Cannabis Banking Guidance Unclear After Sessions Action

On January 4, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded all prior advisory memos on prosecutorial priorities relating to cannabis, including the 2014 Cole Memo which many relied on in entering the space. One consequence of rescinding the Cole Memo is its effect on US Treasury Department guidelines for banks and financial institutions that seek to take cannabis customers. Those 2014 guidelines, issued by the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), outline processes and filings to be undertaken when a cannabis customer is signed up. The main focus of the process is on due diligence the bank must do on the proposed customer, including ongoing monitoring while the company is a customer. The guidelines also require filing of a “suspicious activity report” (SAR) with FinCEN for each such potential customer.

The banking guidelines focus heavily on the now-rescinded Cole Memo, which suggested the low prioritization of enforcement against people complying with state cannabis laws. The Memo contained a list of exceptions, and if one of the exceptions was present, then enforcement could be pursued. The exceptions included things like providing cannabis to minors, the involvement of organized crime or firearms, and the like. The FinCEN guidelines require a bank to conduct an analysis of whether the potential customer is complying with the Cole Memo priorities. Indeed the type of SAR that the bank must file varies depending on whether or not the potential customer appears to be in compliance with the Cole Memo.

story in Politico quoted a FinCEN spokesman who was asked if they are looking to bring their policies into line with the Justice Department. He said, “FinCEN works closely with law enforcement and the financial sector to combat illicit finance and provide relevant information that allows law enforcement to pursue their priorities. We will continue to work with DOJ and other stakeholders on this issue.” It does appear that confusion and uncertainty on this issue will continue until FinCEN provides further clarification or interpretive guidance. In the meantime, this might mean that some financial institutions will stop servicing cannabis customers and others that were considering it may suspend their efforts.

This post was the combined effort of David Feldman and Neeraj Kumar.