Last Friday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Treasury, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen), both published new guidance in connection with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado. Because marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, the banking industry is prohibited from servicing any marijuana-related bank accounts. This forces the recreational marijuana industry to operate on an all-cash basis, which increases public safety risks (both to retailers and to customers) and is a great inconvenience to the industry (which is required to take extreme measures such as hiring armed guards, installing very high tech security measures, and the businesses are unable to obtain bank loans or credit).
In response, FinCen’s guidance, along with the DOJ memo, was supposed to enable marijuana-related banking and eliminate the public safety concerns, as it clearly stated: “This FinCEN guidance should enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses.” Although the guidance pursued an admirable goal, it fell remarkably short.
The DOJ memo states:
“The provisions of the money laundering statutes, the unlicensed money remitter statute, and the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) remain in effect with respect to marijuana-related conduct. Financial transactions involving proceeds generated by marijuana-related conduct can form the basis for prosecution under the money laundering statutes (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957), the unlicensed money transmitter statute (18 U.S.C. § 1960), and the BSA. … Notably for these purposes, prosecution under these offenses based on transactions involving marijuana proceeds does not require an underlying marijuana-related conviction under federal or state law.”
Simply stated, the DOJ memo confirms that recreational marijuana use remains illegal under federal law and could serve as the basis of prosecution against banks (or individuals), but that the DOJ will probably not enforce the applicable federal statutes against banks for processing marijuana-related accounts, provided that the banks follow certain guidelines that are outlined in the DOJ memo.
These wishy-washy “promises” of non-enforcement are extremely unlikely to sway banks from their decision not to permit marijuana-related accounts. Banks are naturally conservative and also have a huge self-interest to be 100% compliant with federal law because of the highly regulated banking industry; therefore, banks are only likely to permit marijuana-related accounts if it was legal under federal law, or if there were some form of safe harbor for the banks. However, there is clearly no safe harbor with the recent regulations and guidance.
For instance, the DOJ memo explicitly states: “Neither the guidance herein nor any state or local law provides a legal defense to a violation of federal law, including any civil or criminal violation of the CSA, the money laundering and unlicensed money transmitter statutes, or the BSA, including the obligation of financial institutions to conduct customer due diligence.”. The FinCen memo also repeats “that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime…” Thus, although the guidance issued by DOJ and FinCen on the surface appear to be helpful, they are ultimately toothless.
Further, the ultimate decision (and the inherent risk and liability) remains with the banks, as also noted in the FinCen memo: “In general, the decision to open, close, or refuse any particular account or relationship should be made by each financial institution based on a number of factors specific to that institution.” Therefore, in the absence of any safe harbor and the illegal status of marijuana under federal law, banks will likely pursue the safe option of refusing to process marijuana-related accounts.
This scenario is quite similar to the recent aftermath in New Jersey when it legalized online gaming for intrastate users. Although New Jersey declared online gaming legal under New Jersey state law, banks generally refused and continue to refuse to process online gaming accounts. Banks deemed these accounts too risky because their internal regulations dictate that they would not process payments for accounts related to online gaming for real money when it was still prohibited in other states and would be an unwanted burden on their compliance checks. Similarly, the ultimate conclusion of banks considering marijuana-related accounts is likely to refuse to allow such accounts because they are still illegal under federal law and permitting those accounts presents an unwelcome risk for the banks.
Another significant hurdle that may cause banks to refuse marijuana-related accounts is the significant disclosure requirements applicable to the banking industry that are mandated by federal agencies like the FDIC and Federal Reserve. Banks, particularly banks that are publicly traded entities, have many filings and disclosures that they are required to make on a consistent basis. Therefore, the banks would presumably have to disclose that they are currently violating federal law by processing marijuana-related transactions and permitting marijuana-related accounts (and anticipate continuing to violate the federal laws). Regarding disclosure requirements, it should make no difference whether the DOJ presently anticipates prosecuting those crimes or how much of a priority they are in accordance with the DOJ memo – the fact remains that the bank is violating the federal law and that must be disclosed. Indeed, the DOJ could decide to prosecute these crimes at any time in the future. Furthermore, that disclosure (i.e. that they are currently violating the law) would likely trigger a host of regulatory issues that require banks to comply with all federal laws.
Yet, the banking market for marijuana-related accounts remains lucrative and underserved. The million dollar question is which bank will take the leap of faith to enter the marijuana industry?
One possibility is a Colorado bank that only has Colorado branches may be willing to permit marijuana-related accounts. Obviously, the potential reward is great because of the lucrative and underserved marijuana industry market. More importantly, the risk to Colorado banks is lower because they only operate in Colorado and can legitimately claim they are complying with all laws because Colorado state law permits recreational marijuana use, so they can be more confident that the DOJ will not prosecute them. More importantly, even if the DOJ decides to prosecute them, the state of Colorado will likely defend them and throw their weight behind the local bank, because if Colorado did not, then the whole recreational marijuana law and industry would quickly collapse.
Consequently, the risk-reward equation for a local Colorado bank is tilted more favorably toward permitting marijuana-related accounts because there is less risk to a Colorado-only bank, and the reward would be given more weight because the value of the marijuana accounts would mean much more to a smaller Colorado bank than to a larger national one. In the meantime, one would hope that the federal agencies would issue guidance that provides more clarity and real solutions to this issue, rather than just discouraging banks from this industry by issuing vague guidance.