The spread of legalizaiton
The November elections saw a number of states decriminalize the purchase, possession, and consumption of marijuana, and it’s now legal in more than half the nation. However, despite the move towards legalization continuing to spread, state by state, we’ve written before about barriers to entry into the field, including a lack of access to banks and credit unions.
“Good people don’t smoke marijuana”
Legal though it might be in some places, it’s still not a universally popular position that it ought to be, nor that ancillary businesses that support legal marijuana dispensaries ought to have access to banking. Jeff Sessions, the nominee for the Attorney Generalship and US senator from Alabama, has taken a vociferous and clear stance. Calling marijuana “dangerous” and commenting that “good people don’t smoke marijuana”, Sessions’ angst over the drug was noted as far back as 1986, when his bid for a federal judgeship was scuttled after testimony from Justice Department colleagues about his behavior while posted as the US Attorney in Mobile.
In direct testimony, Sessions was alleged to have joked that the Ku Klux Klan “was O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.”
If his position is clear, it’s not as if he’s been the only federal voice that’s not relented. In 2016, the Justice Department refused to both legalize it, or to reclassify it on the controlled substance chart, choosing to leave it as a Schedule I controlled substance, making it the legal equivalent of heroin. But while it’s illegal to possess it, current federal law prohibits the Justice Department from spending money for interdiction or prosecution efforts in states where it’s been legalized.
Legal, except for the profits
So, it’s federally illegal to possess it, but the Justice Department can’t do anything to enforce those laws in the states in which it’s illegal. In the states in which it’s legal, it’s legal, sure, but the profits from the businesses can’t be deposited in banks that hold a federal charter, so it’s an all-cash business. A Catch-22 for the 21st century, to be sure.
In late 2016, ten US senators sent a letter to the Acting Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), decrying the situation and identifying yet again the concerns that they have from their constituents, including both those directly involved in the marijuana business and those who aren’t, that restricting this segment of the business community to a cash-only trade “jeopardizes community safety, limits economic growth, and greatly expands the opportunity for tax fraud.”
“Most banks and credit unions have either closed accounts or simply refused to offer services to indirect and ancillary businesses that service the marijuana industry,” the letter stated.
“A large number of professionals have been unable to access the financial system because they are doing business with marijuana growers and dispensaries.”
Who is being affected?
These ancillary professions include vendors that work directly with the marijuana dispensaries, such as field chemists, security firms, attorneys, and repairmen alike. “Locking lawyers, landlords, plumbers, electricians, security companies, and the like out of the nation’s banking and finance systems serves no one’s interest,” the letter continued. Having these professionals unable to access bank accounts has become problematic for them as well, with some being placed in the unenvious position of having to choose between turning down business or finding themselves unable to go to the bank.
FinCEN and the Justice Department had provided guidance to the banking industry previously, in 2014, giving them the authority and ability to do business legally with the marijuana industry, but it hasn’t yet been universally adopted, nor, in the opinion of the senators, adequately addressed the additional issues that still surface.
Business is business
“These people are businessmen,” said Burton Marks. “Maybe they’re in a dirty business that you don’t like, but nevertheless they are in business.”
Marks’ comments came 33 years ago, in 1973, speaking to the US Supreme Court in his defense of Marvin Miller, who had been convicted of obscenity in California for his work as the purveyor of adult magazines and pictures.
The businesses are markedly different, but the sentiment is the same: it’s time that legal businesses were treated on morally neutral grounds and that protections that legal businesses enjoy were extended to all on a neutral basis.