What to Know About Cannabis Banking in 2022

The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and nationwide sales are estimated to exceed $30 billion in 2022.

This growth comes with extraordinary opportunities for banks to offer services to the still largely unbanked and underbanked cannabis industry. Board members and C-suite executives cannot afford to ignore the potential impact of cannabis on their bank in 2022, whether they are banking it or not. Here’s some trends that the industry should be on the lookout for.

More states will legalize marijuana in 2022
The website Ballotopedia is tracking over a dozen proposed marijuana legalization initiatives as of September. These include attempts to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Wyoming, Idaho and Mississippi, medical and adult uses in Nebraska and adult recreational uses in Arkansas and Ohio. Any kind of legalization in Nebraska would be significant; it is currently the only state with no loosened legal restrictions on marijuana possession or use. Banks located in states without a legal marijuana program, including adult or medical, may see that change by the end of 2022 and need to start planning now for how this could affect your bank.

Marijuana licensing and sales will begin in states that legalized or expanded their programs in 2021.
Marijuana-related business (MRB) licensing and sales don’t begin the day after it’s legalized. A governor’s signature is just the first step. Legalization requires months of work by a newly appointed marijuana regulatory authority to develop the actual regulations — the infrastructure — that make licensing and sales possible. 2022 can expect to finally see sales in states that legalized marijuana in 2021.

There’s no guarantee that any federal marijuana legislation will pass in 2022.
There are currently two major proposed bills that would loosen federal policy towards marijuana: the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act) and the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAO Act).

The most attractive to banks is the SAFE Banking Act, which would ensure federal regulators could not take adverse action against banks that provide services to state-legal MRBs. It would also require the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council to establish uniform exam guidelines for evaluating marijuana banking programs. This legislation passed the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin in 2020 and again in 2021, but has yet to make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Senate leadership has made it clear that passage of the CAO Act is their priority, with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) going so far as to say, “I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill […] as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspects.” There’s been another attempt in the House to push through the SAFE Banking Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act but there’s no guarantee this will be included in the final version of the bill. As a result, banks shouldn’t count on the SAFE Banking Act passing in 2022, with Senate leadership focused on the CAO Act.

In 2022, cannabis banking will move from “nice to have” to “unavoidable.”
Something new we’ve seen this year is that an increasing number of institutions are building cannabis banking programs because they risk losing high-worth customers if they don’t. For instance, a bank in the Midwest was approached by a member of a prominent farming family that had decided to start growing marijuana. They were upfront about their plans and made it clear that, despite a multi-generational relationship with the bank, they were prepared to go elsewhere if necessary.

We saw something similar in the South: a major customer decided to pivot from growing flowers in their greenhouses to marijuana, and the bank decided to release their marijuana restrictions only after they lost a good part of their customer’s business to a cannabis-friendly competing financial institution. Banks risk losing valuable customers in 2022 if they do not establish cannabis banking programs.

Due to a combination of widespread destigmatization, a steady march of state-by-state legalization and the immense business opportunity of this industry, an increasing number of banks are building lines of business to benefit from this market — or at the least, avoid losing customers to it.

To learn more about what this industry will look like in 2022, and the financial modeling and risk assessment behind successful programs, click HERE.

Banks Face Continuing Legal Challenge Servicing Marijuana Growers


marijuana-9-8-17.pngIn the past five years, marijuana has become big business in the United States. There are now eight states with fully legalized recreational marijuana. Couple that with the other 20-plus states with legalized medical marijuana and we have two-thirds of Americans living in states with some form of legal access to marijuana. Many of the remaining states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Currently, it is estimated there are approximately 200,000 full-time and part-time workers in the cannabis industry, with legal marijuana and marijuana-related businesses (MRBs) anticipated to account for revenues in the $50 billion range over the next few years.

However, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana continues to be classified as a Schedule I narcotic, which is the highest and most dangerous drug classification. Schedule I drugs are those that have no known medicinal value and the federal government considers to be illegal in all respects. Included with marijuana in this classification are heroin, ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.

The inconsistency between state and federal laws has caused much confusion and consternation, particularly for financial institutions. In states where marijuana is legal, financial institutions have made many requests for federal guidance on banking MRBs. In 2014, the Department of Justice and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen, responded to such requests with the so-called Cole Memorandum and guidance titled “BSA Expectations Regarding Marijuana-Related Businesses,” respectively. The Cole Memorandum states the federal government will not prosecute within the cannabis industry so long as companies (including banks) obey local and state laws and regulations. The FinCen guidance provided a procedure for filing Suspicious Activity Reports for known MRB bank customers.

Unfortunately, neither of these governs the three prudential federal bank regulators, particularly in the enforcement of Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering rules. As a result, most banks will not touch marijuana-related deposits, make loans to marijuana businesses or permit the use of credit cards on their payment systems. Banks that do provide services to MRBs are very quiet about it. They typically limit the deposits to certain dollar amounts, and if there is any whiff of concern, the accounts are quickly closed. It is estimated that in 2016, about 300 financial institutions in this country knowingly provided deposit accounts to MRBs. Many of these institutions have long standing relationships with their MRB customers and often require them to sign confidentiality agreements to keep the relationship quiet. There has been much speculation on how many banks are unknowingly banking marijuana customers, though it is certain that many are.

All of this legal uncertainty and risk has kept most banks out of the marijuana growing industry, leaving the business almost entirely cash-based. Many MRBs must find workarounds to deal with the cash they cannot deposit and the bills and taxes they must pay. Retailers have methods for hiding cash, including the purchase of armored cars and warehouses where cash can be stored. Many in the business have created their own security forces enlisting motorcycle gangs and former police or military personnel to protect their cash. Employees also are paid in cash, so pay day is staggered in order to prevent robberies. Taxes must be paid in person and are subject to penalties for cash payment. In addition, those who pay their taxes in cash are not eligible to take deductions, so they are paying taxes on gross revenue amounts, though it is difficult to determine (or audit) what those gross amounts really are. Many states are realizing this cash-based business is ripe for organized crime involvement.

With traditional banking mostly out of the picture, many entrepreneurs are working on technical alternative payment platforms as a way around old fashioned banking relationships. Some are using or developing crypto-currency platforms like Bitcoin and, more recently, Potcoin. These are only limited solutions to not having a deposit account or the ability to accept credit card payments. Others are trying to use stored value cards, cell phone apps and other mechanisms. Currently, no alternatives have caught on with the public or the industry. Alternative lenders, including individuals, private equity firms and loan sharks also have stepped in to provide expensive financing to the industry.

The Trump administration does not seem keen on legalizing marijuana, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to be leaning toward increased enforcement. There are numerous bills in Congress to legalize marijuana and permit MRBs to be banked, but it is not clear whether any of these will pass. Until then, most banks will continue facing legal issues and continue avoiding the burgeoning and lucrative marijuana industry.