Congress Not Regulators Must Address Pot Banking
Congressmen and women continue to confuse the issue surrounding why so many banks and credit unions remain reluctant to open accounts for marijuana businesses, even though the DOJ and FinCEN have both issued guidance explaining the circumstances under which institutions will not be accused of violating the law or regulations if they do. THE SALE, DISTRIBUTION, AND POSSESSION OF POT REMAINS ILLEGAL AS A MATTER OF FEDERAL LAW. Rather than prodding regulators to overlook this fact, they should be working on amending federal law so that it is consistent with the law in the many states that have chosen to legalize pot to varying degrees.
What has me going this morning is a letter sent by Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) urging federal financial regulators, including Debbie Matz and Janet Yellen, “to issue clear guidance for financial institutions serving legal marijuana businesses, making it easier for those businesses to access banking services rather than operating on an all-cash basis.”
To be clear, FinCEN has already issued detailed guidance explaining how financial institutions can service these businesses, and DOJ has explained the circumstances under which it will not prosecute them; but, what neither FinCEN, NCUA nor any other federal regulator can do is amend federal law. Last I checked, only Congress can do that. All regulators can do is explain the circumstances under which they will not enforce the law, a troubling enough proposition without Congressmen further confusing the issues with letters seeking guidance.
This isn’t just the Monday morning rant of a father who just hours ago was stuck on the world’s greatest parking lot, otherwise known as the Long Island Expressway on a holiday weekend, with a seven year old who had to go to the bathroom. Perhaps the legislators should take another look at United State’s District judge R. Brooke Jackson’s decision upholding the right of the Federal Reserve to deny Four Corners Credit Union access to the federal reserve system despite the existing guidance. In short, these guidance documents simply suggest that prosecutors and bank regulators might “look the other way” if financial institutions don’t mind violating the law. A federal court cannot look the other way. I regard the situation as untenable and hope that it will soon be addressed and resolved by Congress. Fourth Corner Credit Union v. Fed. Reserve Bank of Kansas City, No. 15-CV-01633-RBJ, 2016 WL 54129, at *4 (D. Colo. Jan. 5, 2016).
Nevertheless, the Senators note with approval that yet more guidance might be forthcoming. We don’t need more guidance; what we need is federal law that explicitly sanctions activities that states have already permitted. Here is the letter.