Here we are again, crossing our fingers, hoping that the Senate will approve the passage of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act). This Act would provide banks with regulatory protections, allowing them to offer critical financial services to cannabis businesses without risking the loss of their banking charter.
As the 2024 elections loom, the stakes have never been higher for passing the SAFE Banking Act.
Cannabis Legalization is On the Rise
As of August 2023, 40 states, four territories and the District of Columbia have legalized medical or adult use cannabis. While some states have moved more slowly, the entire West Coast (including Nevada and Colorado) has voted to pass laws allowing the sale and purchase of adult use cannabis. Most of the East Coast has followed suit; New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts have all voted to regulate cannabis. It has become evident that the majority of U.S. citizens are now comfortable with legalized cannabis (156 million people live in jurisdicitons that have legalized adult use).
Federal anti-money laundering laws and related record-keeping regulations, such as the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), have presented complex compliance protocols that prevent banks from meeting the business needs of local growers, manufacturers and dispensaries. Local cannabis business owners are therefore put in a difficult position, as they must balance daily business activity against the potential dangers of operating as a cash-only business.
How Would the SAFE Banking Act Help Banks Serve the Cannabis Industry?
The proposed SAFE Banking Act would protect banks from federal penalties for offering their services to cannabis businesses in states with regulated cannabis industries. Critically, the bill would shield banks from losing their deposit insurance. Without reform through the SAFE Banking Act, financial institutions will remain essentially prohibited from working directly with legal cannabis companies.
Policymakers may need to introduce the Act as a stand-alone bill that outlines clear objectives and specifically addresses the issue from a public safety perspective. Cannabis is a hot-button issue, so adding additional legislation will muddy the water and make it easier for Senate members on the fence to vote against the bill.
Cannabis industry representatives and political allies must be strategic in navigating the bill’s potential passage and take the process step by step. First, the SAFE Banking Act must pass to allow cannabis businesses the opportunity to stabilize, grow and prosper. As the sector grows stronger and more accepted by mainstream America, more progressive bills can be introduced and will have a greater chance of successful passage in the House and Senate.
Because dispensaries and other cannabis businesses must process daily transactions without basic banking services, they often accumulate large amounts of cash. Dispensaries are, therefore, frequent targets for criminals. Even as the cannabis industry matures and contributes significant tax dollars to State coffers, banks and financial institutions have no choice but to sit with their hands tied, watching with horror as organized criminals literally take aim at dispensary staff.
The passage of the SAFE Banking Act is literally life and death for many cannabis industry employees. How many workers and customers must suffer harm before the Senate wakes up and passes this critical bill? Regardless of their stance on cannabis, members of the Senate must do their jobs, heed the will of the American people and pass the SAFE Banking Act to rectify this increasingly dangerous situation for the good of their constituents.
As the cannabis industry grows, companies are faced with more labor related compliance and regulatory issues, which require time and expertise. Rather than hire internal staff to manage human resources (HR) and compliance, many companies choose to outsource nearly 85% of HR functions. These functions include payroll administration, HR tasks and other employment liabilities, like insurance, to a third-party Managed Service Provider (MSP). This model frees up internal resources to grow and develop the company’s core business, while also offsetting risks associated with employment, taxes and insurance.
Nicholas Murer formed WECO in 2014 to provide human capital financial services to the legal cannabis industry, offering services like payroll management, workforce management, human resource implementation, accounting solutions, recruiting and staffing. The company has since expanded to providing consulting services, financial product representation, investor asset development, wholesale trading and advising emerging market development projects worldwide.
With markets across the country maturing at a rapid rate, change is a constant. Cannabis companies operating in new markets need to maintain compliance while focusing on their business plan, which can be a difficult task. We sat down with Nick Murer to learn more about compliance issues that cannabis businesses face, like workers comp, payroll taxes, insurance and how outsourcing some HR functions can help.
Q: What are some of the major labor compliance issues faced by employers in the cannabis industry?
Nicholas Murer: Like other industries, the cannabis industry is subject to labor related regulations like paid time off, harassment prevention training, workers compensation requirements, payroll taxes, pay transparency, unemployment insurance and reporting. Unless companies have an expert, or a team of experts, monitoring and managing compliance on both the employer and employee side, they may quickly find themselves in hot water with state regulatory agencies, or even with an employee for labor law violations.
Another issue continues to be access to banking and payment processing. Many cannabis companies continue to pay employees and vendors in cash, which creates not only problems in accurate accounting, but safety concerns for employees as well. There are banks and credit unions that will work with cannabis companies, but without a partner who has relationships with and access to a proven and trusted network of banks and processors, monthly account and transaction fees can be expensive and out of reach. With the SAFE Banking Act stalled once again in Congress, this will continue to be an issue.
Q: How can cannabis companies mitigate their risk by outsourcing HR functions?
Murer: By utilizing a Managed Service Provider (MSP), cannabis companies enter a labor contract model for payroll and HR administration. An MSP is a professional workforce management company that provides comprehensive employment services for businesses.Nick Murer and the WECO team will be at the CQC this October 16-18. Click here to learn more.
This model provides the client company with the best labor practices, risk mitigation and claims management with access to national workers compensation and unemployment insurance. The MSP is the employer of record, so is responsible for most aspects of the employee/employer relationship. The day-to-day management of the employee continues with the client company, but the company’s liability and risk are reduced. MSP compliance risk reducing services include:
Background screening and reporting
Labor related compliance management at state and local levels
Handbook and policy management and distribution to employees
A central location for employee onboarding, time and assignment tracking, payroll administration and reporting
Separation of labor cost for each location/company for 280E tax mitigation
All federal, state and local tax filings
Employee access to health insurance
Employee access to banking for payroll direct deposit
Outsourcing to an MSP provides cost savings to the company, including:
More efficient payroll processing and legal compliance
Utilizing WECO to manage the employer of record process allows client companies to look beyond traditional payroll to a full workforce management solution that ensures a smooth payroll and provides the tools that can support the growth and development of a workforce including compliant banking, human resources management and employee services.
About Nicholas Murer
Nicholas Murer formed WECO in 2014 to provide human capital financial services to the legal cannabis industry, offering services like payroll management, workforce management, human resource implementation, accounting solutions, recruiting and staffing. Nick Murer has more than twenty years of professional and technical sales experience working globally in the energy, engineering and scientific industries, including a substantial background in industrial technical sales, account development, marketing, human resources, acquisitions and project management. He studied accounting and business management at the University of Pittsburgh and organization development and human resource management from Colorado State University.
As the cannabis industry experiences a significant shift toward general acceptance and mainstream adoption, new modes of operation are popping up everywhere. The evolution and expansion of the industry beg for constant innovation, and the integration of NFTs and cryptocurrencies as payment options is at the crossroads between tech and cannabis.
Crypto and NFTs have grown in popularity in recent years. Non-fungible tokens are an interesting asset in the art and collectibles world, while cryptocurrency has made a name for itself by providing a unique kind of financial independence. More and more payment processors are embracing these new payment methods, and the cannabis industry is also slowly welcoming them.
In order to fully understand the cannabis-crypto connection, Swaroop Suri, founder of Melee Dose, a cannabis brand that’s been embracing NFTs and crypto as payment options, shared some insights. Their innovative approach to creating unique cannabis experiences with technology and creative branding makes them a pioneer of this movement.
What’s Happening with Cannabis and NFTs?
NFTs and cryptocurrency are exciting developments in an industry that carries the reputation for having a rocky relationship with the banking industry. The legal gray area surrounding the connection between cannabis businesses and the banking industry has given way to an onslaught of challenges, with many banks shunning cannabis because of its federally illegal status. While traditional banking can limit cannabis companies’ access to basic financial services, the decentralization that’s characteristic of blockchain opens up many doors.
In recent years, different brands have tested the waters by using cryptocurrencies and NFTs to enhance marketing and offer alternate payment options. While it’s still early in the game, trends are starting to appear.
One of these trends is using NFTs in marketing and branding, creating unique digital assets that can be collected. This gives an air of exclusivity, creates more immersive experiences, and helps forge a brand identity. NFTs are often a great tool to engage with customers and create a sense of community.
Melee Dose recently started integrating NFTs from Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) into product packaging and branding. This has allowed the brand to offer unique experiences, foster community engagement, enhance storytelling and demonstrate adaptability to an ever-changing world.
“This collaboration merges the worlds of fashion, art and technology, providing our customers with exclusive “IRL” products incorporating digital assets and driving brand affinity”, says Swaroop Suri. “By embracing the digital revolution and connecting with the influential BAYC community, we aim to redefine consumer experiences and build lasting relationships with our audience.”
Crypto Payments Aren’t Futuristic Anymore
Payment is another trend to look out for. Cryptocurrencies are becoming more accepted in many big industries, including cannabis. With traditional banks limiting access to banking services, crypto allows cannabis companies to offer decentralized and secure payment options.
Cryptocurrency offers more enhanced privacy than traditional payment methods, which is great for those who want to stay under the radar. Lower transaction fees are another plus, as a decentralized system is more flexible. The speed of crypto payments is also an enticing feature, as payments are usually processed more quickly than traditional payment methods.
So, how are brands accepting crypto as payment? Is it safe? Melee Dose started accepting cryptocurrency payments on their e-commerce store by partnering with Coinbase Payments, a leader in the crypto industry with a strong reputation and ease of integration.
Cryptocurrency may seem perilous to those who don’t know much about it, but siding with the right company can help ease those fears. Addressing concerns about crypto volatility, Suri “opted for a feature provided by Coinbase Payments that allows for immediate conversion of cryptocurrency payments into our local currency, ensuring stable revenue despite market fluctuations.”
By working closely with reliable payment partners like Coinbase Payments and implementing necessary features, companies like his are able to successfully overcome crypto roadblocks, providing customers with increased flexibility and convenience.
The Future of Crypto, NFTs & Cannabis
The future of integration between cannabis, crypto and NFTs is exciting and always on the move, meaning there are opportunities constantly arising and challenges ahead we have yet to tackle. As cannabis legalization continues to evolve, we might expect changes in regulatory frameworks that impact how cryptocurrency is used in the industry. While we can’t say what those changes might be, the fact that NFTs and crypto have become mainstream indicates a clear adoption, as the industry finds ways to integrate them. From blockchain integration and creative marketing to payment options and immersive experiences, they are here to stay.
Swaroop Suri and his team might’ve gotten in on the game early, but they know the future is expansive: “It’s possible that NFTs could become a significant part of cannabis marketing strategies in the future,” He says. “The cannabis industry can use NFTs in various ways, such as tracking crops and using intellectual property to promote products through packaging artwork, which is what our team at Melee Dose has accomplished.”
NFTs won’t stop there. “There is a possibility to use NFTs for establishing VIP programs that offer exclusive discounts and access”, Suri says. “The ownership of an NFT could grant special privileges and perks to customers when shopping with an e-commerce company, fostering a deeper connection with the brand and community and leading to customer loyalty in the long run.” NFTs offer diverse possibilities for cannabis brands to improve their marketing techniques and get creative.
When it comes to crypto payments, brands will surely continue to add crypto as an option in addition to merchant processors. Highly-regulated industries like cannabis can find many benefits in crypto, as experienced by Suri: “Accepting cryptocurrency can mitigate some of these issues by providing an alternative payment option that is not subject to the same restrictions as traditional payment methods.”
The excitement surrounding crypto and NFTs is understandable, and as the cannabis industry introduces new opportunities for those who are at the intersection of these two global forces, companies everywhere are changing their relationship with technology.
There are other brands hopping onto the this train as well. Household cannabis brands and popular companies like Plain Jain, Highland Pharms, American Green and Pharma Hemp are just some of the many that have begun accepting crypto as payment.
As the industry continues to evolve and grow, staying ahead of the curve and embracing technology with critical thinking and environmental consciousness is key. As a new, dynamic and exciting space with as many opportunities as it is filled with challenges to tackle down the road surrounds us, the one thing we know for sure is that this is just the beginning.
As a business owner, insurance is always a must. If you are interested in entering into the cannabis industry or you already have, it’s important to know what to expect when it comes to insuring your cannabis-related business.
That’s why we’ll be exploring what dispensary insurance is, different options for business owners and general advice regarding dispensary and other CRB insurance.
What is Dispensary Insurance?
Insurance for cannabis-related businesses refers to policies that protect the business against risk. This can include dispensaries, cultivation centers and testing labs – all of which require different levels of coverage and liability.
We spoke to Alexander Marenco, an insurance broker from Marenco Insurance, who explained what dispensary owners should know before seeking out insurance. Marenco says it’s similar to shopping for insurance for other businesess. “You need to have full details of the business and location to receive a quote.” He adds. “The applications will ask questions such as location, renovations, or improvements to the location, ownership information, payroll details, and sales or projected annual sales.”
How is Dispensary Insurance Different From Other Forms of Business Insurance?
Because non-hemp-derived cannabis is still considered a schedule one controlled substance under the Controlled Substance Act, cannabis insurance can be more expensive than regular insurance for non-cannabis businesses. Because of the risks associated with being considered a potential retailer of a controlled substance, liability policies and other options can cost a pretty penny.
Additionally, when asking Marenco about how dispensary insurance differs from other brick-and-mortar retail insurance, he says: “With more states increasingly legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana, insurance carriers have started to open risk acceptability. However, since marijuana is still federally illegal, businesses will find it difficult to find multiple quotes from different carriers.”
Types of Insurance Available for Cannabis-Related Businesses
What kind of insurance is available for cannabis-related businesses? Let’s find out.
First off, it’s important to keep in mind that CRBs are at risk for a lot of things: workplace accidents, damage to property, theft, general liability and product liability. Plus, the fact that most dispensaries work on a cash-only business model until the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is approved by Congress, CRBs tend to handle big amounts of cash, further putting them at risk of theft and liability. CRB insurance can be as low as $350 and as high as $7,500 depending on the type of business and policy.
Here are some of the most common types of insurance for CRBs and what they cover:
General liability: third-party claims for bodily injury, property damage and reputational harm.
Commercial property: damage to a business-owned property.
Professional liability: third-party accusations of negligence and mistakes.
Workers’ compensation: employees’ medical bills and lost wages due to injury or illness.
Inland marine: damage or theft of business-owned property in transit.
Crop: costs from damage to seeds and plants.
With so many things to watch out for, insurance for cannabis businesses and dispensaries isn’t cheap. Here, Marenco says what CRB owners can do to keep their premiums as low as possible:
“Premiums are primarily based on sales (actual or projected). After the term expires, the insurance carrier will conduct an audit for the prior term to confirm the information from the application. The audited discrepancy will adjust the next term’s sales figures. Dispensary insurance will typically be placed through an excess & surplus market which do not provide traditional discounts.”
So, in essence, the best thing a dispensary owner can do is be honest about their projections.
Navigating premiums can be a detailed process, as we learned when speaking to Jesse Giffith, an owner of Smokeless CBD and Vape: a chain of retail shops across the twin cities Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota:
“Our shops carry insurance that has been offered with a modified rate for vape retailers. This route was not as straightforward as some traditional retail insurance options, but may offer benefits, and a better fit for coverage than other dispensary insurance options.”
A Growing Number of Dispensaries Across America
With the growing legalization and normalization of adult use, medical and hemp-derived cannabis across the nation, it should come as no surprise that the number of dispensaries across the country grows exponentially.
In 2021, the cannabis market in the U.S. was valued at 10.8 billion dollars, with an expected annual growth of 14.9% annually. This is a sign of what’s to come. Cannabis may be an industry that’s been considered taboo for decades, but the growth shows the growing acceptance of the plant for medical and adult use reasons.
With that growth comes a greater need for insurance providers, opening the door to the possibility that these two industries will grow in tandem. The future may bring a greater variety of options for coverage at cheaper prices. But for the time being, insurance providers remain cautious as the fate of federal and local cannabis laws are still in flux.
Are There Limited Carriers that Issue Dispensary Insurance?
Every CRB needs insurance, just like any other type of establishment, business or company. The issue within the cannabis industry is that there is still a limited insurance market, with insurers willing to provide insurance constantly exiting and entering the market. Plus, the overall capacity and variety of policies that cover different types of risks are limited. Lastly, it can be difficult to use CRB insurance when you read between the lines of the policy. Because cannabis with THC is still federally illegal (excluding hemp-derived cannabis products containing less than 0.3% THC), insurers can negate coverage when a loss or claim occurs.
Because of the complications that may arise even if you do have insurance, Marenco offers some advice for dispensary owners that are searching for the right insurance option for them: “Before shopping for insurance make sure you have all your licenses and are in full compliance with all regulations. Insurance carrier’s requirements from the state. Additionally, consider different coverage options.” He continues. “At a minimum, a business needs general liability insurance. Insurance companies can also consider covering business property including inventory, betterments, and improvements to a rented space, among others. When shopping for insurance make sure your agent reviews different coverage options.”
Have you ever been to the DMV, only to be turned away because you didn’t have the countless forms of identification needed? Sometimes it feels like no amount of ID or proof of residence is enough, whether it’s your 2nd grade report card or an electric bill from 25 years ago.
That feeling is what it’s like for anyone working in compliance; regardless of industry. Banks are no different. They need to possess compliance documents such as Consolidated Reports of Condition and Income and other Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) reports that work like the laundry list of documents you need to get a driver’s license or get your car registered.
The same can be said for newly licensed and legal cannabis companies. They often need state and local inspection documents, federal background checks and a list of other documents that make a CVS receipt look minuscule in comparison.
Historically, across all industries, the whole process of gathering and providing these sorts of documents can turn into a bit of a charade. Many companies do the bare minimum to check the compliance box and achieve certifications. Various teams and stakeholders try to skate through the compliance process by providing answers that reflect what they think the enterprise customer wants to see (vs. the reality).
In order to achieve long term growth, financial institutions (FIs) and cannabis companies alike need to start executing compliance plans. FIs are always seeking new growth and revenue opportunities, and cannabis companies are constantly under the scrutiny of regulators. Identifying new solutions that can help companies grow quickly while also maintaining compliance should be an essential part of the roadmap.
Financial Institutions and Cannabis
Many think that financial institutions and cannabis businesses would be on opposite ends of any spectrum. Banking is a mature and established industry, while legal cannabis is a new, fast moving and constantly evolving space. So, on one side, there is a risk averse fiscally conservative and traditional business model, and on the other side is an industry that is outside of the mainstream.
Let’s look at this perception from a different angle though. What is true is that both industries are highly regulated and must comply with the rules placed upon them by regulators; and if their house isn’t in order, the consequences can be disastrous (Read: Massive fines or even losing the ability to operate). CRBs and FIs deal with the security and dual control of inventory, and making sure customers are properly identified and of legal capacity to conduct business. In most cases, both are small businesses within their respective communities.
Moreover, each of the industries are forced to navigate nearly-constant regulatory change, making the act of complying with applicable regulations a moving target. For most of these types of businesses, regulatory compliance is cited as one of the largest (and most expensive) challenges they face in day-to-day operations.
Compliance as Revenue Protection
When financial institutions make the decision to offer services to the cannabis industry, they naturally look at the market opportunity to determine whether the effort associated with the increased compliance obligations outweigh the potential benefits. Traditionally, compliance is viewed as a cost center, but in reality, it’s a revenue protection center. As the old saying goes; “an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.” Compliance is that prevention.
Failing to fully comply and meet regulatory compliance standards can cost organizations billions. Having a trusted system of compliance established should not be looked at as a cost-sucking measure for businesses, when it really is negligible when the cost of getting it wrong is far more substantial. Setting up a truthful and transparent compliance program isn’t just the right thing to do, it also protects revenue.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow, navigating around pain points is becoming increasingly expensive for the companies participating in it, many of whom are still struggling to turn a profit. Specifically, an IDC forecast shows global revenue from GRC solutions growing from $11.3 billion in 2020 to nearly $16.2 billion by 2025. And the average business hires and spends upward of $50,000 to $200,000 on consultants to manage compliance. It’s not uncommon for companies to dedicate five to 10 people working on compliance every week for hours and months on end.
Many in the banking industry are worried about forging into a stigmatized stream of revenue like cannabis, but with the right compliance solutions in place, they can have peace of mind. These solutions guarantee that revenue from cannabis is done legally by analyzing where each dollar came from, and denying those that don’t meet the minimum criteria. Having visibility into cannabis-related business (CRBs) accounts that do the enhanced due diligence is the only way to operate.
By implementing purpose-built compliance management solutions, financial institutions are able to unlock new revenue streams and scale cannabis banking operations. Meaning that as cannabis continues to gain mainstream momentum, and becomes less scrutinized locally and federally, these FIs that take part will be ahead of the curve.
With recent movement towards legalization in the House, cannabis investors are optimistic about the industry’s future. So how can the cannabis market overcome these hurdles and remain highly profitable?
To start with, CRBs must have greater access to accredited financial institutions like banks and credit unions. Owning bank accounts, obtaining credit cards, and applying for small business loans is essential to growth. Providing CRBs with access to proper financial support and compliance control is crucial for the cannabis market to continue to thrive.
Federal legislation such as the SAFE Banking Act is currently thought of to be the silver bullet that will open the floodgates for CRBs and FIs to work together. But in reality, this is a myth, as the SAFE Banking Act will simply make the current compliance rules stricter.
To be a first mover FI in your area, businesses must start by implementing a scalable, verifiable cannabis banking program. The real customers and financial opportunities are out there, and are even greater than what you might have modeled given the growth of the industry. The ability to do this today is real.
2022 brought more change and visibility to the cannabis industry than nearly any year before. Two of five legalization ballot measures passed, bringing the total number of states with legal medical or medical and recreational laws to 39. President Biden issued an executive order pardoning nonviolent offenders and directing a review into rescheduling cannabis. The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act was enacted. Cannabis arose prominently in legislatures across the country, with over 50 federal bills and hundreds of state-level measures introduced.
But as 2022 came to a close, only a handful of actions are being carried into the new year, and the industry faces more hardship and turmoil than it has since the inception of legalization. Legal cannabis retailers and cultivators in markets across the country continue to struggle with onerous regulations and competition from the illicit market, and oversupply in these markets is driving down prices as West Coast growers and manufacturers anxiously await interstate commerce.
Looking ahead to the coming year, industry watchers can anticipate certain issues and legislation: further investigation into cannabis’ classification on the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) from federal agencies, federal cannabis pardons coming to fruition, a follow-up from the Department of Justice’s technical report, and the reintroduction of high-profile federal legislation, like the Cannabis Opportunity Act (CAOA), the States Reform Act, Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act and the Secure and Fair (SAFE) Banking Act.
Below, we recap some of the big moments of 2022 and what to expect in 2023.
A Presidential Pardon for Simple Possession
On Oct. 6, President Biden made a historic announcement to “grant a full, complete, and unconditional pardon to all current United States citizens and lawful permanent residents who committed the offense of simple possession of marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act” and “all current United States citizens and lawful permanent residents who have been convicted of the offense of simple possession of marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act.” His executive order also encouraged governors to follow suit for cases regarding state offenses and requested that the secretary of Health and Human Services and the attorney general “expeditiously” review how cannabis is scheduled under federal law.
The president’s strategic plan attempts to at least partly address some of the adverse impacts of the United States’ war on drugs on certain populations like low-income and Black and Latinx Americans. While an admirable and important effort, certain portions of his executive order will take much longer than others to yield tangible impact. A federal pardoning can take anywhere between two to five years, and the laws and duration of state-level pardoning vary—depending on the state and its governing practices. Additionally, since governors are not required to pardon individuals following the president’s executive order, some convicted persons may never see or be able to seek justice. And the most uncertain timeline relates to the review of cannabis’ classification on the CSA. Rescheduling or descheduling a substance under the CSA can be tedious and grueling, and, as seen with other substances, the process can range from four to ten years. However, the exercise is ongoing, and although results may not be shared in time for the 118th Congress, it is to be expected that the issue will be discussed at length in 2023 and beyond.
When it comes to legislation, there is no question that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) will reintroduce the CAOA in 2023. The comprehensive legislation aims to decriminalize cannabis by removing the drug from the CSA and tackles issues related to research, public safety, restorative justice and equity, taxation and regulation, public health and industry practices.
2. States Reform Act.
Another piece of legislation we anticipate seeing in the 118th Congress is Rep. Nancy Mace’s (R-SC) States Reform Act. Coming from a state without any cannabis laws, the freshman congresswoman introduced a measure that would federally decriminalize cannabis by fully deferring to state powers over prohibition and commercial regulation and regulate cannabis products like alcohol. In 2022, the bill received positive feedback from the industry and dominated the discussions during the Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms congressional hearing. With its bold cannabis sponsor, who will now serve as the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties chair, the States Reform Act will undoubtedly take center stage in 2023.
3. MORE Act.
Sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the MORE Act will also be reintroduced in 2023; however, it remains to be seen how much attention the bill will receive. The MORE Act aims to decriminalize cannabis by removing the drug from the CSA and eliminating criminal penalties for anyone who manufactures, distributes or possesses cannabis. In the 117th Congress, Rep. Nadler served as the chair to the House Judiciary Committee and was able to advance his measure through the chamber with ease. But since the House majority has flipped, and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) is likely to serve as the chair, getting the MORE Act to the floor for a vote may be challenging—especially given Rep. Jordan’s opposition to the cannabis sector.
4. HOPE Act.
The HOPE Act often flies under the radar, but this Republican-sponsored bill made headlines during the 117th Congress. Sponsored by Co-Chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus (CCC), Rep. Dave Joyce (OH), the bipartisan legislation aims to help states with expunging cannabis offenses by reducing the financial and administrative burden of such efforts through federal grants. Although it was not considered in the House, the language of the bill was heavily debated by the Senate, particularly toward the end of the year when the chamber was negotiating the final text for end-of-year must-pass packages, like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Omnibus and the Continuing Resolution (CR). Alongside the SAFE Banking Act, the HOPE Act was one of the only cannabis bills that had a realistic chance of advancing as part of a larger legislative vehicle, so there is no question that the congressman will reintroduce the measure in the upcoming congressional session.
5. SAFE Banking Act.
And last, but certainly not least, is the most discussed cannabis bill this year: the SAFE Banking Act. The legislation aims to create a safe harbor for financial institutions to provide traditional banking services to cannabis businesses in states that have legalized the drug. It also allows cannabis businesses to access lines of credit, loans and wealth management. It has now passed in the House seven times, with bipartisan support. And although the SAFE Banking Act was debated by the House several times throughout the year, the Senate did not tackle the bill until November. By the time discussions for the bill’s language had taken off, Sen. Booker remained firm that he would only support a cannabis bill if it included criminal justice and social equity reform language. In an attempt to satisfy the senator’s demands, Majority Leader Schumer considered marrying the SAFE Banking Act and the HOPE Act as part of a larger package.
However, and much to the cannabis industry’s detriment, not only was the timeline for those bills a little too late, but Democrats were, unfortunately, unable to fix the money laundering and cash legacy concerns of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and other Republicans.
After attempting to attach the SAFE Banking Act to multiple vehicles, retiring Congressman Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the legislation, and Sen. Schumer were unsuccessful in getting the bill over the finish line. In a final Hail Mary, Sen. Schumer attempted to include the language to the Omnibus, but compounded with the technical assistance report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and ongoing media flurry, he and the Democratic party yet again came up empty-handed.
The question now is: who will carry the SAFE Banking Act and Rep. Perlmutter’s legacy in 2023? Many will look toward cannabis industry champions like Reps. Joyce, Mace, Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Brian Mast (R-FL). However, it would be worth considering other members of the CCC and some of the incoming freshmen, particularly those from a state with legal cannabis laws. It is also entirely possible that Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) finds his own sponsor to carry his companion bill in the House since he has already announced that he looks forward to working on the legislation in the upcoming year. Regardless, it is highly likely that the SAFE Banking Act will be reintroduced in 2023 and considered throughout the year.
6. Other Measures
Other measures that are likely to reappear in 2023 are the Capital Lending and Investment for Marijuana Businesses (CLIMB) Act, Veterans Equal Access Act, the GRAM Act, Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses and Medical Professionals Act, VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act and the Homegrown Act. Additionally, the passage of the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act and the advancement of many of these federal bills have opened the gates for new legislation related to medical and recreational cannabis, research, veterans’ access, financial services, criminal justice reform and social equity, and public health and safety to emerge.
For states with legal cannabis laws, bills related to enhancing the state’s medical or medical and recreational programs, preventing industry oversaturation and price gouging, expanding licensing opportunities, criminal justice reform, youth and advertising protections and impaired driving are likely to be introduced. States where cannabis ballot measures failed will likely see those measures resurface.
The continued growth of legalization across the country is all but inevitable. In the nearer term, the industry will focus on how to remain viable in the face of high taxes and oversupply in 2023. New Congressional leadership could lead to bipartisan cannabis legalization if enough members are willing to rally behind their colleagues who are pushing for cannabis legislation. While the road is long before we will see the full impact from President Biden’s Oct. 6 announcement, the action proves those in power cannot ignore the ever-growing numbers of Americans across party lines and demographics who agree that cannabis use should be legal and regulated.
As the former CEO of Partner Colorado Credit Union (PCCU), Sundie Seefried has been in the credit union space for 39 years. Established in 2015, Safe Harbor Financial is now a leading provider for banking and financial services in the cannabis industry.
Seefried founded Safe Harbor as a cannabis banking program for PCCU, and since then it has withstood scrutiny of 16 separate federal and state exams. Entering its ninth year as a cannabis banking program, they have almost 600 accounts in 20 states and have processed over $14 billion in transactions for the cannabis market. In September, Safe Harbor began trading on Nasdaq under the symbol SHFS. The company has also announced a definitive agreement to acquire Abaca, an industry-leading cannabis financial technology platform.
Seefried has seen it all in the cannabis banking world. We wanted to get her thoughts on some current events, the future of cannabis banking and lending, and what the next few years might hold in store for an industry ready to grow.
Cannabis Industry Journal:Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background and how did you find yourself in the cannabis industry? How did you get to become president and CEO of SHF?
Sundie Seefried: I’ve been in banking in the credit union space since 1983. I became CEO of Partner Colorado Credit Union in 2001 and stayed there for 21 years. Everything I do, I have a very conservative nature just from being in the banking world and doing things methodically and building good foundations that endure long term. In 2014 when FinCen issued guidance, I was supposed to retire, and I had dinner with some old friends that were attorneys who couldn’t get bank accounts for their clients in the cannabis industry. They asked me to help and I looked into it for them. I assumed the regulator would shut me down but he didn’t; he actually encouraged me to move forward and look further into things. As I educated the board, we saw just how unsafe Colorado was and the serious need for the community to figure things out with respect to banking and cannabis. Coming from that credit union perspective, I said I think we can do this, let’s try and I’ll go through the third parties necessary. And that’s how we got into this, just looking to try and help solve Colorado’s problems and get banking access for cannabis companies.
CIJ: Tell me about your company’s mission. What is your financing strategy in cannabis and of the companies you do business with, what do you look for most?
Seefried: Our mission remains the same, and that is to normalize banking in the cannabis industry as much as possible. Because the black market still exists, the issue becomes sorting the legal entities out from the illicit actors in the industry. We know that the illicit market is trying to hide amongst the legal environment, which really makes things difficult for upstanding cannabis businesses. We can normalize banking by making sure we help legitimize the compliant entities and sort out the bad actors. We really only want to work with legitimate players with licenses, who are fulfilling expectations on the regulatory level and have no problems with compliance. We have been able to do that on the depository side.
We have always been a low-cost provider and our clients count on that. As we move into the lending part of the industry, we’re looking to do the same thing. There are lenders who charge one-to-three percent per month, 18 to 36 percent per year. We, on the other hand, are targeting more of an eight to thirteen percent annual rate. More of a conservative approach. Real debt underwriting. No extremely high interest rates. We look for the collateral, we look for well-organized businesses and solid documentation. Those are the businesses we are trying to bring into the fold and offer them normal loans. Cannabis will always have a premium on it simply because it is illegal at the federal level and there are additional hoops we have to jump through. Because of the potential forfeiture and seizure, if there are bad actors, etc., it really behooves any clients coming to us to also place their depositary services with us so we can prove their legitimacy and provide loans to them.
CIJ: Let’s talk about the Canopy Growth news. They announced they are pulling the trigger on acquiring Wana Brands, Acreage Holdings and Jetty Extracts, under the Canopy USA holding company and ahead of federal legalization. On the surface, it looks like they are bypassing a lot of the hurdles American cannabis companies currently face with financial red tape. As a foreign company trading on the NASDAQ dealing with a schedule 1 substance, do you expect Canopy to have a significant, some would say unfair, competitive advantage with their early entry? Or is this perhaps more of a rising tide lifting all boats scenario? What effect will this have on the current market landscape?
Seefried: I find it a very interesting move on their part. Certainly, they have a big advantage in comparison to other companies. The consolidation in the industry is moving so quickly. Other players will keep up with this just as fast as Canopy is moving in. That’s my opinion in terms of what I see in the consolidation area of the market. I think what it really hurts is small businesses. My heart goes out to them. So many of them worked so many years to build excellent small companies with boutique shops, and this whole move will really change that part of the industry.
I see a lot of these small players, non-vertically integrated companies, being impacted in a negative way due to such mass consolidation and the entry of foreign businesses. We need to get more competitive on a global level in order for our companies to grow and thrive. This happened back in 2018, when so many companies started doing those reverse takeovers onto the Canadian Securities Exchange and suddenly, they were putting tens of millions of dollars into the U.S. market. People didn’t see that as a competitive disadvantage for American companies, but now this move by Canopy may really show that we have to look at things more globally.
CIJ: Biden’s announcement regarding the scheduling review for cannabis has a lot of industry folks very hopeful that federal legalization is closer to a reality than before. Do you share their optimism?
Seefried: Closer than before, yes. But how close? I am not convinced it will happen quickly. If they are really going to consider rescheduling or descheduling, everything happens in Washington very incrementally. Eight years and seven attempts at the SAFE Banking legislation and still no movement on that front. Tomorrow, we’re going straight to legalization? I have a hard time swallowing that one. I just don’t see that big of a jump all at once. I think it is interesting coming just before the midterms and votes are really needed now more than ever.
What Biden did was a great start. Especially for those people in prison for possession. The interesting part of it is, we are very serious about people who have used it, but the people who have sold it and are in prison might be in the same situation. Given how the laws worked for so long, just based on the amount of cannabis you had could get you automatically labeled as a dealer, which isn’t the case for a lot of incarcerated folks.
The fact is, the social equity and justice issue, who do you free or who do you not free from prison, is a very difficult issue to get through. I think it is a great step forward and it will help some people who were treated unjustly, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I believe we’ll start seeing pressure from the global market on the United States to move things along a little faster in our own country.”As far as rescheduling, if they go from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug, that will do no good, but it certainly is a bone to throw to the industry if you want to look like you are making some progress. Schedule II is still subject to 280E tax code so it will only do so much. If they want to make things more equitable and actually level the playing field, they have to do something about the 280E issue hindering every cannabis business in the country.
As far as full legalization, I am not optimistic because of all the players that need to be involved. Full legalization will require a change to the IRS tax code 280E as well as other tax issues. I think there are too many players: The DOJ, FinCen, the DEA, the FDA, the IRS. All of these agencies will have to agree on full legalization and moving forward in unison. The DEA is trying to fight illicit actors and illicit drugs. FinCen is trying to follow the money to find illicit actors. As long as there is an illicit market it will make their job tough, and on top of all of that, we have politics in play. That is just my take on legalization. It is going to be a much more complex problem than just legalizing the plant and moving on. Rescheduling seems like lower hanging fruit, but they will have to move it higher than a Schedule II.
CIJ: With the midterm elections here, there are a number of legalization measures in a handful of states, along with political control of Congress on the ballot. How do you think a Republican or Democrat controlled Congress will affect cannabis legalization progress?
Seefried: I just finished doing some lobbying in September in DC and spoke to some Senator offices in person, and I heard a lot of interesting topics being discussed. One of the things that keeps popping up is that social equity and justice is a huge issue. If we can’t solve this injustice in our system that has been going on for decades and decades, maybe they’ll hold banking legislation hostage. You can’t correct 50-60 years with one piece of legislation. Everything has to be incremental, unfortunately, so there will be some give and take there. I think that was a primary focus, especially with the Democrats and I do think it is a worthy cause.
On the Republican side, economically improving our competitive advantage as a country. They are starting to see the jobs being created and the tax revenue coming in and the growth of the industry. They will have to make that decision at some point in time whether they are going to leave the American cannabis industry behind or allow them to compete on a global level. I really think everything will move slowly and continue as it has happened in the past.
I believe we’ll start seeing pressure from the global market on the United States to move things along a little faster in our own country.
CIJ: As we inch closer to 2023, what do you expect the next year to offer for the cannabis financing market?
Seefried: I would say, with or without legislation, they’re finding greater access to banking. And the reason they are getting better access to banking is because none of us have been prosecuted for simply engaging in cannabis banking. I think we have set a precedent over the past eight years, not only us but other service providers in the industry and that we are not being prosecuted.
I see more financial institutions entering the market slowly. The second reason access to capital and banking will increase is because every financial institution in the country wants that lending relationship. In order to get there, they want to start with the depository relationship, and they don’t want smaller players presently doing it and getting all of those relationships before they enter the market. I think the competitive nature of the financial industry to land that lending relationship is going to force them into the game sooner than later.
Despite the US making cannabis regulations challenging to navigate, the industry is snowballing toward profitability. New Jersey legalized adult use cannabis on April 21 this year. One month earlier, The Garden State began accepting applications for Class 5: Retailers, Dispensing and Delivery.
Regardless of what kind of retailer you operate —medical or adult use — it’s critical to know what you’re up against. The following are the most common risks we’ve watched cannabis retailers face daily in New Jersey, making a customized risk management strategy necessary.
Like other retailers, New Jersey cannabis retailers are vulnerable to theft. Unfortunately, theft can come from various angles, such as in-store, in-transit and insider crime. Besides cannabis retailers typically having a well-stocked inventory, it’s not uncommon for them to have more cash on hand than most other businesses.
Although the SAFE Banking Act could positively impact the cannabis industry, it’s in a notorious stall yet again. Briefly, the SAFE Banking Act would no longer allow financial institutions, such as banks and credit card companies, to refuse to do business with cannabis companies. However, cannabis retailers must operate in a cash-only environment, for now, forcing them to make bank runs multiple times a day. We probably don’t have to explain how enticing a significant inventory and fat bank bags look to criminals.
Since the onset of the global health crisis, the cyber liability landscape has nearly spun into a death spiral. In other words, cybercriminals sat on the edge of their seats during the pandemic, waiting to pounce on anything that looked slightly vulnerable. Remote workers, small businesses, and emerging industries were hard-hit.
It’s no surprise that New Jersey cannabis retailers face many cybersecurity risks through their point of sale (POS) systems. Additionally, retailers often gather and store personal information, such as email addresses, credit card numbers, shipping addresses, etc. Hackers and cybercriminals gravitate to this vital data rapidly.
In addition to the risk of theft, as mentioned above, cannabis retailers must protect their property from losses. Without adequate protection, damage to equipment or buildings could add up to high out-of-pocket costs. Consider the damage a weekend office fire or late-night vandalism would cause. If property damage occurs, retailers must figure out how to sustain business operations while recovering from the loss simultaneously. As a result, New Jersey retailers must protect their property and maintain business continuity.
How to Customize a Risk Management Strategy
Watch or listen to any news reports and there’s a decent chance that you’ll feel some slight sense of doom and gloom. And sure, a lot is going wrong in our world; however, that doesn’t need to impact how you perceive your businesses. Instead of casting a massive net over every possible risk that you can imagine, we recommend trying the following 5-step approach. Here’s the gist:
Identify: Pinpoint high-level risks that are specific to the cannabis industry. Then, let the process trickle down to focus on company-specific exposures.
Analyze: Determine how badly a particular risk could harm your retail company. How much will this hurt should the “what-ifs” play out?
Evaluate: Categorize risks according to how risk tolerant your company is. Will you avoid, transfer, mitigate or accept the risk?
Track: Use your history or the stats from a similar retailer to map out how you’ve handled the risk over time. Older retailers have an advantage over younger retailers, of course, but you can still get a feel for your risk management style.
Treat: Make good on your evaluation promises by avoiding, transferring, mitigating, or accepting the various risks you identified.
Recommended Insurance for New Jersey Retailers
The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission issued detailed requirements for new cannabis businesses. That said, part of the application requirements considered is the plan for companies to obtain liability insurance. Many new retailers opted for a “letter of commitment” as opposed to a certificate of insurance (COI), stating their plans for obtaining the following coverages:
Commercial general liability: Protects cannabis companies against basic business risks.
Product liability: Protects against claims alleging your product or service caused injury or damage.
Property: Reimburses cannabis companies for direct property losses.
Workers’ compensation: Covers employees if they are injured on the job and can no longer work.
In addition to the required insurance coverages, we recommend New Jersey retailers customize their risk management package with these policies:
Crime: Protects your cannabis company against specific money theft crimes.
Cyber: Protects your cannabis company against damages from specific electronic activities.
Directors & officers: Protects corporate directors’ and officers’ personal assets if they are sued.
Employment practices liability: Protects cannabis companies against employment-related lawsuits.
Professional liability: Protects cannabis companies against lawsuits of inferior work or service.
With more states in the US entering the marketplace soon, New Jersey is doing its fair share of the heavy lifting by spearheading the onboarding process. Remember, doing your due diligence at the start pays off in the long run — New Jersey retailers are proving that. Consider teaming with a commercial insurance broker calibrated to the cannabis industry, so you get the most out of your broker, marketplace and the cannabis industry as a whole.
Like this article and want to see more? Subscribe to our free newsletter here The cannabis industry could receive a significant boost if the recently introduced Capital Lending and Investment for Marijuana Businesses (CLIMB) Act passes Congress. The bipartisan bill was introduced by Rep. Troy A. Carter, Sr., a Democrat from Louisiana, and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania. It is intended to boost the cannabis industry by creating greater access to capital, banking insurance and other business services. Unlike the SAFE Banking Act (which specifically addresses banking services for the cannabis industry), the CLIMB Act was introduced “to permit access to community development, small business, minority development and any other public or private financial capital sources for investment in and financing or cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
Currently, the cannabis industry faces a serious dilemma with regard to accessing not only traditional banking services, but also essential capital and financing sources. The latest member of the cannabis bill alphabet soup attempts to remedy this by addressing two key issues.
First, the CLIMB Act would permit access to key “business assistance” programs from various financial institutions by prohibiting any federal agency from bringing any civil, criminal, regulatory or administrative actions against a business or a person simply because they provide “business assistance” to a cannabis state-legal company. The CLIMB Act defines “business assistance” broadly to include, among other things, management consulting work, accounting, real estate services, insurance or surety products, advertising, IT and other communication services, debt or equity capital services, banking or credit card services and other financial services.
This provision of the CLIMB Act would immediately create more access to traditional insurance, lending and credit. This broad protection would not only apply to private entities providing “business assistance,” but arguably means that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) could not be penalized by Congress or another government agency for providing loans to state-legal cannabis companies. Moreover, currently the cannabis industry does not have access to use credit cards, as major credit card companies refuse to permit such transactions. The CLIMB Act could pave the way for major credit card providers to begin permitting cannabis transactions. Permitting the use of major credit cards like American Express, Mastercard and Visa could result in an increase in sales for cannabis retailers.
The second, and possibly the most important, aspect of the CLIMB Act is that it would amend the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 to create a “safe harbor” for national securities exchanges like Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to list cannabis companies and would permit the trading of these cannabis businesses stock. Currently, plant-touching cannabis companies with operations in the U.S. can only be listed on a Canadian-based exchange and can also only be traded in the U.S. via the over-the-counter (OTC) markets. Trading securities on the OTC markets does not provide the same level of security as securities traded on a national exchange like Nasdaq or NYSE. Specifically, the CLIMB Act delineates that the federal illegality of cannabis is not a bar to listing or trading of securities for legitimate cannabis-related businesses.
This provision of the CLIMB Act has two immediate effects. First, the CLIMB Act would allow for U.S. cannabis companies currently listed in Canada to list on the Nasdaq or NYSE. Second, this provision would allow more traditional, “blue-chip” industry companies currently listed on Nasdaq or the NYSE who haven’t been able to operate within the cannabis industry as a plant-touching entity, to enter the cannabis industry as an active participant.
In announcing the CLIMB Act, Representative Reschenthaler stated that “American cannabis companies are currently restricted from receiving traditional lending and financing, making it difficult to compete with larger, global competitors. The CLIMB Act will eliminate these barriers to entry, and provide state-legal American cannabis companies, including small, minority, and veteran-owned businesses, with access to the financial tools necessary for success.”
It is important to note that the CLIMB Act, like the SAFE Banking Act, only represents one small, but important step toward cannabis reforms. Neither proposal would legalize, de-schedule or reschedule cannabis. Rather, the CLIMB Act addresses very real-world, operational issues facing the cannabis industry. With that in mind, the CLIMB Act would certainly provide much needed clarity for issues facing all cannabis companies.
Passage of the CLIMB Act is not a forgone conclusion, but rather is quite uncertain. Other pieces of cannabis-related legislation, like the SAFE Banking Act, have passed the House of Representatives multiple times without the U.S. Senate taking any action. Moreover, the CLIMB Act was introduced with only two legislative supporters.
By Tamara L. Kolb, Amy Bean, Caitlin Strelioff No Comments
As the legal cannabis market expands, banks and nonbank financial institutions (NBFIs) across the United States continue to explore how to safely provide banking and other financial services to cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) and other CRB ecosystem players. At the same time, these organizations are taking into account changes they might need to consider relative to their Bank Secrecy Act ( BSA), anti-money laundering (AML) and related compliance programs.
Under the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 (MLCA) and the BSA as amended, covered banks and NBFIs are prohibited from providing financial services to businesses that are engaged in illicit activities. Because federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of cannabis, financial transactions involving CRBs are therefore deemed to be transactions that involve funds derived from illegal activities.
As of Feb. 3, 2022, 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for adult use. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and four territories have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical and cannabis programs. Eleven states allow for the use of low-THC, high-CBD substances for medical reasons in limited situations or as a legal defense.
The growing divide between federal prohibition and state legalization of the cannabis industry creates a precarious position for federally regulated banks and NBFIs with the main concern involving exposure to legal, operational and regulatory risk. The situation begs the question: How might the federal government and regulators pursue and prosecute players in the legal cannabis industry?
The current economic trajectory predicts that retail sales of legal cannabis products in the U.S. will surpass an estimated $41.5 billion annually by 2025, and many banks and NBFIs are eagerly awaiting the federal green light to do business with CRBs without fear of prosecution or legal ramifications.
From 2018 forward, Congress has made several attempts to pass legislation that would protect CRBs when cultivating, distributing, marketing, and selling cannabis products in their state-legalized form. These efforts to declassify cannabis-related activity as a specified unlawful activity have thus far been unsuccessful.
Passage of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2021 (SAFE Banking Act) and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act) would enable banks and NBFIs to provide financial services to CRBs. The SAFE Banking Act would provide a safe harbor for banks and NBFIs that provide financial services to CRBs. The MORE Act would deschedule cannabis from the CSA entirely.
Questions to ask
Banks and NBFIs interested in providing financial services to CRBs should ask these questions:
Do we adequately understand our risk, and what are the implications for our organization? How should we augment our risk assessment process and our controls?
To what extent are we willing to accept the risk of banking CRBs? Do we have the ability to identify CRB customers, and if so, do we have any?
How should we advise the board of directors about setting risk appetite?
What customer due diligence (CDD) and enhanced due diligence (EDD) will we need to safely continue with existing customers and onboard new ones?
How will we monitor for unusual and suspicious activity? What will be the alerting and judgmental criteria?
How will our resource needs change so that we stay abreast of new processes and controls?
Risk appetite considerations
In order to determine whether to accept or prohibit CRBs, banks and NBFIs should identify the level of acceptable risk they are willing to take on. Several key components need to be considered, such as:
The board of directors’ stance on legal cannabis, given that good governance recommends and regulators expect that the board sets risk appetite
Cannabis laws in states within the customer footprint and the impact on customers’ communities
Risk profile, customer base, geographic location, products, and services
Relationship with regulators and any recent deficiencies or weaknesses in the BSA and associated compliance programs
Ability to implement appropriate controls and staffing
Developing a strategic road map
If the decision is made to bank CRBs, banks and NBFIs should perform an assessment of compliance maturity for existing BSA/AML program processes and controls to identify potential gaps and develop a strategic road map that helps the organization achieve its vision for future state compliance and sustainable operations.
A well-developed and well-articulated strategic road map visualizes what actions or key outcomes are needed to help organizations achieve their long-term goals. When creating the road map, banks and NBFIs need to demonstrate a keen understanding of their desired strategy, outcomes, markets, and products for onboarding and banking CRB customers. Specifically, banks and NBFIs need to define and explain how desired outcomes and business strategies create risk and exposure.
In addition to a road map, banks and NBFIs should develop and document a detailed risk-based approach that is aligned to the organization’s risk tolerance to determine necessary compliance steps when banking CRB customers.
Specifically, the following activities should be considered when developing a CRB banking program that meets regulatory expectations:
Identifying BSA/AML control gaps related to CRB risk identification and mitigation and formulating a plan to address them
Updating a board-approved policy framework
Updating detailed operating policies and procedures
Planning for capacity, developing job descriptions, and onboarding new personnel
Training for all three lines of defense, senior management, and the board
Developing and documenting a phased or full approach to acceptance of CRB customers
Developing and documenting a CRB program oversight policy
This framework is intended to help banks and NBFIs differentiate types of CRBs and their corresponding risks, and it separates CRBs into three tiers and details risks for each tier. The following exhibit summarizes the approach:
Risk framework by tier
Indirect with substantial revenue from Tier 1
Indirect with incidental revenue from Tier 1
Source: CRB Monitor
Even the most conservative of risk appetites equivalent to outright prohibition is not devoid of significant risk considerations. Residual risk frequently encompasses a large number of indirect connections in the total CRB ecosystem. Common examples are printers, lawyers, accountants, landlords, and even utilities and taxing authorities, and all of these are subject to regulatory scrutiny and, importantly, visibility to law enforcement. Also, policies to prohibit or restrict will be audited and examined for compliance, and exceptions will require explanations.
This panorama necessitates expertise and prudence in identifying and evaluating risks within the many layers of CRBs. For example, consider a bank or NBFI that banks a CRB’s employee or vendor. If a bank fails to properly implement controls that would allow it to identify and mitigate risk associated with banking CRBs, it will be susceptible to severe violations of the BSA, including civil money penalties, criminal penalties, and regulatory enforcement actions.
Implementing necessary precautions
A well-developed road map should consider and implement the following activities:
Understanding the most current state and federal cannabis laws and regulations to ensure the bank or NBFI’s compliance
Understanding the local, state, or tribal program to ensure CRB customers are compliant with the program
Implementing a CRB risk assessment
Implementing executive approval practices for direct CRBs
Developing adequate risk ratings (possibly through a risk-based, tiered approach) and corresponding monitoring for CRB customers that includes:
Integrating various customer onboarding and AML solutions at both onboarding and periodic levels
Scheduling regular reviews to include recurring enhanced due diligence, site visits, and transaction monitoring
Performing adequate CDD and EDD that will validate that the CRB-offered products, services, and programs are compliant with most current state laws and regulations by:
Collecting appropriate documentation as evidence of compliance, perhaps including a comprehensive onboarding questionnaire, beneficial ownership information, and contracts for the growing, harvesting, transporting and processing of the product
Reviewing applications and supporting documentation used to obtain a legal cannabis state license
Understanding the normal and expected activity of the organization’s CRB customers and their product usage
Developing adequate training programs and governance and oversight programs to address this customer type by:
Updating existing policies and procedures to review inherent risk presented by banking CRB customers
Updating annual training for employees
Auditing initial program design and periodic operational effectiveness
Moving forward cautiously
The ins, outs, and unknowns of cannabis banking are complex, and they require banks and NBFIs to be extremely vigilant with current policy and aware of new developments. Overall, the idea of creating a cannabis program might seem like a daunting task, but with appropriate guidance and care, organizations can provide services in compliance with laws and regulations.
Crowe disclaimer: Qualified organizations only. Independence and regulatory restrictions may apply. Some firm services may not be available to all clients. Given the continued evolution and inconsistency of various state and federal cannabis-related laws, any company should seek competent legal advice relating to its involvement in the cannabis industry, including when considering a potential public offering as a cannabis-related company.
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