Getting Dopey in New York?
As early as this week, New York is expected to take its next big step toward legalizing the distribution of marijuana for medical purposes. Its Department of Health is expected to announce the five companies that will be responsible for producing and distributing cannabis throughout the State. These five entities will be authorized to establish up to four “dispensing facilities,” meaning that if all goes according to plan, on January 5, 2016, qualified ailing New Yorkers will be able to purchase and use cannabis.
Regardless of whether you think medical marijuana is the greatest wonder drug since penicillin or that legalizing drugs will unleash refer madness across the state, New York is entering into a legal haze, which is unlikely to clear any time in the near future. Most importantly, cannabis remains illegal as a matter of federal law. This has several implications for states such as New York that have legalized marijuana. Most importantly, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs, credit unions are still responsible for filing Suspicious Activity Reports (SARS) on institutions with accounts that engage in the business of legally selling marijuana pursuant to state law. The Department of Justice and FinCEN have issued guidance authorizing credit unions and banks to issue so-called “marijuana limited SAR filings.”
The basic idea is that the Department of Justice and FinCEN will not prosecute certain types of legal marijuana businesses so long as they do not, among other things: distribute marijuana to minors; facilitate distribution of drug money to criminal gangs, facilitate the distribution of marijuana to states where it is not legal; use legal marijuana sales as a pretext to sell illegal drugs; or aid in the growing of marijuana on public land where it poses public safety or environmental risk. Institutions that choose to help legal marijuana dispensaries take on a huge oversight responsibility. They will have to have the ability to monitor these companies on an ongoing basis to make sure that they are complying with the federal government’s criteria. The amount of paper work and staff is enough to prevent all but the largest institutions from aiding these organizations.
Does this mean that New York’s law will not impact your credit union? Not by a long shot. For example, your HR department will have to decide how to deal with the employee who informs you that she uses medical marijuana. In addition, even though there are only a total of 20 dispensaries at this point, many of you may have business accounts with doctors who may become certified prescribers of marijuana. In my opinion, such activities will require your credit union to exercise increased oversight of these accounts.
Now I don’t mean to scare anyone away. New York is implementing one of the most tightly regulated medical marijuana industries in the country. As a result, it should be easier to comply with oversight requirements. However, at the end of the day cannabis remains illegal as a matter of federal law. Until Congress takes a serious look at this issue, there is nothing to stop a future President from ordering the DOJ to prosecute businesses that legally dispense drugs on the state level.