Pubdate: Thu, 22 Jun 2017
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2017 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Nicole Lewis, Washington Post


One of the nation's leading marijuana legalization groups says PNC
Bank has notified it that it will close the organization's 22-year-old
accounts, a sign of growing concerns in the financial industry that
the Trump administration will crack down on the marijuana industry in
states that have legalized it.

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) lobbies to eliminate punishments
for marijuana use but is not involved in growing or distributing the
drug – an important distinction for federally regulated banks
and other institutions that do business with such advocacy groups.

Nick Field, MPP's chief operating officer, said a PNC Bank
representative told him in May that the organization's bank accounts
would be permanently closed July 7 because an audit of the
organization's accounts revealed it received funding from marijuana
businesses that handle the plant directly.

"They told me it is too risky. The bank can't assume the risk," Field

Although marijuana businesses are legal in some states, many banks
will not provide services to sellers or growers of the drug because it
is banned at the federal level.

But policy and advocacy organizations such as MPP are spared. A bank's
severing ties with an organization that accepts donations from such
businesses signals a new level of concern in the banking industry.

PNC bank declined to discuss its relationship with MPP, but a
spokeswoman said that "as a federally regulated financial institution,
PNC complies with all applicable federal laws and regulations."

The bank has held MPP's accounts since the organization was formed in

Some advocacy groups say the abrupt closing of MPP's accounts is an
unpleasant side effect of growing uncertainty about protections for
the marijuana industry in states that have legalized it. The industry
enjoys loose protection via a combination of legislative amendments
and memos from the Justice Department that effectively allow states to
operate medical and recreational marijuana businesses without federal
interference. But many advocates worry that the Trump administration
is changing course to enforce federal laws and dismantle key
protections for the expanding industry.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a longtime opponent of marijuana
legalization. During a Senate drug hearing in April 2016, Sessions --
then a Republican senator from Alabama -- said, "We need grown-ups in
charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that
ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it's in fact
a very real danger."

When asked during his confirmation hearing in January whether he would
enforce federal drug laws as attorney general, Sessions replied, "I
won't commit to never enforcing federal law."

The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for

Last week, Sessions wrote to congressional leaders asking for the
ability to prosecute medical-marijuana dispensaries. Sessions implored
members of Congress to reconsider a rule enacted in 2014 to prevent
the Justice Department from using federal funds to block state laws
that legalize medical-marijuana cultivation and use.

The sale of recreational marijuana, in contrast, is loosely protected
by the 2013 Cole memo. The memo, issued by Deputy Attorney General
James Cole during the Obama administration, instructs state law
enforcement agencies not to use their resources to prosecute the
authorized sale of marijuana in states where it is legal.

The vice president for regulatory compliance at the American Bankers
Association says these protections are not enough reassurance for
banking institutions. Banks are subject to federal regulation to
prevent fraud, money-laundering, or breeches of privacy.

"Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, banks accepting any
money associated with its sale could be investigated for money
laundering," said Rob Rowe, the ABA executive, adding that many banks
do not make a distinction between advocacy organizations and
businesses that sell or grow marijuana.

But Field's organization, the MPP, and many other advocacy groups,
such as NORML, say banks' concerns are overblown. The Justice
Department has never investigated a bank for offering accounts to
state-legal marijuana businesses. In addition, Field added, advocacy
organizations are legal entities that are subject to strict scrutiny
by the IRS.

"We are a registered 501(c)(3) and (c)(4). We have yearly audits. We
are compliant with the IRS," he said. "It doesn't get any clearer than

Field said the MPP is still seeking a new bank. John Hudak, an expert
on marijuana policy and governance at the Brookings Institution,
suspects the MPP's difficulty in finding a new bank reflects banks'
fears that Sessions intends to roll back protections for the industry
and enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act.

"It's no secret," Hudak said. "It's a situation that is creating an
increasingly uncertain policy environment."

Amid the uncertainty, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D., Colo.) introduced a bill
to ensure protections for banks providing "financial services to
cannabis-related legitimate businesses." The Secure and Fair
Enforcement Banking Act, introduced in April, has 44 congressional

The first provision of the bill would prevent federal regulators from
terminating banks' federal deposit and share insurance "solely because
the depository institution provides or has provided financial services
to a cannabis-related legitimate business."

Many marijuana advocacy organizations hope the bill will pass,
offering the industry the banking security it seeks.

"It's one thing to take a position about making marijuana legal," said
Mason Tvert, the MPP's communications director. "It's something
different to say these businesses should be able to be bank

Marijuana advocacy groups point to public opinion as an indication of
the industry's legitimacy. Last year, 60 percent of Americans surveyed
by Gallup thought marijuana should be legal.

Justin Strekal, policy director at Washington, D.C.-based NORML, said
the attorney general is fighting a losing battle against legalization.
He is optimistic that organizations such as the MPP, as well as
marijuana businesses, will not face the setbacks they dealt with in
past. But he cautioned that things could become worse before they improve.

"This is the death rattle of prohibition," Strekal said. "While we are
confident in the end that we will win, it does not mean that
[Sessions] isn't going to do as much damage as he can to the industry
between now and when he is no longer in power."
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