Feds Say They Won't Prosecute Banks for working with Retail Pot Industry

Sep 11, 2013

Colorado capitol building
Credit Jason Bechtel via Flickr (CC BY-NC)

A U.S. Department of Justice official told members of Congress yesterday that it wouldn't prosecute banks for doing business with the recreational marijuana industry. As Bente Birkeland reports, Colorado took center stage during the Senate discussion on state and federal marijuana law.

Tuesday’s U.S. Senate committee meeting, Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws, was aptly named. At issue was the conflict that now exists on the federal level with Colorado and Washington’s legalization of recreational marijuana.

The Justice Department outlined eight priorities for federal marijuana enforcement. A top goal is preventing minors from gaining access to the drug. The government also wants to prevent drugged driving, violence and firearm use.

“When we see someone that’s going to be marketing marijuana in a way that’s going to be attractive to minors, we’re going to go after them,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole. “If we see someone growing marijuana so they can import or export it out of state, we’re going to go after them. If they’re involved in drug cartels we’re going to go after them.”

Cole said he put Colorado and Washington state on notice, saying state marijuana regulations must be effective and robust.

Ranking judiciary committee member Chuck Grassley (R- Iowa) wasn’t convinced. He says he worries states like Colorado won’t be able to contain marijuana sold and grown within its borders. He also criticized the federal government for not suing to strike down state laws and stop large-scale marijuana legalization.

“Prosecutorial discretion is one thing, but giving the green light to an entire industry predicated on breaking federal law is quite another,” Grassley said.

Others worry regulators won’t be able to contain the marijuana industry and it will follow the path already paved by alcohol and tobacco.

“In a country with a first amendment, in a country that has seen the alcohol and tobacco industries relentlessly target kids and target addicts, what I worry is American style legalization is commercialization and promotion,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida.

Jack Finlaw, Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel, assured the committee Colorado has a strong regulatory structure in place. He also said he believed the marijuana industry would partner with the state and federal government.

“One of the things I’ve discovered is how entrepreneurial and how much integrity the folks in our state have, that have developed these new businesses,” said Finlaw. “I would compare them to people who have wineries in Napa or distilleries.”

There’s still a lot of gray area. For instance marijuana businesses can’t deduct the normal expenses when filing taxes. Deputy Attorney General James Cole also says the Justice Department plans to work with the banking industry. Currently banks don’t want to work with the marijuana industry for fear of federal prosecution.

“There is a public safety concern when businesses have a lot of cash sitting around. There is a tendency to have guns associated with that,” said Cole.

Now that the state has finalized rules governing their operation, Colorado’s first recreational marijuana shops are scheduled to open as early as January.