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Marijuana Industry Relieved As Feds Allow Banking But It Might Not Happen

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DENVER (AP/CBS4) – The marijuana industry breathed a sigh of relief Friday after federal banking regulators issued long-awaited permission for them to access basic banking services. But Colorado’s pot pioneers said more needs to be done to bring the industry full legitimacy.

The U.S. Justice and Treasury departments issued guidance Friday intended to increase the availability of financial services for legal marijuana businesses that are licensed and regulated, while preserving the government’s enforcement power.

It was welcome news for marijuana businesses that have lost bank accounts and struggled to pay employees and taxes in cash.

“It’s made it very difficult to pay our bills, to pay our employees, to pay our taxes, to do anything,” said Caitlin McGuire, owner of Breckenridge Cannabis Club, a recreational marijuana shop.

But the banks may not go along with it.

“I’m flabbergasted that anybody who knows anything about banking could read that and understand that it encourages banking with marijuana businesses,” Don Childears with the Colorado Bankers Association told CBS4’s Rick Sallinger.

Childears said there are still many problems with banking with marijuana shops.

“We need to make sure that marijuana is never used on federal property, as an example. Or never results in someone driving while drugged. There’s no way you can do that. That’s an impossibility to me.”

At Seattle’s Conscious Care Cooperative, a medical marijuana dispensary with three branches and 11,000 members, business consultant Trek Hollnagel said the guidance “definitely looks exciting.”

He said the dispensary was always up front with banks about its line of business, and some, including Bank of America Corp., would let it open accounts – only to freeze or close them later on.

“From one day to the next, they changed their policies,” Hollnagel said. “If all your funds are frozen for two weeks, it makes it difficult to run a business. You write a rent check on a Monday, get a call from the bank Tuesday saying the account’s frozen, then a call from your landlord on Wednesday saying the check bounced.”

Still, business owners and industry advocates say the memo is just a beginning. They are hoping Congress will act to give them more certainty and expand access to things like insurance, loans and the federal courts.

“Banking is the first step. It’s a big first step. But it’s a first step,” said Dan Anglin, a lobbyist for EdiPure Brands, a Denver-based maker of edible marijuana with licensing agreements in four states.

“If we enter in an agreement with another entity and they violate that agreement, what is our recourse? A federal court isn’t going to recognize any breach of contract,” Anglin said. “Congress needs to act before our legitimate business concerns are addressed.”

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who has sponsored a long-stalled pot-banking bill, said he’s optimistic Congress will act on banking, but it may be a couple years off.

“We gotta keep at this thing,” said Perlmutter, D-Colo.

He argued, however, that the banking guidance is an important development for federal authorities who see the problems of a cash-only business but still consider the business itself illegal.

“They’re trying to thread the hole in a tiny needle,” Perlmutter said.

The banking guidance could also help make pot shops safer, industry groups say. Though Colorado data on crimes at marijuana businesses don’t indicate that they attract robberies at rates different from other shops, dispensaries are sometimes compared to jewelry stores that can’t insure their diamonds. Some dispensary owners hire extra security to escort employees leaving the business. Others hire armored cars to transport cash.

“It is imperative that Congress not view today’s guidance as the ultimate solution to this public safety crisis. Congress must act quickly to solve the problem before we witness a tragedy,” said Michael Elliott, head of Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Industry Group.

Colorado regulators in recent years considered trying to regulate the industry using Bitcoin or state-chartered banks but ultimately could not arrive at a solution to the banking problems.

“There was no way to get around the federal part of this,” said Jack Finlaw, lawyer to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, speaking at a forum earlier this week.

- By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

Associated Press writer Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.

Statement From The Colorado Bankers Association

The guidance issued today by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury only reinforces and reiterates that banks can be prosecuted for providing accounts to marijuana related businesses.

“In fact, it is even stronger than original guidance issued by the Department of Justice and the Treasury,” said Don Childears, president and CEO of the Colorado Bankers Association. “After a series of red lights, we expected this guidance to be a yellow one. This isn’t close to that. At best, this amounts to ‘serve these customers at your own risk’ and it emphasizes all of the risks. This light is red.”

Bankers had expected the guidance to relieve them of the threat of prosecution should the open accounts for marijuana businesses, but the guidance does not do that. Instead, it reiterates reasons for prosecution and is simply a modified reporting system for banks to use. It imposes a heavy burden on them to know and control their customers’ activities, and those of their customers. No bank can comply.

“An act of Congress is the only way to solve this problem,” Childears said.

The Colorado Bankers Association continues to support H.R. 2652 by U.S. Representative Perlmutter and others, which could accomplish a solution by prohibiting federal regulators from punishing any bank servicing marijuana businesses in states where it has been legalized and regulated.

“It is important that a solution be reached, and soon,” Childears said. “Banking services would greatly resolve state regulation and taxation issues, serve customers and businesses in legal transactions and help public safety.”

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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