Congress Tries to Stop Denial of Banking Services to Medical Marijuana Providers
Letter sent Friday by 15 Members of Congress to Treasury Secretary Geithner
WASHINGTON -- Fifteen Members of Congress sent a letter Friday to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner urging him to issue "written guidance for financial institutions," which would commit the Department to not targeting those institutions whose account holders are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. The patient advocate group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) has received dozens of reports over the past couple of years from medical marijuana providers in California, Colorado and other states who have either been denied financial services or had their existing bank accounts terminated with little-to-no justification.
"[I]t seems clear that legitimate state-legal businesses are being denied access to banking services, which does not serve the public interest," stated the letter authored by Colorado Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO, pictured above left), who ASA has been working with to bring this issue to the attention of Treasury. The Congressional letter, which was co-signed by Representatives from Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin, asserted that the denial of financial services produces "an increased risk to public safety with potential theft or robbery that any cash-only or cash-reliant business faces," and is "an affront to fundamental fairness."
Some federal prosecutions of medical marijuana cases have included the charge of "money laundering," which according to the government simply means depositing proceeds from a dispensary into a bank account. However, multiple states now expect medical marijuana dispensaries (and by extension, patients) to pay sales tax. "While financial institutions may have valid concerns," said ASA Government Affairs Director Caren Woodson. "The risk to banks is minimal, whereas their refusal to work with state-compliant medical marijuana providers jeopardizes countless people and delegitimizes lawful businesses."
ASA has received reports over the past two years that financial institutions such as Bank of America, US Bank, Wells Fargo and Chase have either refused to work with medical marijuana suppliers altogether or more specifically refused to provide credit card transaction services. Gary Kishner, a spokesperson for Chase, told Boulder Weekly that Chase refuses to do business with dispensaries due to "financial operational and compliance risk," but Kishner was unable to explain what that meant. ASA estimates that this widespread financial obstruction has directly impacted hundreds of dispensaries in multiple states.
In October 2009, the Justice Department issued its own guidance on enforcement of marijuana laws in medical marijuana states. However, this shift in policy has appeared insufficient for quelling fears in the banking industry. "Americans for Safe Access is working with Congress to obtain a Treasury policy similar to that of the DOJ," continued Woodson. "We appreciate the leadership of Representative Polis and others as we attempt to remove federal obstacles from the implementation of safe access to medical marijuana at the local and state levels."