Tag Archives: SAFE Banking Act of 2019

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

It Is Permissible for Federally Insured Credit Unions to Bank Hemp Businesses

Photo of attorney Michael Zullo
Michael S. Zullo

“Credit unions may provide the customary range of financial services for business accounts, including loans, to lawfully operating hemp related businesses within their fields of membership,” says the National Credit Union Administration (NCRU) in its recently released guidance 19-RA-02.

While this is a significant step for hemp businesses seeking banking outlets, it is far from the relief proposed by Secure and Fair Enforcement Act (“SAFE Banking Act”) and does not represent a blanket permission.  Still, the NCRU Guidance signals a recognition of the growing Cannabis industry and the practical need to provide financial services to businesses in the industry.  Here are some key takeaways.

First, the guidance only applies to Federally Insured Credit Unions, not national banks.

Second, the guidance explicitly relates to credit unions serving “hemp” businesses as defined in the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill), which removed hemp from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.[1]  Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, which restricts banking access of marijuana businesses.

Third, because the USDA has yet to promulgate regulations and guidelines to implement the hemp production provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill, credit unions must ensure members in hemp-related business are operating under the industrial hemp pilot provisions of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill).

Fourth, credit unions that elect to bank hemp-related businesses must maintain robust Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) compliance programs.  This includes:

  • Maintaining appropriate due diligence procedures for hemp-related accounts and complying with BSA and AML requirements to file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) for any activity that appears to involve potential money laundering or illegal or suspicious activity.
  • Remaining alert to any indication an account owner is involved in illicit activity or engaging in activity that is unusual for the business.
  • Staying on top of state and tribal laws, regulations, and agreements under which each member that is a hemp-related business operates.
  • Verifying that the member is part of the pilot program created in the 2014 Farm Bill.
  • Adapting ongoing due diligence and reporting approaches to any risks specific to participants in the pilot program.
  • Being familiar with any other federal and state laws and regulations that prohibit, restrict, or otherwise govern these businesses and their activity.

In sum, banking hemp-related businesses is permissible for credit unions.  But they must be diligent in crafting BSA/AML policies.  This is not a complete solution to the existing banking problems facing the Cannabis industry, but it does evidence a growing regulatory desire to provide access for the industry, which could sway policy makers down the road.

[1] The 2018 Farm Bill defines “hemp” as: “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

David Feldman

Senior Trump Officials Support Congressional Action on Cannabis

In the last week both the US Attorney General and the Treasury Secretary have encouraged Congress to take action towards easing US cannabis prohibition. Yesterday, in testimony before Congress, AG William Barr seemed to support the currently pending Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, while still opposing legalization. He was concerned about the continuing conflict between federal and state laws in the area, saying: “The situation that I think is intolerable and which I’m opposed to is the current situation we’re in, and I would prefer one of two approaches rather than where we are. Personally, I would still favor one uniform federal rule against marijuana but, if there is not sufficient consensus to obtain that, then I think the way to go is to permit a more federal approach so states can make their own decisions within the framework of the federal law and so we’re not just ignoring the enforcement of federal law…I would much rather that approach—the approach taken by the STATES Act—than where we currently are.”

Separately, many have been disappointed by the lack of action by Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Treasury Department. In February 2018 he said that addressing the challenge of cannabis businesses’ access to commercial banking was at the “top of the list” of his priorities. Since then the Department has taken no action on the issue. On Tuesday of this week, Mnuchin announced in Congressional testimony, essentially, that his hands are tied and he believes he cannot solve the cannabis banking problem administratively. He urged Congress to address the issue with new laws “on a bipartisan basis.” Mnuchin spoke of the need to build “cash rooms” at Treasury to hold taxes that cannabis companies pay in cash. The SAFE Banking Act of 2019, which would effectively eliminate most restrictions on banks taking cannabis companies as customers, has passed the House Financial Services Committee and is expected to pass the full House as well. It’s fate in the US Senate is less clear. The STATES Act also would address the banking issue.

Politically, it appears we are closer than ever to Congressional action in this area. Every Presidential candidate, including all the Democrats, Trump and his current Republican contender Bill Weld, favors some form of legalization or allowing states to decide on the matter. Between the growing public support for legalization, the taxes and jobs pouring into cannabis-legal states and the desire to right the wrongs of the War on Drugs, it is becoming both more politically acceptable and politically expedient to support easing of federal criminal restrictions. The current holdup? The US Senate, where Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell continue to appear to desire to stonewall further legalization efforts. Stay tuned.