We have a lot of people in our industry who don’t care for being told they can’t do something and turn to building their own solutions. In the face of the banks’ intransigence, they found often ingenious workarounds to conduct electronic transactions. The problem is that the banks’ other cornerstone function as “essential stewards of commerce” requires them to guard against the financial system being infected with “dirty” money from cartels, trafficking, terrorism, and the like. All these smart workarounds ignored this vital compliance component and so constituted de-facto money laundering, fraud and non-compliance and were thus ultimately unsustainable.
Fincann collaborates with industry, government, banking, payment processing, regulatory, law enforcement and legal professionals and enthusiastically supports best practices. We understand and convey to our clients that implementing the highest standards of compliance and accountability assures the highest level of sustainability. The result is a fully-transparent relationship with the bank or merchant processor and the surest path to avoiding costly regulatory, compliance and legal “hiccups.”
The nub of the problem is that most bankers are mainstream conservative in their thinking and still feel that marijuana is a shady, stigmatized industry, not unlike pornography, drug trafficking or online gaming. They are eager for pretexts to avoid their responsibility to service this legitimate business, such as:
- “It’s too complicated and/or risky.”
- “It’s too expensive to serve MRBs.”
- “We are at risk of criminal aiding and abetting narcotics trafficking.”
- “We risk losing our banking license, insurance, and/or our federal reserve account.”
There’s some good news: these pretexts are all nonsense. The simple truth for banks and licensees is that there’s nothing to fear when you’re committed to the highest levels of transparency, compliance and accountability. No U.S. financial institution has suffered penalties, sanctions or punishment for making a reasonably compliant and transparent effort to bank the marijuana industry.
Education, plain and simple.
The truth is that cannabis is neither a dangerous narcotic nor a “gateway” drug. Cannabis is a rather remarkable plant cultivated for thousands of years, up until the last century, for its breathtaking range of commercial, industrial, wellness and relaxation applications. Cannabis was -- and is -- hijacked and scapegoated by selfish industrial and political special interests. Now, as the cannabis industry is finally extricating itself from these constraints, it is incumbent upon the banking community as essential stewards of commerce to embrace the truth. The community should recognize the extreme danger our communities face from laundering in “masked” bank accounts, and even violent and organized crime awash with new billions of dollars of untracked, poorly-accounted-for cash. These resources should be applied responsibly to both avert these crises and profit from a generational opportunity. A perfect example of this educational effort occurred in summer 2017, when Fincann proposed to meet with all roughly 50 financial institutions in Nevada and educate them on the misinformation and lack of information on banking risks. Not one of them would take the meeting!
The following September, Fincann CEO Nathaniel Gurien made a presentation to about a half a dozen leading Nevada bankers and asked how they would handle an existing attorney customer’s request to deposit a new (licensee) customer’s retainer. How much of their current overall business portfolio were they risking if they decided against allowing any even indirect cannabis proceeds in their bank? And they had an epiphany– they realized that they would have to learn more right away. The challenge is that one is obliged to first change the way bankers “feel” about the industry, and the prospect of banking it, before any meaningful dialogue can proceed. Part of that is educating them on the consequences, not only to themselves but also to the communities they serve.
The legal cannabis industry operates with a level of confidence that the real risk of consequences is mostly theoretical rather than actual. This is borne from the industry’s axiomatic experience over the past roughly five years that one’s level of compliance, transparency, reporting and accountability is directly proportional to the level of actual risk one may be exposed to. In other words, there is a reasonably dependable roadmap to remaining above the fray of potential penalties and negative consequences by adhering to proven best practices.
No U.S. financial institution has suffered penalties, sanctions or punishment for making a reasonably compliant and transparent effort to bank the marijuana industry.
In 2018, marijuana-related licensees are projected to reach an aggregated $10 billion in revenue, and anecdotally there is a like additional sum generated by the thousands of businesses and professionals providing support products and services. The current development of the entire industry has been likened to being at the top of the second inning of a baseball game. Combined with its astonishing array of useful cost-effective commercial and industrial applications, enormous pharmaceutical potential, and safer competition with alcohol for leisure use, the industry could easily reach $100 billion in global revenue within a decade.
Fincann asks bankers to bear in mind that there are many sectors and verticals in this space, and it is not required that one jump in 100% or not at all. For example:
- Investment, hedge, family offices and/or PE funds derived from qualified and institutional investors may seek banking without “touching the plant,” and therefore require much less rigorous compliance reporting and supervision.
- Attorneys, accountants and consultants whose practice includes service to industry clients may be attractive customers.
- Institutions still hesitant to provide cannabis licensees with accounts may be enthusiastic about accepting state-issued Economic Development Authority grant proceeds as deposits from hemp-related entities.
Other examples of non-plant-touching verticals within this industry are:
- Business and capital formation advisors
- Leasing and asset management
- Regulatory and compliance consultants
- Business insurance and risk management
- Internal and external security consultants and vendors
- Real estate brokers
- Marketing, advertising, and branding professionals
- Website developers
- Social media marketers
- Public relations professionals
- Plumbers, electricians, and general contractors
- Personnel and human resources
- Manufacturers and distributors of vapes, dabs, glassware, and other smoking accessories
- Clothing and other non-plant-derived merchandise
- Automobile and truck dealers
- Capital equipment manufacturers and distributors
- Lighting, irrigation and cultivation systems
- Soil, nutrients and hydroponics
- Investment advisory, venture capital and angel investors
- Printing and publishing
- Trade shows and conferences
- Trade show exhibits
- Data and reporting services
- Trade associations
- Trade media
- Advocacy and campaigns
- Medical practitioners
- Tour operators
- Information services
Such entities represent excellent opportunities and may provide a more comfortable incremental step to cannabis banking, since fully-transparent compliance protocols and reporting for these business types is considerably less burdensome.
The fundamentals of compliantly banking the cannabis industry are quite simple although execution is granular and labor-intensive. The gateway financial institution is primarily obliged to verify:
- Know your customer (KYC) and source of funds verification, including “hands-on” familiarity with the legitimate scope of licensed operations and that the beneficial owners and principal operators are and remain not bad actors
- The licensed account-holder must operate in compliance with applicable state and federal requirements.
- There can be no co-mingling of deposited funds with those derived from other operations, legal or otherwise.
- The amount and value of plant-derived inventory legitimately available to the licensee must support the reported revenue.
- Marijuana-related suspicious activity reporting (SARs) must be filed with FinCEN on a timely basis.
Fincann urges banks that the most important first step to take is to first consult with their regulators and examiners to solicit recommendations and guidance. Assemble a team of stakeholders and collaborate to develop protocols and policies. Anyone improperly left out of this preliminary process has the potential to sabotage the best-intentioned efforts.
We ask financial institutions: “Have you completed a thorough risk assessment of providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses?” Fincann is well-equipped to assist every step of the way, and happy to do so.
Although cannabis (and hemp) are classified federally (and therefore internationally) as Schedule I narcotics (dangerous and without medical benefit), the federal government has demonstrated its lack of intention to take action against compliant, state-licensed entities or the compliant financial institutions or ancillaries that service them.
Politics aside, the federal government encourages financial institutions to bank the industry. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, FinCEN, and the FDIC do so via written guidance and examination practice, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Congress do so via legislative protection from law enforcement. The DOJ is prohibited from deploying any resources against state licensees under the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, via FinCEN, issued guidance to financial institutions in 2014 to encourage the availability of financial services. You can read FinCEN’s full statement here.
In further support of this written guidance, it’s worth noting that FinCEN director Ken Blanco reasserted this position while addressing the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists (ACAMS) annual conference in April 2018. There, Fincann heard Blanco explicitly state that the agency was grateful for the excellent anti-money laundering (AML) compliance and reporting his agency receives from financial institutions, especially in filing well-written SARs, and that such was pointedly not a game of “gotcha,” but rather one of collaboration and cooperation. He went on to say that unintentional errors and misinformation would be treated as an opportunity for improvement, not punishment.
David Barr, Director of Communications for the FDIC, privately advised Fincann that their agency’s position on member institutions banking the cannabis industry is limited to directing their examiners to follow this FinCEN guidance as a supplement to current KYC/AML compliance protocols. In fact, this FinCEN guidance is noted or footnoted within the standard 400+ page FFIEC Examination Manual in three instances. In addition to the FDIC, all Federal Reserve, CFPB, NCUA, OCC and state liaison examiners follow this manual.
This 700+ financial institution figure is a misinterpretation of a memo issued by the anti-money-laundering enforcement agency Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) in Sept. 2017. This memo reported that 700+ banks filed marijuana-related suspicious activity reports, which is true. However, nearly half of those filed were “marijuana-terminated” SARs, meaning the bank discovered an MRB account and closed it. Many others were from similar scenarios, such as banks filing marijuana SARs upon discovering that a commercial real estate loan portfolio contains a lease to a licensed dispensary.
In reality, there are a few dozen small financial institutions around the country transparently, sustainably and successfully banking the industry, and another few dozen providing “quiet” service to one or a few pre-existing customers.
Fincann has built a strong cannabis banking financial network comprised of financial institutions willing to conduct business with MRBs. Fincann locates and adds banks to the network in several ways:
- We work with the community banks and credit unions around the country known to accept cannabis customers. Unfortunately, many of these known banks are currently obliged to waitlist new applicants.
- Our clients engage us to find banks. Once established, they become part of our network.
- We present potentially-cannabis-friendly banks with basic facts about the risks and opportunities of banking the industry.
- We attend banking trade conferences to educate and attract financial institutions to our cannabis banking financial network.
- Many of our compliance and referral partners identify and introduce us to banks seeking information and opportunity.
- Notwithstanding the “politics” of legal marijuana, banks are beginning to understand the more important issue of neighborhood safety. Flooding a community with billions of dollars in untracked cash brings dangers, including promoting violence, organized crime, tax evasion, non-compliance and illegal diversion of product to minors and/or out of state.
- Contrary to conventional wisdom, both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of the Treasury (plus FinCEN) are fully committed to encouraging the banking industry to provide checking accounts, supervision, compliance, and accountability to state-licensed legal cannabis entities for the preceding reasons.
- Slow progress is being made with U.S. banks due to:
- Many of the banks’ existing long-standing business customers are accepting MRBs as customers and clients.
- Community bankers and credit unions are discovering that competitors are now profitably and successfully providing accounts to MRBs, representing more opportunity and less risk.
In truth, banking MRBs is no more challenging than other traditionally ‘high-risk’ sectors once one gets past an emotional aversion to marijuana, and realizing that it is not properly categorized as a ‘dangerous narcotic without significant medical benefit’ (as the Federal government says as it holds the only patent for medical marijuana!)
Familiarity with AML/BSA compliance protocols leads one to acknowledge that roughly 75% of required enhanced due diligence (EDD) and supervision is the same for all customers in high-risk industries, and each requires about 25% of required protocols that are industry-specific. For example, money service businesses (MSBs) implicate many of the same costs, risks and supervision as cannabis with important differences, such as one doesn’t track ‘inventory’ in MSBs whereas it is obligatory for MRBs.
Interestingly, several cannabis-friendly banks in our network built their cannabis banking program on the foundation of their experience with MSBs or gambling customers.
- In which states can Fincann provide cannabis banking? (replace current text with the following): Fincann is currently the only company able to provide compliant, transparent and sustainable banking for all cannabis, hemp and CBD sectors across all 50 states.
It’s a non-starter, and the California officials from the STO, CDTFA and DBO we’ve spoken to admit this. Compliant cannabis banking requires full transparent supervision by a regulated financial institution. No solution is sustainable otherwise. Further, any newly-established financial institution, public or otherwise, cannot properly function without a master account with the Federal Reserve to provide check clearance, ACH, wire transfers and debit cards.
The bank must be insured for account holders to trust in the integrity of their deposits, and conventional deposit insurers such as FDIC, OCC or NCUA limit the bank’s “high risk” portfolio to 10 percent of the bank’s account holders. If one establishes a new bank (public or otherwise), it will be bound by this restriction unless it is covered by alternative credible deposit insurance. The State of California could insure the accounts of its public bank, but after the 12 to 24 months it will take to clear all the regulatory hurdles and actually be ready to open such a bank, the Federal Reserve won’t grant a master clearing account (i.e. routing number) to any cannabis-centric bank and probably not to any financial institution disclosing its intention to bank the cannabis industry to any extent.
Based on the trajectory of banks looking favorably at entering the market, the issue will be moot by the time California even most optimistically could open such an institution. Many of us on the front lines believe that this issue will soon no longer trouble our industry and there will be good access to depository banking and merchant processing for all compliant operators.
We understand that folks are disheartened by banking in the industry, especially after years of being presented with schemes presented as solutions. There is so much B.S. out there, that we knew we’d have to differentiate ourselves from the noise. That’s why first presenting our programs to industry veterans for review and suggestions provides the comfort necessary to recommend us to their colleagues seeking legitimate banking.
As much as they need a proper and sustainable bank account, some licensees are initially hesitant to move from their current less-expensive but non-compliant, unstable and often fraudulent banking arrangements. It currently costs a few thousand dollars up front, mostly to cover the bank’s rigorous onboarding process, plus a deposit processing fee between 0.25% - 2.5%. It’s worth noting, however, that these costs will inevitably drop, benefiting from both increasing access to cannabis-friendly financial institutions as well as emerging technology solutions.
Unlikely. Why should they? Say you’re a big bank regional director and have 500 subordinates managing the many moving parts in your marijuana banking program. A few significant screw-ups, and you can say goodbye to that corner office you’ve been eyeing. Plus, after federal prohibition ends, the "big banks" figure they’ll snap up at least 50% of the market within a year anyway.
Potential clients complete a pre-qualification questionnaire. Then, we work with you to prepare your bank account application and supporting documents, shepherding you through the bank’s rigorous onboarding process of “know-your-customer” (KYC), “enhanced due diligence” (EDD), and compliance review and physical site inspection(s). When approved, the checking account is opened by the bank and functions normally and transparently.
When applicable, we then suggest installing one or more merchant processing or B2B electronic payment solutions to minimize excessive cash transactions. When tethered to a compliant, supervisory bank account, these solutions also become compliant and sustainable. Contact FINCANN to begin your application.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the solution to banking for our industry does not lie with politicians or the federal government. Simply stated, the banking industry is still generally opposed to associating itself with what it considers a disreputable trade. The solution is the persistent lobbying and education presented to the banking industry and individual banks every day, combined with the accelerating growth of mainstream acceptance of first medical and industrial, then adult-use cannabis.
In truth, nothing short of an end to cannabis prohibition, as well as a positive evolution of prevailing mainstream conservative thinking, will provide bankers with enough comfort to unreservedly provide full-service banking to the cannabis industry. However, numerous bills have been introduced and/or are pending before the Congress, including S.1152 SAFE Banking Act and the bipartisan “Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States” (STATES) Act, any and all of which will further encourage more banks to participate in our industry.
All major US card networks, including MasterCard, Visa, American Express, and Discover, prohibit merchant transactions on any part of their system and/or using their trademarks for illegal products and services. Since cannabis is still federally illegal, any cannabis-related transactions are prohibited and violators face substantial risk and consequences.
Although ancillary goods and services are legal and permitted by the card networks until recently none of their licensed banks who issue merchant accounts were willing to be associated with the cannabis industry.
The good news is that as of January 2021, Fincann has several licensed US banks now willing between them to transparently accept all ancillary, hemp and CBD operators.
Fincann also offers cutting-edge compliant, sustainable, bulletproof electronic B2B & B2C solutions for all THC licensees.
Since it remains undisputedly illegal under federal law, the state-licensed legal marijuana industry currently primarily operates under a presumption of prosecutorial forbearance and perceived rather than actual risk.
The Cole Memo is a “feel-good” U.S. Department of Justice guidance that does not actually restrain local U.S. attorneys general from enforcement, but sets department priorities with regard to marijuana. Sales to minors or diversion of products out of state are of higher priority, for example. The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer budget amendment prohibits use of federal funds for DOJ enforcement of federal marijuana laws against state-sanctioned medical marijuana licensees.
However, it is politically unfeasible and therefore unlikely that the amendment will be changed to include “recreational/adult-use” licensees, setting up the possibility of battles between legal states and the federal government.
Nonetheless, the genie is out of the bottle for this industry, especially in light of now-historical evidence of substantial generated tax revenue, and there's no turning back. It is inevitable that there will be casualties, speedbumps and hiccups as this industry grows up, and this is an example.
Given that much of industry confidence is based on the perception of (as opposed to actual) risk, this development will undoubtedly have a temporary chilling effect particularly on new investment and banking.
However, it is also likely to drive marijuana-related businesses to higher levels of accountability and compliance, making their businesses less susceptible to targeted enforcement and overall more sustainable in the long run and this would be a positive outcome.
Fincann currently offers real, direct business checking accounts for THC licensees in the following states:
- Washington, D.C.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
A few of the financial institutions in our network are willing to conditionally welcome marijuana-related businesses (MRBs) from outside their home state, so we can often provide service to companies located in other states as well.
With multiple options to choose from, Fincann also provides transparent checking accounts in all 50 states for ancillaries who provide goods and services to licensees.
First, we see further evidence of cannabis as a recession-proof industry. Even in times of economic stress and uncertainty, people will still seek out their cost-effective health and medical remedies. Like we saw during the Great Depression, when alcohol sales boomed, cannabis as a way to unwind has boosted sales as well.
Here’s an example of an immediate and possibly long-term effect and benefit to an industry vertical:
A currently promoted compliant, sustainable alternative to credit card payments is app-based checking account debit platforms whose fatal weakness has been abysmal buyer adoption. Picture it: a customer enters a dispensary and is told they can pay electronically by downloading an app and connecting their bank account. They prefer to go to a nearby ATM and draw cash instead of giving up sensitive information to an unfamiliar app. There is generally no appetite to do all this and risk their private information just to buy cannabis.
However, with dispensaries closed to in-person sales due to COVID-19 and instead utilizing delivery, contactless electronic payment can be mandated, and the only way to get the delivery is to agree to use the app. That solution has therefore experienced a boost that will carry forward beyond the current crises, since the primary obstacle to adoption is resistance to the initial intrusive process. Once the payment solution is adopted and used a few times, buyers tend to be satisfied with it and customer retention is easier.
This is good news since otherwise the solution is a good interim approach to consumer electronic payments in anticipation of whenever MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover open up to cannabis transactions following federal de-scheduling.
It’s first important to educate financial institutions on the real history of cannabis in the U.S. over the last century. Notably, we highlight its broad utility as a remarkable source of innumerable industrial products, in addition to its popular use as a mild and relaxing recreational intoxicant.
Next we point out that over the past 6 years or more, no financial institution in the U.S. who made or makes a reasonable effort at proper compliance and reporting has ever suffered any of the listed consequences and with good reason. Chief among them is that federal bodies and examiners want the industry’s proceeds banked, accounted for, taxes paid and cash off the street to de-risk violence and criminal activity.
We then take a close look at the profusion of sectors and verticals within the cannabis economy, which includes dozens of businesses beyond THC licensees. Examples are:
- Test Labs
- Business & Capital Advisory
- Finance, leasing and asset management
- Licensing, Regulatory and Compliance
- Banking & payment solutions
- Hedge funds & private equity
- Landlords & real estate brokers
- Marketing, advertising & branding
- Websites & social media
- Public relations
- Plumbers, electricians and general contractors
- Personnel & human resources
- Payroll services
- Manufacturers, distributors and retailers of vapes, dabs, glassware, clothing, non-plant derived merchandise & other smoking accessories
- Automobile & truck dealers
- Capital equipment
- Greenhouses, lighting, irrigation & cultivation systems
- Soil, nutrients & hydroponics
- Investment advisory
- Venture capital and angel investors
- Printing & publishing
- Trade shows and conferences
- Trade show exhibits
- Data & reporting services
- Trade associations
- Trade media
- Advocacy & campaigns
- Medical practitioners
- Tour operators
- Directories and information services
At this point, it becomes apparent that they are already banking a number of these sectors, and we can then help them decide which to bring into transparency and compliance and those they’d prefer to prune from their portfolio, at least for the present.
We also work more directly, at least initially, with the bank’s senior compliance, risk and business development people, since they are often younger, more ambitious, better informed and less prejudiced than their board.