Deal offers more banking services for California pot firms

A California cannabis industry group announced Tuesday that it reached an agreement with a state credit union that will provide checking, wire transfers and other banking services for more marijuana companies, helping ease what has been an obstacle for many businesses.

Most Americans live in states where cannabis is legally available in some form, and broad legal marijuana sales began in California in 2018. But there’s been a problem when it comes to banks: Many don’t want anything to do with money from the cannabis industry for fear it could expose them to legal trouble from the federal government, which still considers marijuana illegal.

As a result, many marijuana companies in California’s multibillion-dollar market have been left to do business largely in cash, making them appealing targets for crime.

Under the partnership, the California Cannabis Industry Association said its members will gain access to banking services through the California-based North Bay Credit Union.

“Since California legalized cannabis, operators have faced significant struggles with banking and payment services, given the federal government’s continued ban on cannabis products,” the group said in a statement. The agreement is intended “to alleviate the banking obstacles that cannabis operators face, so they can focus on their core business.”

Industry experts say the number of state financial institutions willing to handle cannabis-linked funds is gradually growing, and a state law enacted last year was designed to provide legal safeguards for banks and credit unions engaging with marijuana companies.

The credit union said on its website that it has been offering banking services to the cannabis industry since 2017. Medicinal cannabis sales have been legal in California for over two decades.

Jerred Kiloh, who heads the Los Angeles-based United Cannabis Business Association, said the agreement represents another encouraging step as more financial institutions open their doors to the industry.

With growing acceptance of cannabis nationwide, along with regulatory changes, “there are more banks that are willing to tell people they are willing to accept cannabis accounts,” he said.

As of Sept. 30, federal regulators reported that 677 banks and credit unions were providing services for marijuana business. That represents a small fraction of the overall banking industry, and the figure had declined slightly in 2020, a drop attributed in part to business closings caused by coronavirus restrictions.

Efforts to broaden banking access for pot companies have stalled in Congress.

The House in September passed a bill to allow businesses legitimately operating under state laws to access loans, lines of credit and other banking services, while sheltering financial institutions from prosecution for handling marijuana-linked money, but it didn’t clear the Senate.

The industry is hoping for regulatory gains in Washington with the arrival of the new administration and Democratic control of the Senate.

President-elect Joe Biden was once known as an anti-drug warrior but has softened his tone over time. He has said he would decriminalize — but not legalize — the use of marijuana, while expunging all prior cannabis use convictions and ending jail time for drug use alone. However, legalization advocates recall with bitterness that he was a leading Senate supporter of a 1994 crime bill that sent droves of minor drug offenders to prison.

Even if there are doubts within the industry about Biden, the Democratic Party is clearly more welcoming to cannabis reform, especially its progressive wing. Both the House and Senate will be under Democratic control this year, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has said making pot legal at the federal level is the “smart thing to do.”

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