By Hilary Bricken
Securing a bank account will not be easy, but it is possible if you are in the right state and you prepare and act accordingly.
In my previous post, I wrote about avoiding the scammers that abound when it comes to cannabis banking. Because cannabis is federally illegal, getting a bank account has been very difficult for cannabis businesses even though the 2014 FinCEN guidelines (see here) allow financial institutions to provide banking services to cannabis businesses under certain circumstances — which guidelines are still alive despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinding the Cole Memo. Ultimately, FinCEN makes clear in its guidelines that they “should enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses.”
But what exactly should a cannabis business do to get a legitimate bank account with a real financial institution? Plain and simple, you make it as easy as possible for the bank or credit union to abide by the FinCEN guidelines. This means you do not lie about or omit anything regarding your cannabis business.
To even get to this point though, your cannabis business must be in a state with “robust regulations” that give its regulators the authority to tightly control and govern its cannabis industry. And not all states are created equal when it comes to this.
In states like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, banking is made a little easier because those states have hardcore regulations ranging from financial and criminal background checking on all cannabis business owners to knowing every single dollar that comes into a given cannabis operation and its source. In medical cannabis states like New Mexico and Arizona, which are basically unregulated medical cannabis states, banking is non-existent. And in California (where I am based), which still has relatively weak cannabis licensing rules (for example, there are no spousal vetting requirements for owners of cannabis businesses), it is still nearly impossible for a cannabis business to get a bank account and this is not likely to change until California tightens up on its licensing regime.
But if you’re in a state with robust cannabis regulation, here’s what you need to do and expect when pursuing a bank account under the FinCEN guidelines:
- Banks that follow the FinCEN guidelines do so in open violation of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). This is the case because they are directly engaging in money laundering because cannabis remains federally illegal and this is why virtually none of the really big banks (like Bank of America and Wells Fargo) will knowingly take on cannabis accounts. But for those banks that are willing to take on cannabis bank accounts, you need to be prepared to basically do whatever the bank tells you to do to secure that account because the bank will be the one to be held accountable to the federal government for violating the BSA.
- You should expect your bank or credit union to conduct comprehensive due diligence on your cannabis business — nearly always at your expense. This due diligence usually will include the following:
(i) verifying with the appropriate state authorities whether your cannabis business is duly licensed and registered;
(ii) reviewing your cannabis license application and other documents your cannabis business submitted to obtain its state license to operate;
(iii) requesting information about your business and its related parties from state licensing and enforcement authorities;
(iv) developing an understanding of the normal and expected activity of your business, including the products to be sold and the type of customers to be served (e.g., medical versus recreational customers);
(v) ongoing monitoring of publicly available sources for adverse information about your business and its related parties;
(vi) ongoing monitoring for suspicious activity, including for any of the red flags described in the FinCen guidance; and
(vii) constantly updating the above information.
- Don’t get frustrated with the bank or credit union over this mandatory due diligence. Your job is to fork over as much documentation as you can to demonstrate that you are licensed and in full compliance with state and local laws.
- The Cole Memo, though rescinded, still matters to FinCEN. Specifically, the FinCen guidelines state that “[a]s part of its customer due diligence, a financial institution should consider whether a marijuana-related business implicates one of the Cole Memo priorities or violates state law. This is a particularly important factor for a financial institution to consider when assessing the risk of providing financial services to a marijuana-related business. Considering this factor also enables the financial institution to provide information in BSA reports pertinent to law enforcement’s priorities. A financial institution that decides to provide financial services to a marijuana-related business would be required to file suspicious activity reports (“SARs”).” This means you should review the eight Cole Memo priorities and implement them in your business practices.
- Your bank will regularly file SARs on your business. A financial institution is required to file a SAR if it knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect that a transaction conducted or attempted by, at, or through the financial institution: (i) involves funds derived from illegal activity or is an attempt to disguise funds derived from illegal activity; (ii) is designed to evade regulations promulgated under the BSA; or (iii) lacks a business or apparent lawful purpose. Because commercial cannabis activity is federally illegal, SARs are a must in the cannabis banking world.
- The following SARs will likely apply to your cannabis business: (i) Marijuana limited SARs, which mean you are not violating state law or violating a Cole Memo priority; (ii) Marijuana priority SARs, which mean the bank believes you are violating state law or a Cole Memo priority; and (iii) Marijuana termination SARs, which mean the bank thinks you are a threat to its anti-money laundering systems under the BSA so it must end its relationship with you. All these SARs get sent to the federal government for possible investigation.
- Your bank will constantly monitor the financial activity of your cannabis business because it must do so under the FinCEN guidelines. Your bank will monitor everything from your deposits to your social media accounts to your ability to keep your license in good standing to ensure that you are complying with state laws and rules. Again, if you want to keep your bank account, you need to assist your bank with this continued due diligence.
- The FinCEN guidelines list various red flags banks must watch for. One of those red flags is using management companies or middlemen to secure your bank accounts. The FinCEN guidelines are clear that Cole Memo priorities may be violated if a “customer seeks to conceal or disguise involvement in marijuana-related business activity. For example, the customer may be using a business with a non-descript name (e.g., a “consulting,” “holding,” or “management” company) that purports to engage in commercial activity unrelated to marijuana, but is depositing cash that smells like marijuana.” Cash structuring, commingling of funds with an unrelated business, and “deposits by third parties with no apparent connection to the accountholder” are additional red flags. Pay attention to the FinCEN guidelines’ red flags list and strive to avoid them.
Securing a bank account will not be easy, but it is possible if you are in the right state and you prepare and act accordingly. Though state public banking and cryptocurrency have been floated as ways to provide wider access to banking, the FinCEN guidelines are still the key for both cannabis operators and financial institutions. And that’s not likely going to change anytime soon.