Tag Archives: David Landau

SAFE Banking Act Passes the House – Cannabis Banking May Soon Be Reality

By Joseph J. Pangaro, Justin M. L. Stern, David E. Landau, Seth A. Goldberg and Michael S. Zullo

On Wednesday evening, September 25, by a vote of 321 to 103, the United States House of Representatives took a meaningful step toward easing federal restrictions that have limited the access of cannabis businesses to banking services notwithstanding the growth of the cannabis industry by passing the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Banking Act”). The public safety concerns resulting from the dearth of cannabis banking has led dozens of state Attorneys General, the American Banking Association, and numerous other voices to urge the passage of legislation like the SAFE Banking Act so that the U.S. cannabis industry, which now exceeds $10 billion in annual sales revenues, not to mention hundreds of millions in state tax revenues, will benefit from the same banking services – checking accounts, payroll, and credit cards, to name a few – that are common to virtually all other U.S. businesses.  Passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the Senate would be liberating for the cannabis industry, as banking services will stimulate even more growth and better business practices, while eliminating the overhang of public safety concerns relating to large cash transactions.  Below is: (i) a brief summary of the history leading to this point; (ii) the key provisions of the SAFE Banking Act of 2019; and (iii) a preview of what comes next.

History of Marijuana Regulation and Banking Implications

  • Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”):[1] Marijuana is a federally unlawful Schedule I drug under the CSA, 21 U.S.C. § at § 841(a), and direct and indirect (conspiracy and aiding abetting) violations carry stiff criminal and civil penalties, including forfeiture. at §§  841(b), 853.
  •  Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and Money Laundering Control Act (“MLCA”): The BSA and MLCA obligate banks to root out financial transactions involving “unlawful” activities and thus banks must comply with BSA reporting requirements for suspicious transactions and must have robust customer diligence and MLCA programs.
  • 2014 FinCEN[2] Guidance: In an effort to stimulate cannabis banking, FinCEN issued Guidance in 2014 that clarified BSA expectations of financial institutions by describing how financial institutions can provide services to cannabis businesses consistent with their BSA obligations. This Guidance included stringent customer due diligence obligations and a special category of suspicious activity reporting (SAR) for marijuana-related businesses. The 2014 Guidance created three types of marijuana SAR filings: (i) “Marijuana Limited”; (ii) “Marijuana Priority”; and (iii) “Marijuana Termination.”

Reluctant Banking and Public Safety Concerns

Notwithstanding FinCen’s Guidance, the CSA, the Bank Secrecy Act, and the MLCA have presented significant obstacles for banks interested in providing their services to cannabis companies that “touch the flower” and even companies that provide ancillary services to the cannabis industry. Most financial institutions, including commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies, have avoided the core and ancillary cannabis companies.  For example, FinCen last reported that as of March 2019, only 633 of the 8,700 FDIC insured or supervised financial institutions are servicing marijuana-related business.

This widespread abstention has had a significant impact on the cannabis industry. An overwhelming portion of the $10 billion plus cannabis industry is comprised of cash transactions — purchases are made in cash, employees are paid in cash, accounts payable, including rent and other bills are paid in cash, even state taxes are paid in cash. Cannabis businesses may not have checking accounts or payroll services, cannot process credit cards, and are forced to find private lenders at high interest rates.

Public safety is at risk due to the volume of cannabis cash that is going untracked by the U.S. banking system.  There is an increased risk of theft, and there have even been claims for ransom and violent crimes. Businesses may not carry enough insurance for their premises and products. Accurate record-keeping, accounting, and the calculation and payment of state and local taxes is challenged. Most importantly, the transparency objectives of the BSA are undermined, as cannabis companies often engage in corporate structuring intended to provide some access to banking, even if not directly. In addition, it is widely understood that some FDIC banks simply turn a blind eye, and provide services to cannabis businesses without reporting.

Key SAFE Banking Act Provisions

Although the SAFE Banking Act contains numerous important provisions, below are three of the most significant.

SAR Filings

The SAFE Banking Act does not do away with the requirement to file SARs. However, it does mandate that FinCEN issue revised guidance concerning SAR filings that “is consistent with the purpose and intent of the SAFE Banking Act of 2019 and does not significantly inhibit the provision of financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business or service provider in a State.”

Protections for Financial Institutions

Further, the SAFE Banking Act would protect financial institutions against adverse actions by federal banking regulators—such as limiting or terminating the insurance provided under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act or the Federal Credit Union Act—taken solely on the basis of the financial institutions’ provision of banking services to cannabis businesses operating in accordance with state law or their service providers. The bill also prohibits regulators from discouraging institutions from providing financial services to such businesses or from incentivizing banks or credit unions to refuse, terminate, or downgrade accounts held by those engaged in the cannabis industry (such as owners or employees of cannabis businesses). Similarly, the bill provides that banks or other financial institutions providing financial services to legitimate cannabis businesses in states or jurisdictions where the cannabis business is lawfully operating will not, because of their dealings with such cannabis businesses, be held liable under federal law either for providing the financial services or for investing income derived from the provision of such services. The result of these protections is that financial institutions would, under the SAFE Banking Act, be able and thus more willing to provide cannabis businesses with routine services that companies in other industries take for granted, i.e., the processing of credit card transactions, the maintenance of operating and payroll checking accounts, etc.

Protections for Ancillary Businesses

The bill also provides protections for so-called “ancillary” businesses; under the SAFE Banking Act, receipt of money by a legitimate business or service provider, through a transaction with a cannabis business, would not on that basis result in the ancillary business’ violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, concerning transactions involving the proceeds of illegal activity. This protection would extend to ancillary business service providers such as accountants, lawyers, bankers, and landlords, as well as to sellers of goods or services to cannabis businesses, such as cable and internet providers.

Conclusions – What to Expect

Having passed the House, the bill now moves to the Senate where, despite its bipartisan support, its fate is unclear. Senator McConnell, the Senate Majority leader who was instrumental in the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, has not shown much interest in the bill yet. Yet Senator Crapo, Chairman of the Banking Committee, however, has hinted he may be interested in the legislation. Given the strong vote count with which the House passed the bill, pressure may start to mount for Senate action, particularly in light of the broad based coalition that came together to pass the House bill. The Senate should have the very real public safety concerns resulting from the dearth of cannabis banking in plain view when it votes.

[1] 21 U.S.C. § 801 et. seq.

[2] Financial Crimes Enforcement Network

Ninth Circuit Punts on Interstate Transportation of Hemp

On September 4, 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling in Big Sky Scientific LLC v. Jan Bennetts et al, the case involving the seizure of an interstate shipment of hemp that occurred after the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill. In a three-page opinion, the court sidestepped the substantive issues presented on appeal and held that the parties should pursue their claims in state court.

In January 2019, a hemp cultivator in Oregon attempted to ship a truckload of hemp to a processor in Colorado. But as the cargo passed through Idaho, the Idaho State Police seized the shipment and arrested the driver, alleging violations of Idaho state law. The Idaho police charged the driver with a crime and filed a civil complaint in state court against the hemp itself. The Idaho civil case was stayed pending resolution of the criminal proceeding.

View the full Alert on the Duane Morris LLP website.

Ninth Circuit Hears Oral Argument in Landmark Hemp Transportation Case

On August 28, 2019, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judges Hawkins, McKeown and Bybee heard oral argument in Big Sky Scientific LLC v. Jan Bennetts et al.

To review the background briefly, Big Sky Scientific, LLC, a Colorado-based hemp processor, purchased federally lawful hemp from a state-licensed hemp cultivator in Oregon. The parties arranged to ship the hemp from Oregon to Colorado via motor carrier. En route to Colorado, the shipment entered Idaho, where the Idaho police seized the cargo and arrested the driver, alleging violations of Idaho state law. Idaho initiated a state court criminal proceeding against the driver, and a state court civil proceeding against the hemp itself, to ensure the hemp would not be returned to Big Sky. In response, Big Sky filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in federal court to force the Idaho State Police to return the seized cargo and stop seizing hemp shipments that pass through the state. The District Court denied Big Sky’s motion, and Big Sky appealed. That appeal was the basis of the oral argument. Duane Morris filed an amicus brief on behalf of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp in support of Big Sky, arguing that an adverse ruling would have a serious negative impact on the hemp industry. (Duane Morris is the national law firm partner of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp.)

View the full Alert on the Duane Morris LLP website.

USDA Issues Guidance on Importation of Hemp Seeds

USDA has issued its first guidance since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Because the Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, the importation of hemp seeds will now be regulated by USDA as an agricultural product, not DEA.  USDA stated that by removing hemp from the CSA, the Act “removed hemp and hemp seeds from DEA authority for products containing THC levels not greater than 0.3 percent. Therefore, DEA no longer has authority to require hemp seed permits for import purposes.” Importation of hemp seeds from international sources will now be permitted if accompanied by the appropriate phytosanitary certification and will be subject to inspection by Customs and Border Patrol.

The reference to DEA authority is significant and confirms that DEA no longer has jurisdiction over hemp or products derived from hemp such as CBD oil.  DEA  needs to update its own guidance documents in light of the 2018 Farm Bill. USDA is working on regulations to implement the state cultivation program provisions of the Farm Bill.  They are expected to be in place in time for the 2020 growing season.

No Hemp Transport Through Idaho

A recent decision by a Federal Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court for the District of Idaho upheld the seizure of an industrial hemp shipment in January after the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill.

On January 24, 2019, Big Sky, a Colorado-based company, shipped industrial hemp from Oregon thorough Idaho on its way to Colorado. The hemp was seized in Idaho and the driver arrested for illegal transportation of marijuana. The crime carries a 5 year mandatory sentence. Big Sky sued for a temporary restraining order to release the hemp under the 2018 Farm Bill. The Court found that because no plan from the State of Oregon had been approved by the Department of Agriculture, the seized hemp was not produced in accordance the 2018 Farm Bill. The Court held that at this point time, without USDA approval of a state hemp plan, the Interstate Commerce Clause provisions of the Farm Bill do not apply.  A Temporary Restraining Order was denied on 2/2 and the Preliminary Injunction was denied on 2/20. Big Sky Scientific LLC v. Idaho State Police et al., No. 1:19-cv-00040-REB (D. Idaho, February 2, 2019). The case is on expedited appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Opening brief is due 3/20.

This decision is contrary to the intent, if not the letter, of the Farm Bill. It creates confusion about the what is permissible now, prior to USDA regs and approval of state plans.

Bank Closes Campaign Account of Pro-Cannabis Candidate

Banking continues to be a challenge for the cannabis industry.  But, Wells Fargo recently erected a new barrier: It closed the campaign bank account of Nikki Fried, candidate for Agriculture Commissioner of Florida. According to a report in the New York Times on August 21, 2018, the bank took notice of the candidate’s advocacy for better access to medical marijuana. It then asked the campaign whether it accepted contributions from lobbyists for the medical marijuana industry. When the campaign replied it accepted contributions from executives and employees in the industry, Wells Fargo closed the account.  The campaign now banks at BB&T.  Full New York Times Story

Pennsylvania Legislature Rescues Medical Marijuana Clinical Research Program

By David Landau

On Friday June 22nd, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed into law a bill allowing Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana clinical research program to proceed.  A Pennsylvania court a short while ago enjoined the program.   Continue reading Pennsylvania Legislature Rescues Medical Marijuana Clinical Research Program