It's the problem that keeps on pestering medical marijuana businesses in Oklahoma: banking.

For various reasons, dispensary owners and managers don't like to talk about the specifics of the problems they face in the banking area. But a bill working its way through Congress right now, the SAFE Banking Act -- co-sponsored by Oklahoma Democratic Congresswoman Kendra Horn -- might change everything for local medical marijuana businesses and local banks.

"We're seeing a lot of bankers, many of whom frankly don't approve, necessarily, of the marijuana industry, but it's now a legal industry and they're getting contacted as a federally chartered bank and this is still a Schedule I drug," Republican Congressman Tom Cole, who supports the bill, said. "[They're wondering] 'Does this affect our charter?' And they're having to tell people they can't help them. They shouldn't be put in that position. They've got to have legal clarity."

Currently, banking is prohibited for businesses across the country who sell, produce, package or even transport recreational or medical marijuana. It's not that their money is no good; the banks legally can't take it.

Since marijuana is still an illegal, Schedule I drug under federal law, the federally-regulated banks can't work with those businesses. Alisha Wade, executive vice president and chief operating officer with Valliance Bank, says this puts community banks in a difficult situation.

"I've been a community banker for 22 years, and it's hard to not be able to reach out and help them," Wade said. "They want to do it legally and pay taxes, and do everything right."

In addition to the burden of having to do everything in cash, Wade said the inability to bank puts small business owners at risk. And it doesn't just apply to medical marijuana businesses; any contractors they work with also have to take a risk by accepting large amounts of cash.

Cole said it also presents a security issue for the state and that the SAFE Banking Act would be helpful for law enforcement.

"First they'll tell you it's an easy place to launder money, drug money, that would be illegal under state law," Cole said. "Second [medical marijuana businesses] can't even pay their employees with a check. There's a lot of cash at these operations and it makes them very dangerous places."

The Oklahoma Banking Association has offered its support to the SAFE Banking Act. Adrian Beverage, executive vice president for government relations, said OBA knows of banks who are interested in doing business with the local medical marijuana industry.

"We are very strongly supporting it," Beverage said. "Obviously right now, it's still a Schedule I, and our bankers would love the opportunity to bank it, if given protections."

There's also the issue of monitoring. One of the reasons often given by campaigns in favor of legalizing marijuana, medically or otherwise, is that it would take a business done in the shadows and put it in the light.

But Wade said this is difficult when there's so much money that can't be tracked.

"They made it legal so they could have measures in place to monitor the organizations, but there is no way to monitor the revenue coming through," Wade said. "Because it's all in cash. And there are companies out there ready to come in and help these businesses if the SAFE Banking Act passes."

If the SAFE Banking Act makes it through the House of Representatives -- which is likely -- and the Senate -- a more difficult test -- and is signed into law by President Donald Trump, that alone wouldn't open banks up for medical marijuana companies in Oklahoma. The ultimate decision still sits with each bank's board.

"We follow their direction," Wade said.

Even now, there are perfectly legitimate businesses that banks choose to not work with, Beverage said. It comes down to philosophical reasons.

"Let's say the SAFE Banking Act were to pass tomorrow and is signed by the president next week, they'll still have discussion at the board level if they do want to bank, even if it is in this safe harbor," Beverage said.

Banking regulators would have to come up with new procedures for the new kind of business banks can take part in, Wade said. And that work won't be immediate.

"Now, FDIC, OCC, and all the regulatory agencies will need exam procedures in place," she said." Wade said. "We're not strangers to this process."

But the SAFE Banking Act would be a step in the right direction, Wade said. It's not a matter of supporting marijuana legalization, she added; rather, it is a matter of free market and commerce, and that should get all the support it needs.

"It's step one to protecting commerce," she said. "This is what we're about as a free country."

Recommended for you