Colorado seeks a pot banking option

DENVER — Colorado is trying again to set up the world’s first financial system for marijuana in an attempt to move the pot industry away from its cash-only roots.

A bill up for its first hearing Thursday is prompted by frustration with recent marijuana banking guidance from the Treasury Department. Banks and the pot industry say the guidance is inadequate because it gives financial institutions no confidence that they can serve the marijuana industry without running afoul of federal law.

“This is cracking the whip and really sending a flare up to the feds to make sure that they understand that this is a pressing issue,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont and sponsor of the bill.

The measure would allow state-licensed marijuana businesses to create a financial co-op, sort of an uninsured credit union. The co-ops would be overseen by Colorado’s Division of Financial Services and expressly prohibited from calling themselves “banks” or “credit unions,” though they could provide credit and checking and other traditional financial services.

The pot co-ops also would have to comply with the new federal requirements on banking for the marijuana industry, including filing detailed reports to show that sales revenue is not ending up in the hands of criminal organizations.

State lawmakers tried but failed two years ago to set up a state-chartered bank for the marijuana industry. The effort was abandoned as unworkable.

“The banking issue is a huge problem,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who sponsored the failed banking plan two years ago. Steadman said the problem has only grown, so he signed on for another effort.

“We want an audit trail. We want to know they’re paying their taxes correctly. And when they’re operating on a cash-only basis, that’s a huge problem,” Steadman said.

Banking services have been a top priority for the marijuana lobby for years in Colorado. Earlier this month, marijuana industry workers briefed lawmakers on their continuing headaches operating without a bank. Industry workers told of being scared to walk to their cars at the end of the day carrying large amounts of cash.

“It is very easy to see somebody get killed over this issue,” said Michael Elliott, head of the Denver-based Marijuana Industry Group. “It’s really just a matter of time before something happens.”

Elan Nelson, a business strategist for the Medicine Man dispensary in northeast Denver, told lawmakers the federal guidance has done little to alleviate the problem.

“We’re not seeing any change whatsoever,” she said. “A lot of my colleagues will call around to the banks periodically to see if anyone is taking their business. And the standard answer is simply, ‘No.’ Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s been fixed.”

Under the federal guidance, banks must review state license applications for marijuana customers, request information about the business, develop an understanding of the types of products to be sold and monitor publicly available sources for any negative information about the business.

The American Bankers Association has said banks will be comfortable serving marijuana businesses only if federal prohibitions on the drug are changed in law.

Online:

House Bill 1398: http://bit.ly/R5seJf

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