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Banks seek affirmation to serve medical marijuana businesses

By Brian Brus

The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma bankers are frustrated that it’s taking so long for federal legislation to catch up to state laws on marijuana, Oklahoma Bankers Association President Roger Beverage said.

Communications with Oklahoma’s delegation in Washington, D.C., suggest those elected officials are still approaching the issue as a matter of morality rather than practicality, he said.

“It’s becoming a public safety hazard,” Beverage said. “If you can’t get a bank account, you have to put that cash somewhere. … And that worries me.”

Medical marijuana was legalized in Oklahoma by statewide vote in 2018. Although pot is legal in some form in about 30 states, companies that grow or sell it are still being blocked from holding bank and credit union accounts because the drug is illegal under federal law. Bankers have been reluctant to deal with transactions involving proceeds related to medical marijuana because they fear it could expose them to money-laundering charges. Even a retail strip mall landlord could be a risk if one of her tenants tries to open a medical cannabis dispensary.

The Motley Fool investor news company has even started taking a bullish perspective on the industry. Given that market watchers estimate legal marijuana is already worth about $50 billion for the U.S. with projections of $80 billion by 2030, Motley Fool writer Grace Phillips said recently, “It’s time for investors to start paying attention.”

In response to constituent pressure, U.S. House Democrats Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and Denny Heck of Washington recently introduced H.R. 1595, quickly gaining 99 Democratic co-sponsors and nine Republican co-sponsors. Heck has said that Congress needs to make financial institutions confident they can deal with legitimate marijuana business accounts, just like any other industry.

“This bill is being sponsored on a bipartisan basis,” Beverage said. “My assignment is to get some or all of the Oklahoma delegation to sign on as co-sponsors.”

Rep. Markwayne Mullin is definitely not in agreement, Beverage said. In a Tulsa television interview last year after State Question 788 passed, Mullin called the decision horrific. And earlier that year, Sen. James Lankford joined a conservative religious organization’s efforts to defeat SQ 788. Neither Rep. Tom Cole nor Frank Lucas were supportive of new federal legislation on marijuana the last time Beverage spoke with them, he said.

Somewhat ironically, the traditionally conservative banking industry may find its best ally on the other side of the partisan divide.

“It’s an issue that I’m just assuming Democrats in general look on more favorably,” Beverage said, mentioning U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla. Beverage said he also has placed hope in Republican Rep. Kevin Hern, who has shown support for 10th Amendment issues and keeping a line between states’ rights and federal authority.

Horn’s office did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Thursday and neither did Hern.

In the meantime, more Oklahoma bankers are getting situated to enter the market hard and fast as soon as the matter is resolved.

Regent Bank Chairman and CEO Sean Kouplen said his bank is looking into working with medical marijuana businesses. The newly appointed Oklahoma secretary of commerce said his bank, like other small operations, would benefit from the deposits. Industry sources estimate 400 banks nationally are already taking cannabis business deposits, Kouplen said.

But taking the money would require someone to monitor the client’s relationship to marijuana all the time, he said, to make sure that company is obeying Oklahoma laws.

“You basically have to run their business with them,” Kouplen said, adding that he’s heard of a firm that can do that sort of work for the bank. He said, “We’re going to look at it.”

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