The Columbian / Associated Press

Senate may ease banking for pot firms

SALEM, Ore. — An amendment to aid marijuana businesses seeking financial services passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 16.

The amendment, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, would bar federal banking regulators from preventing or penalizing banks for providing financial services to state approved marijuana businesses.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also sponsored the amendment, which was included in an appropriations bill that passed 16-14.

Currently, many marijuana businesses have trouble finding financial services. Although banks can serve marijuana businesses, they often choose not to because of fears that federal regulators will slap them with money laundering charges. That fear persists despite attempts to allay concerns by federal financial regulators and the U.S. Treasury.

If marijuana businesses in Oregon received financial services at all, it was through local banks and kept quiet through nondisclosure agreements with account holders. Without financial services, marijuana businesses operate in cash — even when paying taxes and payroll.

In a statement, Merkley said his amendment would allow banks to serve marijuana businesses without fear of “devastating reprisals” by the federal government. He has also introduced standalone legislation addressing cannabis banking problems.

Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a statement that the amendment is a significant step towards correcting the financial services challenges faced by marijuana businesses.

The next step for the amendment is to be sent to the U.S. Senate for a vote.

A similar amendment passed in 2015, but was never debated in the House and ultimately stripped from omnibus negotiations.