During the groundbreaking phone call on Thursday, August 29 in which U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of Colorado and Washington the federal government would not attempt to intercept regulated legal marijuana in their states, he also said the Department of Justice (DOJ) is “actively considering” how to oversee the relationship between banks and marijuana shops.
According to the Huffington Post, Holder told the governors as long as marijuana shops “operate within state laws and don’t violate other federal law enforcement priorities” the DOJ is looking to regulate those interactions as legal.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, released a statement on Thursday calling for a hearing to discuss his proposed bill, Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act (HR 2652). In the statement, he raised concerns over “public safety, crime, and lost tax revenue associated when these legal and regulated businesses are operating in a cash-only system.”
“We need to provide financial institutions certainty they can make their own business decisions related to legal, financial transactions without fear of regulatory penalties. Currently, under federal banking laws, many legal, regulated legitimate marijuana businesses operating legally according to state law are prevented from maintaining bank accounts and accessing financial products like any other business such as accepting credit cards, depositing revenues, or writing checks to meet payroll or pay taxes. They are forced to operate as cash-only enterprises, inviting crime such as robbery and tax evasion, only adding to the burden of setting up a legitimate small business.”
To that regard, a senior DOJ official speaking on a condition of anonymity told Huffington Post “the department recognized that forcing the establishments to operate on a cash basis put them at greater risk of robbery and violence.”
CNN warned in a report that since the new guidelines do not change federal money laundering laws, some large banks might “still be leery of doing business with marijuana producers and sellers.”
Along with Holder’s announcement on Thursday came a memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, addressed to U.S. attorneys nationwide. The memo outlines eight priorities intended to serve as strict guidelines the attorneys are required to follow as federal marijuana policy when prosecuting in the states where it is legal.
According to the Huffington Post , the anonymous DOJ official said, “For now, financial institutions and other enterprises that do business with marijuana shops that are in compliance with state laws are unlikely to be prosecuted for money laundering or other federal crimes that could be brought under existing federal drug laws, as long as those pot businesses don’t otherwise violate the priorities.”
In addition, the Huffington Post reported, the official said he “would not rule out prosecution in any case, but the new approach is a reversal of a DEA policy that had warned banks not to work with marijuana businesses.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee and the state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson thanked Holder for his efforts to work with the states’ decision to legalize and regulate pot, and called Holder’s announcement “good news” in a statement on Thursday.
“Attorney General Holder also expressed a willingness to work with the states on a financial structure that would not run afoul of federal law,” they said, calling the news an “affirmation of good work” by the state Liquor Control Board, which the state put in charge of designing a system of regulation and implementation for the new marijuana laws.
They continued, “We can assure the Attorney General that Washington state will remain vigilant in enforcing laws against the illicit marijuana market.”
April M. Short is a Bay Area journalist focusing on social justice reporting.