. Writing that the plaintiffs “have demonstrated a probable right to relief,” Livingston granted a temporary injunction that effectively voids the ban on production, distribution and sale of the products until the conclusion of a trial set to begin in February.
Livingston had previously issued a temporary restraining order in the case last month that had a similar but shorter effect, preventing the state from enforcing the ban for a matter of weeks. The new ruling freezes the ban for at least four months, and potentially longer.
Opponents of the ban said that while the issue is far from over, Livingston’s recent decisions are a sign the challenge could ultimately succeed.
“So far, the rulings relating to this lawsuit are very encouraging,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, which opposes the ban and has organized hundreds of supporters to submit comments to regulators.
“Advocates in Texas have remained vigilant, with both legislative engagement and regulatory oversight,” Fazio said in an email to Marijuana Moment. “Now, Texas businesses are challenging our state’s poorly designed policies in the courts. And they’re winning!”
Plaintiffs are challenging both the legislature’s initial ban on production and processing of smokable hemp as well as the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) added ban on distribution and sale, which they claim violate the state constitution’s protections for economic freedom. They also maintain that DSHS lacked the authority to extend the production ban to retail sales.
The companies also point to logistical problems caused by the ban. Because smokable hemp flower is indistinguishable from hemp grown for other purposes, they argue, the ban will encourage bad actors to mislabel products in order to avoid the prohibition. That could put consumers at risk by exposing them to chemicals and other adulterants not intended for consumption.
Banning smokable hemp would also hurt the state economically, the producers claim, as Texas hemp companies wouldn’t be able to compete with out-of-state producers that can already make and sell anything from hemp joints to CBD vape cartridges.
“The law does not ban the use or consumption of smokable hemp products. As such, Texas consumers will simply buy smokable products made out-of-state,” the lawsuit says. “If Texas had banned the processing and manufacture of cheese in Texas, Texans wouldn’t stop eating cheese.”
Meanwhile, the state’s legalization of hemp for other purposes has caused headaches in the criminal justice community. Because hemp looks and smells similar to marijuana, law enforcement agencies have struggled to know whether individuals have a banned substance until they can chemically analyze a seized product. But state testing labs are overburdened, and in February the state Department of Public Safety said it would “not have the capacity” to perform testing in misdemeanor cases. Prosecutors as a result have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases.
Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, recently released state data shows, and that trend seems connected to hemp legalization.
Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay