American Businesses Still Hesitant to Begin Cannabis Banking

Major banks in New York said they don’t have plans to work with licensed medical cannabis operations in the state even as more states regulate the drug and New York’s own Compassionate Care Act approaches its January 2016 start date.

With the decision, companies won’t be able to deposit into their accounts and consumers won’t be able to use bank cards to make purchases.

“While the use of medical marijuana is legal under applicable state laws in some states, the manufacture, distribution, and use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law,” a Wells Fargo spokesperson told POLITICO. “Our policy of not banking marijuana-related businesses is based on applicable federal laws.”

In 2014, the Obama administration issued medical cannabis banking guidelines to banks to ease concerns they would be punished for doing business with legitimate operations in states that have legalized medical or recreational use.

Even with the guidelines, some banks are still uneasy providing service to the cannabis industry, as the US treasury and justice departments guidelines do not grant them immunity from prosecution or penalties at the federal level, where cannabis remains illegal.

Colorado’s cannabis business has operated on almost a completely cash basis, despite recreational cannabis being legalized in the state, as the majority banks refuse to work with the industry.

The Colorado Bankers Association senior vice president, Jenifer Waller, said the government “made it very clear that financial institutions can still face criminal liability.”

Waller said banks in Colorado would like to work with the cannabis industry but operating in conflict of the law is, “unwise for any business, including financial institutions.”

With businesses unable to access cannabis banking services, they’re forced to operate using large amounts of cash, creating safety issues and making it difficult for governments to collect taxes and monitor finances.

In July, Colorado senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner introduced the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015. The bill looks to ensure legal cannabis businesses can access banking services without fear of punishment from federal regulators.

“Since the legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana in Colorado, businesses across the state have lacked access to basic banking services,” said Bennet. “This has raised significant public safety concerns for both employees and customers of these businesses. It’s also created compliance and oversight challenges.”

But New York banks, along with those across the country, are still hesitant to be involved in the cannabis banking industry.

“Until we get clarity from feds, we are not banking on marijuana-related businesses,” said a JP Morgan Chase spokesperson.