The Colorado Department of Revenue collects millions of dollars in taxes each month from marijuana businesses around the state. The state collected $9.6 million from sales of retail and medical marijuana in April, bringing the current year through May 1 total to $78 million.
Many of these millions are stuffed into duffel bags and driven to the Department of Revenue to be paid in cash.
“It can be really scary,” said Mike Elliott, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group.
After 18 months of full-scale legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, the federal government and state governments here and elsewhere have not found a solution to providing access to banking to the marijuana industry.
Industry officials have long lamented the dangers this places on workers and stores, where armed guards and cameras often protect the enormous sums of cash these dispensaries handle on a daily basis. In some cases, electric bills and payroll are also paid in cash.
However, federal lawmakers from Colorado and Oregon are working on moving forward a bill that would provide banks “immunity from federal prosecution or investigation” if those banks provide services to legitimate marijuana businesses.
The bill is called the Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act of 2015, and it states that a “legitimate marijuana business” includes manufacturers, producers, owners or operators of not only the marijuana itself, but the real estate provider or equipment provider that leases property to marijuana businesses.
“We need this,” said Elliott. “It’s still a huge problem for us and banks need to know that this is legal – not that it just isn’t being enforced – but that working with us is legal.”
It also stipulates the proposed law would only apply to states that allow the “cultivation, production, manufacture, sale, transportation, display, dispensing, distribution or purchase of marijuana.” It would still be a crime to provide banking services to a marijuana business a states where it isn’t legal.
The bill would only impact “depository institutions” or places that accept and hold money. So it wouldn’t apply to credit card companies, another frustrating hurdle for marijuana businesses.
The proposed Access to Banking Act would still require banks to follow guidance released from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network – which means that every transaction related to marijuana would still have to be reported through a suspicious activity report or SAR.
As Rocky Mountain PBS I-News has previously reported, SARs are used to track and prevent possible financial crimes that could be related to money laundering or, say, financing terrorism.
The bill would do nothing to legalize marijuana at the federal level.
However, it has the support of both U.S. senators from Colorado, which is a first for a bill of this nature. Gov. John Hickenlooper released a statement saying, “As marijuana is legalized in states across the country, the federal government has a duty to ensure that this experiment can proceed safely.”
Hickenlooper applauded the work of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in bringing the bill foward, and the work of U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, who has long been an advocate and sponsor of other bills that would have allowed access to banking for marijuana businesses.
Oregon U.S. senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, are co-sponsors of the senate bill.