The Columbian / Associated Press

Marijuana banking backlash snares Vancouver couple

Ty and Tracy Camp have been together for 11 years, and married for seven, but they rarely mix their finances.

Until May, she worked as an assistant vice president and financial center manager at Bank of America in Vancouver, and also owns and manages several residential properties around Clark County. He owns a construction company and Sunshine Farms, a marijuana grower and processor in Sifton. They share only one bank account, which they use to cover mutual costs — a rental property they co-owned, and some standard household expenses.

Which is why Tracy Camp was floored to return home from a vacation with her husband to find that she’d been fired from her position with the bank, and told by an internal company investigator she’d been flagged on suspicion of money laundering.

Her husband, who works in the marijuana industry, had moved funds from his construction business’ account into their joint account, and she’d moved some of the money from the joint account into her personal account.

“We’ve been running our businesses and our books and our lives like that for the last 10 years,” she told a corporate HR representative in an interview recorded by the company.

The official reason for her termination was a code of conduct violation. She described being told that as a bank employee, she should have known that mixing funds with a person growing marijuana — her husband, no less — put the bank at risk of noncompliance with federal law.

Over the next few months, the bank also closed three of her personal credit cards, though Camp provided financial records going back to 2015 showing that she hadn’t missed a payment.

Now, caught in the intersection between state and federal law surrounding a drug they don’t personally support, the Camps are trying to decide what to do next.

“I am not an advocate. I’m not anybody who would have voted this in. My husband took this as a business opportunity, and I had no idea when we made this decision how greatly our lives would be impacted by this,” she said.

Staying in compliance

Bank of America is wise to exercise caution. While marijuana is legal in nine states and Washington, D.C., it remains a Schedule I substance under the Drug Enforcement Administration, which means it is regarded by the government as a drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — on par with heroin, and worse than cocaine or methamphetamine.

The onus is on any financial institution that crosses state or federal borders to show it’s operating within the federal law.

“As a nationally chartered institution, we comply with federal law,” said Don Vecchiarello, a spokesman for Bank of America.

But federal law shifts with federal administrations, and uncertainty abounds in the rapidly changing marijuana industry.

In 2013, a year after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department issued the Cole Memo. It stated that while marijuana remains illegal under federal law, halting the sale or use of the drug wasn’t a high priority in places where effective state and local systems were in place to regulate the industry.

This year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a Department of Justice memo “announcing a return to the rule of law and the rescission of previous guidance documents.” The announcement re-established the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and marked a “return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively,” the memo read.

It’s a decidedly less lenient environment toward the marijuana industry. And the line of legality is a moving target.

Vecchiarello declined to speak on the record about what compliance with federal law in the banking industry looked like from the ground.

Certainly, a business related to the growing, processing or sale of marijuana can’t open an account with Bank of America, or Wells Fargo, or JP Morgan Chase.

But could a person involved in the marijuana business hold a personal account with a national bank? What about a family member of that person, or a dependent? How direct does the line need to be from the drug to the bank to constitute a violation, and at the branch level, who’s ultimately responsible for drawing that line?

‘A monster objective’

Tracy Camp says she never goes inside the Sunshine warehouse. She can’t stand the marijuana odor. While driving her husband to the facility on a recent Thursday morning, he had to tell her where to turn.

After 17 years in the banking industry, most of those with the Bank of America, she’s turning her full attention to property management. She’s dubious she’ll ever land another job in finance.

A representative from the human resources department at the Bank of America corporate office declined to offer information on Tracy Camp’s termination.

“We would not comment publicly on someone’s separation from the company,” Britney Sheehan, media relations manager for Washington and Oregon, wrote in an email.

Ty Camp said the knowledge that his business venture ultimately cost his wife her job is gutting.

On Aug. 6, at a meeting of the state Liquor and Cannabis Board and the Washington CannaBusiness Association, he addressed the board to voice some frustrations with the industry.

“You guys have got a monster objective in front of you. I get that. And no one’s ever going to be happy, but the bottom line is we have some losses in Vancouver that nobody seems to care about,” he said.

Liquor and Cannabis Board officers have almost unchecked power in how they issue violations, and there’s little recourse for a business owner who feels they’ve been unfairly cited, he argued.

Sunshine Farms is using only a third of its indoor growing space, Ty Camp said, because he’s waiting for a Liquor and Cannabis Board agent to approve the other 20,000 square feet for operation. He’s submitted four requests for inspection, and, in the meantime, he said the unused space is costing him around $200,000 a month in lost revenue.

At this point, he said, staying in the marijuana industry is almost more about the principle of the thing. That, he said, and providing work for his 40 employees.

The sticking point is the clash between state and federal marijuana law, the Camps agreed.

“I would never in a thousand years think that I would be advocating for the federal government to make it legal, but this is something that the people have voted in, and it’s here,” Tracy Camp said. “The federal government should not be a part of hurting people’s lives and that’s what their decision has done, inadvertently.”