A recent New York Times article, “The First Bank of Bud,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/business/marijuana-industry-in-colorado-eager-for-its-own-bank-waits-on-the-fed.html?src=xps) detailed efforts to create the nation’s first credit-union meant specifically for marijuana dispensaries. Because of federal money-laundering laws, risk-averse banks continue to refuse access to financial services which are necessary for the long-time survival of the cannabis industry.
In 2013 the US Justice department issued the “Cole Memo”, a legal memorandum stating that “in certain cases” it would be acceptable for banks to accept deposits from state-approved dispensaries. This attempt by federal officials to allow banks room to maneuver, lacked clear protections against money-laundering laws, leading banks to refuse to accept deposits from many businesses, deemed a risk, in the multi billion dollar cannabis industry. As a result the legal industry must operate as a purely cash business.
Payrolls, business costs, taxes, are all paid in cash, an extremely dangerous situation that invites robbery, violence, tax evasion and other criminal activity. But these are not the only threats to society; the sporadic enforcement of federal laws creates havoc, uncertainty, and sets a poor precedent for the future changes in law. In states where reforms of cannabis laws have been passed, the intended protections of legitimate, free, and regulated markets are jeopardized. This climate of uncertainty and fear undermines the spirit of law and justice, as well as cherished constitutional freedoms.
In the wake of the “Cole Memo”, financial institutions conducted expanded reviews of bank accounts to identify perceived risks. This included businesses having nothing to do with sales of marijuana, such as the bank account of NC NORML. For three years after the incorporation of NORML of North Carolina, which occurred in 2010, Bank of America provided us with necessary services to pursue our mission. So it came as a surprise when our bank account was closed, due to the “nature of our business, and it’s associated risk.”
Even though we are not a marijuana retail business, it was the topic of our social and political advocacy which was deemed “unacceptable”. The state chapter adheres strictly to all federal and state laws, is wholly volunteer based, and like other social welfare organizations, such as Tea Party groups, the Sierra Club, or the Cato Institute, our work is vital to the democratic process. Our mission is to educate the public about the economic benefits of industrial hemp, the medical benefits of cannabis, and the social benefits of legalized recreational marijuana. If these activities are “unacceptable”, or “risky”, what about the activities of the National Rifle Association or the March of Dimes? Would American citizens stand for such blatant interference in the civic life of our nation?
The right to express political and social beliefs, as well as the right to peaceably assemble for social action, is paramount to the survival of our nation. The refusal of financial institutions to provide bank accounts to dispensaries, or to nonprofit advocacy groups, is a tactic intended to influence public debate and to prevent those organizations from thriving over the long-term. Such actions are not only attempts to stifle our message, our actions, and our political beliefs, they are attempts to influence the political process and to deprive the American public of making informed decisions. In the future these methods could expand to any issue, be they matters of foreign diplomacy, war, health care, security, or privacy.
A bank is chartered to accept deposits, make loans, and facilitate financial transactions, not engage in political maneuvering. The need for sound financial services is greatest when new industries are emerging. Thus, financial institutions deserve clarifications and protections from the Federal Reserve, Congress, the judiciary, and the Executive Branch. Guidelines and memos from federal agencies are not sufficient. Whether they instruct federal prosecutors to not go after medical marijuana distributors in states where such activities are legal, such as the 2009 “Ogden Memo”, or provide vague protections for establishing bank accounts, Federal law must protect and accommodate banking, financial, and agricultural industries where states have pursued marijuana reform. This will require comprehensive legislation passed by both houses of Congress and approved by the President.
In order for such momentous action to occur, there is much work to be done. NC NORML is working to further the goal of Federal Legalization through political and social efforts in the state of North Carolina, as are other chapters throughout the country. If you agree that we can prevent needless violence, provide cutting edge medical care, and reduce the harm to communities resulting from the failed War on Drugs, then please get involved. Contact your state Representatives and Senators, contact your U.S. Representatives and Senators, contact President Obama. Reach out to local officials and demand accountability. Without your voice, without your support, people will continue to suffer and face imprisonment. Our society will pay the price if citizens are unwilling to participate in the democratic process. Get involved. Go to http://www.ncnorml.org/getinvolved.htm.