Pennsylvania handed out licenses to 12 companies to grow marijuana for medicinal uses last week, and is expected to license producers and dispensaries soon. However, it could be tough for those businesses to get bank accounts.
Although Pennsylvania has legalized medical marijuana, it's still illegal at the federal level. That means all of the proceeds from growing, producing or selling it are illegal as far as the federal government is concerned.
That leaves banks that accept proceeds for such activity at risk of federal prosecution.
“Banks have discretion about whether they actually want to do business with the cannabis industry, it’s just a matter of… the potential for the shoe to fall and to be prosecuted for involvement in an illegal enterprise,” said Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney Cannabis Industry Group Co-Chair Jason Wrona.
Banks that accept cannabis-related income as a deposit could face criminal charges, including money laundering.
The U.S. Treasury Department has said enforcing those laws is not a priority, but that does not mean the banks are without risk. That risk could be growing. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said his office would enforce all marijuana-related laws.
“I am aware of folks in other states that have to lug around gym bags and suitcases full of cash to do things such as pay their taxes,” Wrona said.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking, or SAFE Act, is pending in Congress, which would exempt banks from prosecution for handling money related to a state-sanctioned cannabis business. Similar measures have twice failed in the past.
Wrona said, in states where the state-sanctioned cannabis industry is more mature, some banks have become comfortable with the risk and have begun taking deposits from grows and sellers.
When asked about its policy on accepting such funds, Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank issued the following statement: “As a federally regulated financial institution, PNC complies with all applicable federal laws and regulations.”
Without the help of a bank, a business cannot accept checks or credit cards from its clients.
Buchanan Ingersoll has about 30 lawyers in its cannabis group through the 18 states it serves. Wrona said the firm is “comfortable that we are complying with the rules of professional ethics.”
“Buchanan Ingersoll believes it is defending folks who are providing a valuable medicine to those who are ill,” Wrona said.
So far, none of Wrona’s clients have been prosecuted for money laundering or similar federal crimes for their contact with cannabis-related funds.