The number of banks providing financial services to cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) has doubled in the last two years according to filings from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.
But, once a bank answers the philosophical question of whether it wants to participate in the cannabis industry, it must consider the more difficult question of how. Technology firms have sprung up to help banks fill this need, but assessing the value propositions of these solutions in such a nascent, complex industry can be a challenge.
Alan Hanson helped establish one of the first cannabis banking programs in the nation as the general counsel of Salem, Oregon-based Maps Credit Union back in 2014. In his experience, software “can gather the data, but really can’t evaluate the data” needed to manage CRB risk.
Many new compliance solutions gather data by tying into the point-of-sale systems used by CRBs and the seed-to-sale tracking systems run by the states. Hanson, now a Portland, Oregon-based attorney at Gleam Law, says these tools can typically match CRB sales to the deposits that come into the bank. However, they can’t always assess vital information, like where that money goes when it leaves a CRB account. For that, it’s important to have compliance staff that has a handle on their cannabis clients’ operations and vendor networks.
For example, if a CRB client misallocated funds from their dispensary to their grow operation, a well-trained banker could spot the discrepancy based on the use of funds to purchase special lights or tubing that aren’t required for a dispensary operation. Those types of distinctions can be harder for technology platforms to detect.
Technology is most helpful for managing the processes associated with onboarding, ongoing document collection, case management and reporting.
Some institutions, like Narragansett Financial Corp. bank unit BayCoast Bank, leverage their existing Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) solution — Verafin — for reviewing suspicious, flagged activities. The Swansea, Massachusetts-based bank supplements the BSA process with quarterly audits and support from employees with experience in both compliance and customer service. For more specialized monitoring tasks, the $1.9 billion bank uses spreadsheets and other traditional methods. As BayCoast’s number of CRB clients grows, so does its team. Chief Risk Officer Gary Vierra oversees the CRB program and estimates the bank needs one full-time employee for every eight to 10 CRB clients.
Other banks are looking to CRB-specific tools to help them get into cannabis banking without materially growing headcount. That was one of the goals for Marlborough, Massachusetts-based Main Street Bank, which has just over $1 billion in assets. It selected technology from Shield Compliance to help manage its CRB program.
Potential clients told the bank they needed a simple, single place to manage documentation requests and other communication with the bank. This led Main Street to select Shield, which provides automated compliance and document collection workflows in addition to BSA functions. Main Street’s team liked that the Shield interface mirrored Verafin, which the BSA team was already using, and estimated that the platform enabled it to launch its CRB program with about a third of the staff they would have needed otherwise.
CRB-specific compliance tools are gaining traction within banks, but there are other “silver bullet” solutions financial institutions should be wary of. The biggest one is companies that claim to help CRBs accept credit and debit card payments.
Currently major card brands do not allow CRBs to participate in their networks; forcing them to rely on cash causes significant, practical issues for these businesses and their banks. To address that pain point, some companies circumvent the prohibition by coding transactions in such a way that the networks do not recognize them as being linked to cannabis purchases — essentially masking the transactions as something else. “That’s not the way we do business,” Vierra says, “and most of the cannabis companies don’t want to do business that way either.”
Cannabis banking presents opportunities for banks to increase fee income and broaden their deposit base among a profitable niche. But with those opportunities comes the challenge of creating a compliant program for serving complex businesses. Technology can help, but banks need a solid understanding of the industry to succeed.
Potential Technology Partners:
Built by a former banker, Shield Compliance helps financial institutions manage CRB operations in a format that’s familiar to compliance officers.
This company’s compliance specialists follow up on suspicious activity for the bank, and assist with identifying and vetting potential CRB clients.
Green Check Verified
This compliance platform provides a wealth of information to help banks understand the cannabis banking landscape nationally and within local markets.
Learn more about the technology providers in this piece by accessing their profiles in Bank Director’s FinXTech Connect platform.