Issues : Regulation

Your Bank’s Answer to the Cannabis Conundrum


strategy-5-30-19.pngBanks should not wait on lawmakers taking action on the myriad of proposed cannabis banking bills to make important strategic decisions about servicing marijuana-related business.

It is unclear if any of the proposed cannabis banking bills will gain enough traction and support in Washington to pass through Congress. Despite the inaction, a growing number of financial institutions are choosing to provide banking services to the cannabis industry. Banks considering doing business with cannabis companies need to determine if it fits within the institution’s overall strategy and risk appetite. To determine whether the business fits, a board should ask and answer the following four questions:

To be or not to be a cannabis bank? Every board needs to ask itself this question. Even if your bank does not actively seek out cannabis business customers, it is likely your bank has been or will be approached by a customer in the business who is seeking banking services.

The vast majority of banks in the U.S. have marijuana-related or hemp businesses in their market areas, now that more than three-fifths of the country permit some sort of legal cannabis production and use–medical, recreational or industrial hemp. It is quite possible your bank is unwittingly providing banking services to a customer who is at least tangentially related to the business. It is important for your board to definitively establish where your institution stands on this business line and communicate that to the business development, sales and other customer-facing personnel. Are you in or out? Not having a stance risks being flat-footed when an opportunity or a threat arises.

What is a marijuana-related business? The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, issued guidance in 2014 on how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses in a manner consistent with their Bank Secrecy Act obligations. But neither FinCEN nor any bank regulator has defined the term “marijuana-related business,” or MRBs.

As a result, it is not always clear if your bank is doing business with an MRB. Certainly, those firms that physically handle the plant are MRBs: cultivators, processors, testing facilities, packagers, transporters and dispensaries. If they are required to have a state license, they are an MRB. Your bank should follow the FinCEN guidance regarding suspicious activity report filings when transacting with these companies.

But what about other individuals or companies that are indirectly connected to marijuana-related businesses, such as equipment suppliers, payment processors, consultants, landlords and advisors? There is no simple answer. If a significant portion of the customer’s revenue is dependent on the industry, it could be considered an MRB.

If your bank decides to offer banking services to cannabis businesses, the board and executives must establish a method to determine which indirectly related businesses are MRBs and prepare for revisions to the method if regulators provide further guidance.

Develop in-house compliance programs or engage a consultant? FinCEN is clear that a bank working with marijuana-related businesses must have a robust customer due diligence process. Shortcomings in the diligence process could lead to mistakes and missteps when it comes to compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws and lead to serious adverse outcomes.

Bank boards must determine whether their institutions have sufficient internal staff to develop and implement customer diligence and other compliance programs, or if they will outsource these functions. Any compliance function will require the board and management to provide appropriate oversight and monitoring of the cannabis-related compliance program.

Will your institution bank marijuana, hemp, or both? Recent changes in the Farm Bill made this a legitimate and important question for bank boards. Before the new Farm Bill was signed into law, the processes and procedures for dealing with hemp businesses were the same as cannabis businesses, because they were treated the same under the Controlled Substance Act.

The 2018 Farm Bill amended the Controlled Substance Act, including removing hemp from the definition of marijuana as long as it contains not more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The bill also allowed states to establish programs for the licensure and regulation of cultivation, production, processing and sale of hemp products.

The Farm Bill changes mean it might become less difficult for banks to work with hemp-related customers from an operational and compliance standpoint. But neither the FinCEN nor federal bank regulators have issued updated guidance on working with hemp businesses following this change.

As federal policy on cannabis continues to evolve, banks will be well-served by internal evaluations and aligning their positions toward this industry sooner rather than later. Those four questions should assist any bank board in establishing their strategy for cannabis-related business.