Marijuana Banking Measure Rejected By Congressional Committee

Tom Angell , Contributor

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Supporters then scrambled to craft a more limited measure focused on medical cannabis businesses, but it was ultimately withdrawn before a vote could take place.

PHOTO: TOM SYDOW

PHOTO: TOM SYDOW

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

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Marijuana firms in cloudy haze over banking woes

(Reuters) – Zach Lazarus, chief executive officer of A Green Alternative, a marijuana dispensary in San Diego, California, has lost count every time he re-opened a bank account after it was closed because of his connection to the cannabis industry.

Lazarus has had to play a game of “whack-a-mole” with banks, likening his frustrations to a popular arcade game in which a player repeatedly gets rid of something only to have it re-appear somewhere else.

“We have had Chase Manhattan and Wells Fargo shut us down … my wife’s personal bank accounts and credit cards have been shut down as well, all because I‘m in the cannabis industry,” he says.

Lazarus and other marijuana business owners in the $8 billion industry resort to cash-only transactions for business and to pay employees because they cannot get access to banks.

Despite making legal inroads in the United States, with California the latest state to legalize marijuana for recreational use starting Jan. 1, owners still feel the pinch.

The main problem is the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy – making it almost impossible to get banking services.

Banks are governed by federal laws and doing business or extending services to the firms means tougher scrutiny, often at significant costs, as banks have to do their own due diligence to prove transactions are legal.

They are required to prove that the firms are not selling to minors, funding crime groups, and not using the pretext of selling marijuana to push illegal drugs among other things.

A poll conducted by industry publication Marijuana Business Daily in 2015 showed 60 percent of the companies operating in the cannabis industry reported not even having a basic bank account.

UNDERGROUND ECONOMY

The void makes it hard for cannabis companies to conduct basic financial transactions such as deposit money, receive federal insurance or pay taxes.

“Most marijuana companies have a courier service, or a Brinks truck, or a big wheelbarrow full of cash that they send to the Internal Revenue Service to pay their taxes,” says Stuart Titus, CEO of California-based Medical Marijuana Inc (MJNA.PK).

With an estimated 165,000 to 230,000 full and part-time workers, according to Marijuana Business Daily, many marijuana business owners pay their employees in cash. bit.ly/2nQBeYw

“It is basically a kind of underground, cash-based economy,” said Titus.

Sapphire Blackwood, director of public affairs for the Association of Cannabis professionals, says she got paid in cash at her last firm, a San Diego-based cannabis consulting company.

“Because I get paid in cash, and even though I did no illegal activity, I’ve had to deposit so much cash every week and every so often … I felt like I was being stared at by the banks. It’s frightening,” she said.

Blackwood’s current firm also had banking problems. All the deposit accounts were closed because the word “cannabis” was in the name of the company, she said.

SHADY WORKAROUNDS

Workarounds exist but most are borderline unethical.

Medical Marijuana Inc0.17923

MJNA.PKOTC Markets Group – (Current Information)

+0.02(+15.48%)

MJNA.PK

  • MJNA.PK

A widely-used practice is to create a shell or a holding company whose operations are acceptable to banks, and conduct financial transactions through the holding company.

“In many states that have legalized cannabis, pot companies deposit cash under a different description,” says Tim McGraw, CEO of Canna-Hub, a California-based real estate development and property management company for the cannabis industry.

“A lot of operators set up accounts as real estate management companies or call themselves ‘medical marijuana’ companies when they are anything but,” McGraw added.

Others use personal bank accounts to deposit cash earned from the sale of products, wire payments to employees and pay companies.

However, California’s state treasurer John Chiang wants the state to consider creating a public/government-owned bank that could serve cannabis companies.

Chiang’s office formed a group made up of representatives from law enforcement agencies, banks, taxing authorities, local government and the cannabis industry.

It held several meetings with owners to discuss ways to alleviate banking challenges and make information more available to banks for better transparency.

Talks have also begun to form a multi-state group to lobby Congress to ease federal regulations for marijuana companies and remove the Schedule I drug classification.

But it will be an uphill battle. In November, Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a congressional hearing said former President Barack Obama-era guidelines on cannabis will remain, meaning even though a state can legalize marijuana, it will continue to be illegal on the federal level.

To view a graphic on Legalization legislation jpg, click on this link: tmsnrt.rs/2AC91Hk

Reporting By Aparajita Saxena in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernard Orr

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