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In January, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a broader Obama-era policy that had generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws without Justice Department interference.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.
Sen. Jeff Merkley “Disappointed” That Democrats Blocked His Marijuana Banking Amendment
One of the U.S. Senate’s foremost champions for marijuana law reform says he is “disappointed” that fellow Democrats recently joined with Republicans in blocking his amendment to increase cannabis businesses’ access to banks.
Last month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered a measure that would have shielded banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses from being punished by federal regulators for that activity even though cannabis remains illegal under federal law.
While the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved two similar amendments in previous years, the panel this time voted to table the measure with a bipartisan vote of 21 – 10, with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other Democrats who normally support marijuana reform objecting on procedural grounds.
“I was disappointed,” Merkley said in an interview with BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith on Monday. “We had passed this twice before.”
“We need to establish banking for cannabis because a cash economy is an invitation to money laundering and theft and cheating your employees and cheating on your taxes [and] organized crime. All bad.”
“I accompanied the owner of a company who had $70,000 in his backpack to pay quarterly taxes,” Merkley recounted in response to the cannabis banking question on Monday, which was suggested to BuzzFeed by Marijuana Moment’s editor. “It’s so bizarre going down the freeway and talking about how they have to pay their employees in cash, have to pay their suppliers in cash. It’s a bad system.”
“Everyone should agree: States’ rights on this. Let the states have an electronic system to track what these businesses are doing, not billions of dollars floating around like this.”
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) July 16, 2018
Despite his disappointment with the measure being blocked, the Oregon Democrat, who is believed to be considering a 2020 presidential run, said that his colleagues “had a fair point to make on the policy front” in tabling the measure.
At the time, Leahy argued that spending bills such as the one before the committee should be kept “free of new controversial policy riders” and that a more appropriate forum would be an authorizing committee that sets banking laws.
“It wasn’t existing policy and therefore it was new policy,” Merkley acknowledged in the new interview.
But he pointed out that there are few other avenues available for senators to pursue the issue.
“Here’s the thing. Normally we could take these policy bills like I was putting forward [and] you could put it on the floor of the Senate as an amendment to something,” he said. “In 2017, outside of the budget process, not a single amendment was considered on the floor of the Senate… This is the end of the Senate really as a deliberative body on policy. So if you’re blocked in the Appropriations Committee, and you’re blocked on the floor, then it’s very hard to put ideas out there and say, ‘Hey vote on this. This matters.'”
The House Appropriations Committee also defeated a cannabis banking amendment last month.
See the video of Merkley’s remarks at about 19:15 into the clip below:
— AM to DM by BuzzFeed News (@AM2DM) July 16, 2018
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.
Major Alcohol Association Endorses States’ Rights To Legalize Marijuana
For the first time ever, a major alcohol association has come out in support of ending federal marijuana prohibition so that states can legalize cannabis without interference.
The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) announced “an official policy position in favor of a state’s right to establish a legal, well-regulated, adult-use cannabis marketplace,” in a press release on Thursday.
Today, we became the first and only beverage alcohol association to announce our position in favor of a state's right to establish a legal, well-regulated, adult-use #cannabis marketplace. Read our full statement: https://t.co/0rHHN3aEzU
— WSWA (@WSWAMedia) July 13, 2018
The announcement represented a significant departure from the association’s past statements on marijuana reform. Just two years ago, WSWA said in a sponsored advertisement that it was “neutral on the issue of legalization,” going on to caution congressional officials about the “dangers associated with the abuse and misuse of marijuana,” including drug-impaired driving.
Now the alcohol trade group is singing a different tune.
“The legal cannabis market continues to expand in the United States, generating $7.2 billion in economic activity in 2016,” Thursday’s press release reads. “WSWA believes that, similar to alcohol, the federal government should give states the power to legalize cannabis, but should ensure they meet an appropriate regulatory threshold.”
“Eight decades ago, Americans acknowledged that the Prohibition of alcohol was a failed policy. The state-based system of regulation, adopted after Prohibition, created a U.S. beverage alcohol market that is the safest, most competitive and best regulated in the world.” — WSWA Acting Executive Vice President for External Affairs Dawson Hobbs
WSWA went on to outline 13 policies it recommended for states that legalize recreational marijuana.
- A minimum age of 21 for purchase, possession and use, along with penalties for providing cannabis to minors;
- Establishment of Driving Under the Influence impaired driving standards;
- Licensing of producers, processors, distributors and retailers; Policies to prevent vertical monopoly/integration;
- Hours and days of sale parity with beverage alcohol;
- Tax collection and enforcement; Measures to prevent diversion of cannabis to other states;
- Restrictions on sale/common carrier delivery;
- Labeling requirements that include potency and health requirements;
- Testing of formulas to ensure product purity and consistency;
- Advertising restrictions designed to discourage underage access and promote responsible consumption;
- Restrictions on health claims on packaging;
- Establishment of a designated agency overseeing cannabis industry regulation in each state;
- Penalties for licensee violations on par with the state’s alcohol regulations;
- and Regulations that ensure all products in market can be tracked/traced to source processor/producer.
So what changed from two years ago?
While the group’s sudden embrace of local cannabis legalization efforts might strike some as odd given the intrinsic, competitive dynamic that’s developed between alcohol and marijuana interests, one aspect of the press release reveals how the broader booze industry could stand to profit:
“Legalization should include regulations that set age restrictions on buyers, as well as license and regulate the supply chain of cannabis, including growers, distributors, retailers and testing laboratories.” [Emphasis added.]
In other words, marijuana legalization might take a bite out of alcohol sales—as recent studies have shown—but the cannabis industry has diverse roles for various players to fill. Ancillary operators such as distributors now working under the current three-tier model for alcohol could be used in states with legal, regulated marijuana markets.
Hobbs denied that the association was trying to help the alcohol industry cash in on legal cannabis during an interview with Fox Business on Thursday.
“No, what we’re talking about is just creating a pathway for states to have federal recognition of legalization by enacting appropriate regulation that creates a safe and reliable marketplace,” Hobbs argued. He also said that the association wouldn’t be lobbying Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take action on federal marijuana policy, but rather the group’s focus would be on Congress.
Marijuana Moment reached out to WSWA for comment, but a representative was not immediately available.
What remains to be seen is whether other alcohol associations will follow suit. After all, a handful of alcohol interests, including the Arizona Wine and Spirits Wholesale Association and the Boston Beer Company donated to campaigns opposing legalization efforts during the 2016 election.
With this latest development from a major alcohol association, it seems the industry is conceding: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Another encouraging signal of cannabis becoming ever more established and mainstream. https://t.co/uJtNBiTd9k
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) July 14, 2018
James Cole Talks Jeff Sessions And Marijuana Legalization
Former Deputy Attorney General James Cole wasn’t especially surprised when he learned earlier this year that Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded his 2013 landmark namesake memo that provided guidance to U.S. attorneys on marijuana enforcement priorities. But he’s also skeptical that the policy regression will stand the test of time.
In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment, Cole discussed how the memo came to fruition (he conversed with President Barack Obama during the drafting, but declined to comment on the substance of those conversations), the future of cannabis policy in the United States and how, contrary to Sessions’s past statements, good people do smoke marijuana.
Cole, who will be a keynote speaker at the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Cannabis Business Summit & Expo later this month, is currently a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin LLP.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Can you describe your reaction after hearing that Jeff Sessions rescinded your memo?
James Cole: I was not completely surprised. Certainly, the attorney general had expressed his views about marijuana and the marijuana industry. He had also, however, expressed views that he thought that the memo did a pretty good job of trying to rectify and regulate a difficult area because of the legal complications of it.
As to his reasons that it was unnecessary, I didn’t agree with that. I thought that, in fact, it was necessary. My concern in drafting the memo was public safety and trying to make sure that, accepting the fact that marijuana was going to be used on an increasing basis based on the resolutions in the states, you wanted to keep the cartels and the gangs out of it. And the best way to do that was by providing a regulatory scheme that would allow legitimate businesses that are well-regulated to exist so they can comply with the law, so that any revenue that may be generated can be brought into the state coffers, so that the enforcement of the regulations can be funded.
It just seemed to me that certainty being the hallmark of any business, the uniformity of the policy throughout the United States was a necessary element. Right now you’ve got 93 different U.S. attorneys who are given the discretion to decide what to do, and that does not bring certainty or uniformity. Whether there will be a change of enforcement activity, I don’t know. There’s certainly a change in policy and there’s certainly less comfort in the industry about what to do.
MM: On that last point, it doesn’t appear that there’s been a lot of eagerness on the part of federal prosecutors to crack down on the legal marijuana industry since the memo was rescinded. What do you make of that?
JC: I think some of it is a political reality. In the states that have legalized marijuana, obviously U.S. attorneys—although a lot of them are not permanently appointed, many are just acting at this point—they are political creatures. They are politically appointed in one form or another, and many times they look at being a U.S. attorney as a political stepping stone. So I think they’re responsive to what the political will is in the states where they reside.
That’s one of the realities that really enters into the enforcement mechanism. Is this really a place to use the resources of the federal government or not? The concerns that come in that jurisdiction can be vast and wide, and you may have a U.S. attorney in one jurisdiction—one that doesn’t have legalization—reaching out into a jurisdiction that does have legalization because there’s some kind of jurisdiction hook. I haven’t seen that yet. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but that could be one of the concerns. At the end of the day, the rescission of the memo may prove to be more symbolic than it is substantive.
MM: When you started drafting the memo, were you having conversations about the issue with President Obama or White House staffers?
MM: Can you speak to the nature of those conversations?
JC: No, I cannot. No, I don’t talk about my conversations with the president.
MM: What would you tell marijuana business owners concerned about the possibility of a federal crackdown?
JC: Obviously, in most jurisdictions, lawyers are limited in what kind of advice they can give in this space because it is illegal under federal law. So we can advise quite easily about whether or not a particular course of conduct that somebody wants to take is legal or not. We can advise on what we believe the Department of Justice enforcement policy is—it’s a little less certain than it used to be. We can advise on what other laws come into play.
But ultimately, it comes down to a risk appetite for most companies that want to operate here as to whether or not they will accept a level of risk that whatever they’re doing may get prosecuted with whatever comes with that—which is both the threat of fines, maybe imprisonment, perhaps forfeiture.
MM: Do you feel that federal marijuana legalization is an inevitability?
JC: I believe it is. I look at the new [congressional] legislation that’s been proposed, which is, I believe, simple and straightforward. I think Congress is where the activity needs to take place. I think it is moving toward that. There’s growing acceptance of it. I think it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ at this point.
MM: Are there good people who smoke marijuana, contrary to what Sessions has said in the past?
JC: Yes, there are. There are. There are cancer patients, there are people with glaucoma, who get palliative effects from smoking marijuana. I wouldn’t call them bad people. I disagree with that.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Justice.