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News / Nation & World

New era, old problem: Pot companies can’t find banks

By MICHAEL R. BLOOD, Associated Press
Published: May 4, 2024, 6:07am

LOS ANGELES — The Biden administration’s move to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous but still controlled drug was hailed as a monumental step in reshaping national policy. But it might do little to ease a longstanding problem in the cannabis industry — a lack of loans, checking accounts and banking services that other businesses take for granted.

“As far as financial institutions, I don’t necessarily think it’s going to have a demonstrable effect” on how they deal with cannabis operators, said Morgan Fox, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

Similarly, a banking trade group expected no shift in the legal landscape with the proposed change.

“Any potential decision from the administration to reclassify cannabis has no bearing on the legal issues around banking cannabis,” said Blair Bernstein, a spokesperson for the American Bankers Association. “Cannabis would still be illegal under federal law, and that is a line many banks in this country will not cross.”

Most Americans live in states where marijuana is legally available in some form. But there’s a continuing problem when it comes to banks: Many financial institutions 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.

That conflict has left many growers and sellers in the burgeoning industry in a conundrum in which they are shut out of everyday financial services like opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card. It also has forced many businesses to operate only in cash — sometimes vast amounts — making them ripe targets for crime.

In the U.S. Senate Wednesday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reintroduced legislation that would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, expunge criminal records of Americans with low-level marijuana offenses and set new standards to prevent impaired driving. He said the bill has 18 sponsors in the chamber, a sign of momentum for federal marijuana reform.

Approving the bill would “help our country close the book once and for all on the awful and harmful and failed War on Drugs, which all too often has been nothing more than a war on Americans of color,” Schumer said. Congress needs “to bring federal cannabis policy into the 21st century.”


Under the Biden administration plan, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would move marijuana from its current classification as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and LSD, to a Schedule III drug, alongside ketamine and some anabolic steroids. The plan, which was confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday by five people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive regulatory review, follows a recommendation from the federal Health and Human Services Department.

Schedule III drugs are subject to various rules that allow for some medical uses, and for federal criminal prosecution of anyone who traffics in the drugs permission.

It could take months for the proposal to wind through a series of regulatory hurdles in Washington. The election-year push could help steady Biden’s shaky popularity, especially with younger voters who tend to have a more welcoming view of marijuana use.

The lack of banking services has created a fear-inducing ritual for many operators, who are forced to travel with large sums of cash to make tax payments.

Proposals that would allow banks to handle marijuana funds without the risk of federal prosecution have stalled in Congress for years.

Rescheduling might make some banks more willing to consider doing business with cannabis firms, said Julie A. Hill, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. But even then, they would face costly regulatory requirements to vet funds coming from the industry — because the federal government lists cannabis as illegal, every marijuana-related transaction is considered suspicious, Hill said.

“Cannabis is still an emerging market with a lot of credit risk,” Hill added. Even with rescheduling “cannabis companies should expect that banking services will still be expensive.”

Dotan Y. Melech, CEO of cannabis credit rating agency CTrust, echoed that, saying, “The reality is that current lending practices are unlikely to change without better understanding cannabis risk.”

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A Congressional Research Service report last year said about 675 financial institutions — a fraction of the banking industry — are doing business with cannabis companies. The nonpartisan agency also noted that “the depth and breadth of financial services that depository institutions are providing to marijuana businesses is unclear.”