Starting next year, sales of recreational marijuana in California are expected to generate $1 billion in sales tax revenue. That’s an amazing amount of cash—emphasis on cash.
As has been the case since the cannabis industry became an industry, most marijuana businesses in America do not have bank accounts, because, thanks to federal law, banks do not accept their money.
This is a problem everywhere: As much as 40 percent of the marijuana businesses in Colorado, which recorded more than $1.3 billion worth of sales last year, do not have bank accounts, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported.
Some local credit unions quietly take smaller accounts, but big banks are staying away.
The result is that businesses must seek high-interest cash loans for capital. There has also been an uptick in demand for armored-car services from businesses like mega-dispensary Harborside, which boasts $44 million in annual sales. Firms that behave in every other way like respectable start-ups must stuff their state and local tax bills into backpacks for delivery at the tax-collector’s office, where bureaucrats then have to sort through mounds of cash as if they were re-enacting a Scarface montage.
Not exactly the look you want to present to the federal Justice Department in the Trump era.
Marijuana has the distinction of being the only industry we can name that is begging to be regulated, pay taxes and do normal-person things like have a bank account, yet is denied all these things.
“I have been kicked out of our finest banks, such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo,” said Debby Goldsberry, a longtime cannabis activist and businesswoman who runs Oakland’s Magnolia Wellness. “Our local credit union kicked us out.”
Other dispensaries who do bank and take credit cards keep the names of their financial institutions a closely guarded secret. Bigger dispensaries are out of luck.
“We can’t take credit cards. We can’t get access to capital. We can’t get credit lines. We can’t normalize our banking relationships. Every bank we talk to doesn’t want to talk to us,” Larry Thacker, CEO of San Jose-based dispensary Caliva told a California “banking task working group” assembled in Oakland on Monday.
— CA State Treasurer (@CalTreasurer) March 27, 2017
Next year, Thacker expects to pay $7 million in taxes—meaning, he is so concerned about carrying that car-load of bills to state and federal taxmen, he’s willing to state publicly that he’s going to do it.
“I implore you to help us come up with a solution that dramatically lowers the risk to our business,” he said, according to a report from the Bay Area News Group’s Lisa Kreiger.
(And it bears emphasizing that while creating this problem for the marijuana industry and while declaring it illegal, the federal government still expects cannabis businesses to pay their taxes in full.)
So what would a solution look like, and who is responsible for putting it together?
As we stated, banks are regulated by the federal government, for whom cannabis is still a demon weed, classified as just as terrible as heroin (regardless of what Jeff Sessions is saying on any given day). If California were to set up a state bank to handle cannabis transactions, it would still need approval from the Federal Reserve.
Several members of Congress, including representatives from the House of Representatives’ new “Cannabis Caucus,” have introduced legislation that would allow law-abiding marijuana businesses such privileges as checking accounts and the ability to transfer stupendous sums of money via some other method than wheelbarrows of bills—but thus far, efforts in both the House and Senate have yet to even be called for a committee hearing.
Unfortunately, action in Washington may be the only hope.
As California state Treasurer John Chiang said on Monday, pressure from all the cannabis-legal states “band[ing] together and press[ing] for answers in Washington” appears to be the best strategy. Since Congress has a perfect track record of both getting things done and treating cannabis seriously, there should be a solution by the time Mars is settled.
In the meantime, now is a good time to be in the armored car and cash-counting business in California.