Advocates Welcome Long Awaited Change in Banking Policy for Licensed Businesses Vow to continue pressure on Obama Administration to establish comprehensive medical marijuana policy

February 15, 2014 | Kris Hermes

Medical marijuana advocates are applauding a new memorandum issued Friday by the U.S. Departments of Treasury (DOT) and Justice (DOJ) giving long-awaited guidance to financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, to provide services to marijuana-related businesses in states where it's legal. A refusal to engage in these services has plagued medical marijuana businesses for years, dating back to the Bush Administration. Due to an aggressive accelerated policy under Obama Administration, States like California, Colorado, Washington, Michigan and others have been forced to deal in large amounts of cash.

The memo issued Friday by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the DOJ "clarifies customer due diligence expectations and reporting requirements for financial institutions seeking to provide services to marijuana businesses," said a press release issued by FinCEN. The memo also includes clarity for credit card service companies, such as VISA and MasterCard, whose services for medical marijuana-related businesses had also been suspended for years.

Nearly all of the more than 1,000 licensed dispensaries in California and Colorado have for years been forced to operate on a cash-only basis, considerably increasing the risk not just for the affected medical marijuana businesses, but also for the tens of thousands of patients who have had to use cash to obtain their medication. To make matters worse, due to apparent pressure from the Obama Administration, armored car companies began refusing to service licensed medical marijuana businesses last year.

"We have been pushing the federal government for years to make these commonsense concessions and we're pleased that the Obama Administration is finally doing so," said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which successfully lobbied members of Congress in 2010 to change the administration's errant policy. "At the same time, a piecemeal approach to medical marijuana policy is shortsighted and is an issue that deserves a comprehensive public health solution."

Although the federal government has issued guidance memoranda concerning discrete marijuana policy for a number of executive departments, such as DOJ, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Veterans Affairs (VA), the Obama Administration has so far failed to address medical marijuana in a comprehensive policy framework. For example, the reclassification of marijuana from its current status as a Schedule I substance, a dangerous drug with no medical value, has been long sought by advocates like ASA but strenuously resisted by the federal government.

"We will certainly be working with banks, credit unions, and credit card companies to ensure proper implementation of this federal guidance," continued Sherer. "Removing the risks of operating as an 'all-cash' business cannot be overstated, but we will also continue to put pressure on the Obama Administration to wrap these types of discrete practices into a more comprehensive medical marijuana policy."

Further information:
New federal guidance on marijuana for financial institutions: http://www.fincen.gov/statutes_regs/guidance/pdf/FIN-2014-G001.pdf
FinCEN press release on new guidance: http://www.fincen.gov/news_room/nr/html/20140214.html
2010 letter to Treasury from 15 Member of Congress: http://american-safe-access.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/Congressional_Letter_to_Treasury.pdf


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