Pubdate: Fri, 21 Sep 2018
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2018 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Dan Sweeney


More than 80 state legislative or statewide campaigns and campaign
committees have accepted some $800,000 from the medical marijuana
industry during the 2018 election cycle, according to a review of
campaign finance records by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

That could mean the closure of accounts and a scramble to find a place
to deposit campaign funds. Wells Fargo decided to close the campaign
account of Democratic Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried
after she accepted industry money. She then opened an account with
BB&T, which also promptly closed it. She now banks with Florida
Community Bank.

In the worst-case scenario, campaigns could be forced to close
accounts or refund money they got from the medical marijuana industry.

Among those who could be affected: Republican governor candidate Ron
DeSantis, Republican agriculture commissioner candidate Matt Caldwell,
incumbent Republican chief financial officer Jimmy Patronis,
Republican attorney general candidate Ashley Moody and Democratic
attorney general candidate Sean Shaw.

With less than two months until Election Day and some mail-in ballots
being sent out this week, that would mean a loss of time and effort in
getting their messages out to voters at a critical time in the
election season.

The largest share of the campaigns that accept marijuana money banked
at SunTrust, with 27 accounts there. A SunTrust representative said
that whether to close an account is something the bank would decide
"on a case-by-case basis."

"We adhere to all state and federal laws relating to the services we
offer to clients," said SunTrust spokesman Mike McCoy. "We don't
comment on individual client relationships."

Dealing with marijuana money on a case-by-case basis rather than
having a hard-and-fast rule appears to be the norm among banks
contacted by the Sun Sentinel. Federally chartered banks cannot accept
profits from the sale of illegal drugs -- and marijuana continues to
be illegal at the federal level.

"No one will tell you how to do it or how not to do it because it's
against federal law. aE& It's going to be up to each bank's risk
appetite," said Anthony DiMarco, vice president of government affairs
for the Florida Bankers Association. "What extent is the ripple far
enough away from the stone going in the pond that it's not considered
a marijuana transaction? I'm not aware of that, and no association I
know is aware of that either."

TALLAHASSEE -- Wells Fargo required Nikki Fried, a Democratic
candidate for agriculture commissioner, to move her campaign account
funds to a different bank because of her advocacy and interaction with
the medical marijuana industry.

For Wells Fargo and BB&T, those ripples extend into medical marijuana
businesses donating to political campaigns. The big questions are
whether those banks will apply this rule across the board and whether
other banks will follow suit.

"As a U.S. bank that is federally regulated, we have to comply with
federal law," said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Michelle Palomino. "In
instances where state laws may differ, it is Wells Fargo's policy not
to knowingly bank or provide services to marijuana businesses or
activities clearly related to those businesses."

Palomino said the bank takes action "if we become aware of marijuana
money going into any account."

Under Florida law, legislative campaigns can only receive a maximum of
$1,000 per election from an individual or corporation, $3,000 for the
statewide offices of governor, agriculture commissioner, attorney
general and chief financial officer. But candidates can create
committees that can accept unlimited donations, and most do so.

Fried has been one of the top beneficiaries of such money. Her
campaign has received at least $9,000 from the industry, while her
committee, Florida Consumers First, has received at least $42,000.

But Fried is not the only candidate with both a Wells Fargo account
and marijuana money in the bank. Republican state Reps. Byron Donalds
and Bob Rommel, both of Naples, and Rene Plasencia, of Orlando, all
have campaign accounts with Wells Fargo and have received at least
$1,000 from players in the industry.

Wells Fargo's decision to drop an account connected to a state
candidate who supports medical marijuana could cost the bank more business.

A Broward commissioner says the county should stop doing business with
Wells Fargo and plans to bring up the issue at the Sept. 13 meeting.

"[Fried] may have been flagged given the amount of donations and the
fact that it was a statewide candidate," said Brett Doster, a
political consultant for Rommel, whose campaign took $1,000 from
George Hackney, one of the few nurseries in Florida with a license to
grow marijuana. "To my knowledge, unless there was a form letter that
we missed, the campaign has not been contacted in any way, shape or
form by Wells Fargo."

Donalds and Plasencia did not return calls for comment. None of the
banks would comment on individual account holders.

Although federally chartered banks generally don't do business with
the legal marijuana industry because of the severe penalties involved
in allowing deposit of drug money, it's unusual for a bank to target a
political campaign under the rules.

Ben Pollara, the campaign manager for Fried who previously ran the
campaign to get medical marijuana in the Florida Constitution, was
unaware of any other candidate in the country whose campaign account
had been closed due to political donations from the medical marijuana

If things break the Democrats' way in November, the Florida cabinet
could feature two South Florida residents.

Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, of Parkland, is running for chief
financial officer, and the Democratic primary for agriculture
commissioner features three South Florida residents -- Fort...

Banks can also be chartered by the state, but rules for
Florida-chartered banks dealing in medical marijuana money are ambiguous.

"All these banks are skittish on marijuana banking," DiMarco said.
"Your potential regulatory liability is so high, even if you follow
everything, you're not out of the woods."

Like Wells Fargo, BB&T also closed Fried's account. Of the 84
campaigns and committees the Sun Sentinel found had taken medical
marijuana money this election cycle, only one other -- that of state
House candidate Ana Maria Rodriguez in Miami -- banked with BB&T.

"While BB&T has no position on the issue of marijuana or the ongoing
discussion regarding its legalization, we must continue to abide by
all applicable laws and regulations as a federally regulated financial
institution," said BB&T spokesman Brian Davis. "While many states have
enacted changes, federal law prohibits the use, sale and possession of
all forms of cannabis in the United States."

TALLAHASSEE -- The job might be obscure, but it holds significant
power: the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services
oversees gun permits, fields consumer complaints, regulates livestock,
inspects gas pumps and rollercoasters and more.

Fried believes she has a two-part solution for Florida.

"Give the green light to state-chartered banks so that if you decided
to bank with one of the marijuana companies, we will protect you if
anything happens at the federal level," she said. "Also, create a
state bank that is housed underneath the chief financial officer. aE&
It wouldn't be doing investments or loans. It's really just a
depository where marijuana companies can house their capital, money
that's going to investors, out to employees. It would also be an
opportunity for doctors to have accounts, and patients to have
accounts as well."

Rather than deposits being guaranteed by the federal government, money
would be insured by Florida's state government. Similar legislation is
currently being debated in California. North Dakota is the only state
that currently has a state bank whose deposits are guaranteed by state
taxpayers, not the federal government. But that bank was largely
designed for handling the deposits of state government and state
agencies, not for marijuana.

Because banks are skittish of marijuana money, dispensaries are
largely cash-only businesses. The state bank Fried envisions would be
able to issue patients debit cards to be used at dispensaries.

Wells Fargo closed the account of Nikki Fried, candidate for
agriculture commissioner, because she supports the use of marijuana
for medical purposes and accepts donations from the marijuana industry.

"It's very dangerous for a patient to walk into a dispensary and
people around you know there's only one thing you're doing in there,
buying products. So they know you have cash," she said. "It's a
dangerous situation for the patient and a dangerous situation for the

Fried's idea, though, is predicated on her winning in November and
convincing the state Legislature to go along. She faces state Rep.
Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, a state legislator with major
backing from business, the agricultural industry and the deep pockets
of his fellow lawmakers' political committees.

Caldwell, like Fried, has called for moving the state's Office of
Medical Marijuana Use from the Department of Health to the Department
of Agriculture.

Fried's ideas also depends on nothing getting done at the federal

"First and foremost, [Congress] needs to pass that a state that has a
recreational or medical program is exempt from that part of the
Controlled Substances Act," she said. "But knowing how fast D.C.
works, we obviously have to own this situation here in Florida."