On July 18, the House of Representatives voted in favor of an amendment designed to make it easier for banks to do business with marijuana-related businesses.
While the actual effect of the amendment is likely to be minimal, as it pretty much just allows the U.S. Treasury to continue implementing its existing guidelines, it shows a clear trend toward a loosening of anti-marijuana sentiment in the government. So, what exactly is the significance of this latest development, and who will be the big winners?
What the "Heck amendment" does
Basically, the amendment prevents the SEC and the U.S. Treasury from penalizing banks for lending money and engaging in other banking activities with marijuana-based businesses in states where it is legalized.
The bill rejects an attempt to block recent guidance issued by the Treasury telling banks how to report on their marijuana-related business without violating federal money-laundering laws.
Up until now, banks have been very reluctant to deal with marijuana businesses due to unclear guidelines. Since dealing with marijuana is still illegal under federal law, banks could technically be accused of money-laundering charges if they deal with marijuana businesses.
As a result, most marijuana operations have been a cash-only business, which has forced them to keep large stockpiles of cash on hand, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. This has made the businesses a target for robberies and other crimes that are facilitated by the transport of large amounts of cash.
Why it's so significant
Not only is the Heck amendment a huge step toward legitimacy for marijuana businesses in states where it has been legalized, but it's yet another big step in the right direction toward national decriminalization of marijuana.
Congress also recently voted to defund the DEA's ability to interfere with marijuana businesses and customers who are in compliance with state law. And, last August the Justice Department said it would rely on states for the most part to enforce and regulate the use and sale of marijuana in states where it is legal.
Essentially, legal victories like these are gradually turning marijuana legalization (or criminalization) into a state issue, and not a federal one. Even conservatives are beginning to come around, with 46 (mostly moderate and libertarian-leaning) republicans voting in favor of the amendment.
This isn't to say these republicans are in favor of legalization in their own states...we're certainly not there yet. However, it seems like they are beginning to realize republicans from other states have no business telling states like Colorado and Washington what their marijuana policies should be.
Two big winners
There are two big winners here. First, the marijuana businesses themselves will benefit tremendously from having access to financial-system resources all other legitimate businesses are allowed to use. Having access to banking won't necessarily increase business, but it will certainly make the businesses themselves safer to operate.
The other big winner could be local banks. Banks, are still very hesitant to get involved with the marijuana business for fear of facing penalties, even after the new Treasury guidelines. Banks have pointed out that even with the Treasury's guidelines, marijuana is still illegal on a Federal level, and banks could potentially face Federal charges. And it's definitely true that the guidelines do not supersede federal law, as the president of the Washington Bankers Association recently pointed out.
Still, there is some interest among smaller and community banks, and whoever decides to be the first to stomach the risk and bank with marijuana businesses could get boatloads of new business. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network indicated that when the Treasury guidelines were made, there were indeed some banks interested in accepting marijuana business.
Whatever happens, we're headed in the right direction
Even with the new amendment, it could take the banks a little while to really feel comfortable getting involved in the marijuana business.
However, the real significance here is the changing attitudes on Capitol Hill toward marijuana policy. It's only a matter of time before marijuana regulation becomes an entirely state-controlled issue, and the passage of the recent amendment by a republican-controlled house tells us all we need to know about the direction things are heading.