Financial Institutions Playing it “SAFE” When it Comes to Weed

Most banks and credit cards are silently supporting the SAFE Banking Act from the sidelines, but not on the public record.

financial industries and banks and cannabis iStock / ipopba

The nation’s big banks and credit card companies have largely stayed on the sidelines when it comes to the nation’s multi-billion dollar cannabis industry, but that’s slowly changing, especially after the U.S. House passed its bill to legalize banking transactions for cannabis firms last month.

That silence on marijuana from the CEOs of most any major credit or debit card you have in your wallet right now has frustrated some advocates who argue they’re going to eventually reap the benefits of legalization even as they’ve mostly let others do the heavy legislative lifting and lobbying on the topic.

“They’re not out there on this in the same way that the big banks aren’t out there on this,” Becky Dansky, the Executive Director at the Safe and Responsible Banking Alliance, told Wikileaf.  “We are talking about the most risk-averse industries in the world, and this is still federally illegal.”

“You’re already at risk,” Dansky, of the Safe and Responsible Banking Alliance, said. “This industry touches so many other industries that it is impossible […] – especially if you’re a bank that is operating in multiple states; some with varying policies – to completely avoid this, so we encourage them to get involved now rather than sitting it out and then trying to make changes after the fact.”

Most credit card companies and banks are quiet supporters of the SAFE Banking Act that sailed through the House and is now being debated and tweaked in the Senate, and most are also members of associations that have come out in support of the proposal. Danksy says the big financial players are basically cowering in fear instead of being leaders in this fight.

“We’ve had some conversations with individual credit card companies and they’ve said, ‘We’re not ready to touch this issue yet,’” Danksy says. “I think they are way behind where the American people are on this issue.”

But Danksy says those credit card companies already look to be at risk because some dispensaries or marijuana home delivery services are already using apps like Paypal, Venmo or even credit cards to do business. Because marijuana is still federally prohibited, any cannabis transaction is technically supposed to be reported to federal officials, which is impossible to do now that it’s legal in more than 10 states and the District of Columbia where apps like Venmo are used regularly for pot.

“It’s unrealistic to think that they are catching all of those transactions,” Danksy says. “Instead of trying to catch all of those, it would be more productive to help find a solution for this.”

But there seems to be a thawing, especially after the banking proposal garnered the support of 321 members of the House – a rare veto-proof majority in today’s hyper-partisan Washington.

The Electronic Transactions Association is a trade association that represents more than 500 credit, debit and prepaid card companies, along with the processors who make our cards work (think PayPal, Square, Stripe, Google, etc.). The group has no position on decriminalization or legalization, but it has formally endorsed the SAFE Banking Act – even if its members aren’t all necessarily on the same page about the proposal.

“We have members who are supportive of the bill, and we have members who are mostly supportive of the bill,” Scott Talbott, the senior vice president for government affairs at the association, told Wikileaf.  

Credit and debit card companies help prevent fraud and money laundering, in part because they’re forced to comply with federal statutes – like the Banking Secrecy Act – that require them to report suspicious or illegal activity to the authorities. That helps explain why most individual financial institutions have avoided being too public with their support.

“Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level and – period,” Talbott said. “That gives companies pause.”

The American Bankers Association never responded to multiple interview requests, though the group’s president and CEO, Rob Nichols, did speak in support of the SAFE Banking Act at a press conference on the Capitol grounds after it passed the House last month. And these lenders and financiers seem to be thawing to cannabis, in part because they see having an all cash, multi-billion dollar industry as a threat to public safety.

“They’re easy targets for thieves, easy targets for fraud, easy targets for theft – internal theft: Cash is a magnet,” Talbott said.  

Talbott says there are benefits to the federally recognized and congressionally sanctioned banking system that’s currently in place for other industries. One is states rely on credit card companies to help in reporting the taxes merchants owe either quarterly or annually. Currently dispensaries and other ancillaries of the industry are trusted to merely self-report their sales when they pay state and local taxes. And this is a lot of money we’re talking about.

But Talbott says once marijuana is eventually legal it’s not really going to be a windfall for these huge lenders. Last year global legal cannabis sales topped $10 billion, while the three biggest lenders – Citigroup Inc., JP Morgan Chase, and American Express – extended more than  $2 trillion in credit to consumers. And Talbott says his members will gladly work with cannabis firms once it’s no longer a federal crime.

“We look forward to serving this industry. We do receive compensation for the services and the value that we provide for allowing, you know, for the modern payments industry,” Talbott said.

While $10 billion is chump change to these titans of Wall Street, the industry is projected to generate more than $200 billion in the next decade. And that’s a lot of money, especially for the little lenders in all 50 states, which is why credit unions have tended to be more outspoken in this ongoing debate.

“We’re trying to be part of a solution here, and the Safe Banking Act is a way for us to do that,” Ryan Donovan, the chief advocacy officer of the Credit Union National Association or CUNA, told Wikileaf.

Even with the current federal prohibition, Donovan says a relatively small number of CUNA’s members are currently involved with cannabis businesses.

“One of the reasons that it’s relatively small is, you know, the tremendous amount of risk that these institutions undertake by serving the businesses,” Donovan said. “Now some believe that they’ve figured it out, and they’re trying to act within the guidance. But there’s [an] inherent conflict between state law and federal law on the issue that until it gets resolved at the federal level is going to inject a considerable amount of risk.”

Even credit unions and banks that aren’t lending directly to cannabis companies are afraid these days. There’s fear that say, an electrician or plumber that services a dispensary could be exposed to risk with their lenders who remain federally forbidden from dealing with anyone associated with a cannabis company. There’s also fear that if a dispensary is in a shopping center that the entire center’s ability to get insurance could be jeopardized.

“We’re not advocating for the SAFE Banking Act because we see this as a huge growth opportunity for credit unions. This is being driven by: There’s a problem at the local community. Credit unions want to be a solution to that problem, and this is a remedy that would help us be a solution to the problem,” Donovan said. “Now having said that, if the law is enacted the dynamics of the market are going to change and that could present some opportunities for credit unions. But it’s not the reason that we’re engaged in this.”

Still, the nation’s biggest banks and credit card companies remain mostly hiding in the shadows as this debate plays out on Capitol Hill, which remains frustrating to the advocates in the trenches on the issue.

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