More on marijuana-banking conflict

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DEAR SUN SPOTS: Your response about why Northeast Bank asked about marijuana made it appear that users, caregivers and marijuana businesses were being victimized by banks (Oct. 6). That is not accurate or fair, although Northeast’s response did not discuss the issue much as opposed to point Sun Spots to sources of information.

The reality is that banking is as heavily regulated as health care, and it is under particular scrutiny when it comes to drugs that are illegal. Having any part of a business or conduct that violates the federal Controlled Substance Act could subject a bank to felony charges — and remember anti-money laundering laws as well that control any movement of money through a bank that could have been associated with illegal activity.

A bank has to know what money is coming from and going to in many circumstances, because they may be legally required to report it (among other things, there are suspicious activity reports that may be required).

Because this is such an uncertain area for banks with respect to all their regulators, some won’t touch marijuana-related accounts at all. Others may try to follow guidances issued by the federal government on how a bank can service such accounts in compliance with the Bank Security Act, and that requires, among other things, asking a lot of questions, verifying with state authorities, developing a description of the normal pattern of legal activity in the area, and ongoing monitoring.

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Those banks may otherwise face an accusation of aiding and abetting a violation of federal law from a federal bank auditor at exam time. In short, Northeast sounds like it is trying to navigate the uncertain area of the law regarding marijuana and banking and is trying to comply with federal banking law.

By way of disclosure, we do not represent Northeast and do in fact represent some of its competitors in banking. I just went to a Bank Security Act conference that included this very issue and am happy to share more of this information if someone wants to learn more about the regulation at play here. — Rebecca S. Webber, Esquire, Skelton, Taintor & Abbott, Auburn, rwebber@sta-law.com

ANSWER: Sun Spots reviewed her answer and doesn’t see any victimization, just a lot of confusion between state and federal laws.

The attachment you sent (and which is referred to in the next letter) supplies similar information about the risks to banks that Northeast provided Sun Spots. That information did not help Sun Spots understand why someone who cares for a patient using medical marijuana is breaking the law and should be denied a bank account.

However, the next letter writer may have cleared up that mystery if not solved the basic dilemma of contrarian laws. He uses “caregiver” to identify those who raise marijuana plants for up to five patients, rather than as someone who is nursing someone who is ill, which is what Sun Spots (and perhaps Baffled) thought.

DEAR SUN SPOTS: The issue raised by Baffled is valid and real for many of us caught between state and federal law in the medical cannabis field. I have had my personal and business bank accounts closed on three occasions since we founded Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn, a Department of Health and Human Services-licensed medical cannabis dispensary, as have other medical cannabis dispensaries in Maine and caregivers who grow for up to five patients each.

The banks that closed accounts of legitimate state-regulated medical cannabis business are not concerned with individuals who use medical cannabis, it seems to me, but rather with those commercial accounts of caregivers or dispensaries.

However, the federal government has issued a policy on Feb. 14 for banks to serve us (http://tinyurl.com/ovcqh84).

The U.S. Department of Justice notes that the Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued guidance for banks to code our deposits a certain way as long as we are following eight enforcement guidelines. These guidelines prevent distribution of marijuana to minors, criminal enterprises, other states, among other things.

Baffled need not fear the closing of bank accounts, but if they rely on medical cannabis, their dispensary or caregiver may indeed have already faced or will suffer the troubles I endured each time my personal and business accounts have been closed. — Tim Smale, president of Maine Association of Dispensary Operators and executive director of Remedy Compassion Center, Auburn

This column is for you, our readers. It is for your questions and comments. There are only two rules: You must write to the column and sign your name (we won’t use it if you ask us not to). Please include your phone number. Letters will not be returned or answered by mail, and telephone calls will not be accepted. Your letters will appear as quickly as space allows. Address them to Sun Spots, P.O. Box 4400, Lewiston, ME 04243-4400. Inquiries can also be emailed to sunspots@sunjournal.com.

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