DENVER (AP) — Colorado’s cannabis industry has had a chief request since marijuana was legalized: Give us access to banks.

it turns out that hundreds of the state’s pot businesses are already
working with financial institutions under the close watch of federal
regulators, even though marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
As many as 35 banks and credit unions offer services to the industry
that has made $6.5 billion in sales in Colorado since 2014, according to
the Colorado Bankers Association.

Most financial institutions are
secretive about their business relationships with companies that grow
and sell marijuana legally, limiting the number of customers they will
take on and asking their clients to sign nondisclosure agreements, said
Amanda Averch, a spokeswoman for the bankers association.

“They’re serving this business, effectively, anonymously,” she said.

that passed the U.S. House with broad bipartisan support last week, and
championed by Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, aims to
bring marijuana banking into the mainstream, providing permanent federal
protections for financial institutions that choose to work with the pot

Cannabis business now are almost exclusively cash
enterprises. The so-called SAFE Banking Act would allow them to accept
credit cards from customers and apply for and receive loans. It also
could make the cannabis banking market more competitive, potentially
driving down the higher fees marijuana businesses now are charged.

“There are a couple institutions doing a lot, but not a lot of institutions doing much,” Perlmutter, of Arvada, told The Colorado Sun on Monday.

how things work now: Banks that want to work with legal marijuana
businesses and meet regulatory compliance do so under guidance provided
in 2014 by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes and
Enforcement Network.

What the guidance doesn’t do is shield banks
from criminal liability. Since marijuana is still illegal on the federal
level, they are technically laundering any money deposited by pot

If the guidance was rescinded, the bank or credit
union could be subject to fines. “If the guidance was revoked, just like
the Cole Memo was revoked, there would be nothing,” Perlmutter said.
“Part of the purpose of the legislation is to put it into place, into
law, so it can’t be revoked from one administration to the other.”

Seefried, CEO and president of Partner Colorado Credit Union and a
pioneer in marijuana banking, has been working with legal cannabis
businesses since January 2015. The credit union now has about 400
clients in the industry, including companies that grow and sell
cannabis, as well as ancillary-service providers.

She has been
training other financial institutions to follow her lead and says she
knows of 12 to 15 in Colorado that are already working with legal pot

The Colorado Bankers Association’s estimate of up to
35 financial institutions serving the marijuana industry is based on
conversations with banks and credit unions, but the number fluctuates.

Financial Crimes and Enforcement Network declined to comment for this
story and said that it doesn’t track how many financial institutions are
working with the marijuana industry in each state. The Colorado
Department of Regulatory Agencies also said it doesn’t track the number.

are working with the legal marijuana industry in other states, as well,
said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry
Association in Washington, D.C. But he says the costs to pot businesses
are so high, because of a lack of competition, that for companies it’s
not feasible. Cannabis companies are charged higher fees for services
such as checking accounts and armored vehicles to transport their cash.

think that it’s happening in most states, but at such a small level
that it doesn’t even begin to make a dent in the banking needs of the
industry,” Fox said.

In Colorado, banks have waitlists of marijuana industry customers, Averch said. “One drops out and another one drops in.”

Care Station, a marijuana retailer with six Colorado stores and a
distribution network in Pennsylvania, says it has a banking relationship
in Colorado, but declined to say with whom they work.

If the SAFE
Banking Act were to become law, customers and cannabis businesses would
have more options when it comes to purchasing pot and finances,
Terrapin Care spokesman Peter Marcus said. It also would allow the
industry to move money across state lines and potentially quash investor
fears about federal action,

“You’re adding an extra comfort level
and security to investors both in and out of the state of Colorado to
get involved with cannabis companies and help those cannabis companies
expand with a national footprint,” he said.

But the SAFE Banking
Act, which cleared the House on a 321-103 vote, still needs to pass the
U.S. Senate and be signed into law by President Donald Trump. The
legislation has been six years in the making.

Perlmutter is
optimistic about its chances, even with impeachment proceedings looming
large over the current Congress. He notes that the SAFE Banking Act
cleared the House in the heat of discussions about trying to remove
Trump from office. “If we can do it then, we can do it,” Perlmutter

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado is one of the
measure’s lead sponsors in the higher chamber. He said its passage out
of the House represents Congress’ taking its “head out of the sand.”

says the bill really boils down to public safety, citing dispensary
robberies — including a fatal one in Aurora — by criminals lured by the
promise of large stockpiles of cash.

“This is the first time any
marijuana legislation has gotten a full hearing, a markup and passed one
house or the other ever since marijuana was made illegal,” he said.

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