July 15 2015 12:58 PM

Federal lawmakers push for financial services for cannabis industry

A Green Alternative COO Zachary Lazarus
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

When Zachary Lazarus plans his day, it's largely dictated by moving around sizable sums of money. As a top manager for A Green Alternative, the city of San Diego's first permitted cannabis dispensary, he's responsible for coordinating payroll, utility bills and other finances.

While most companies use banks to streamline such payments, Lazarus doesn't have that luxury. Around the country, financial institutions have shunned the cannabis industry, forcing many in the business to tote around large amounts of cash.

"I have to plan my day according to what bills I have to pay because I can't just write a check," he said. "I have to go and grab a bunch of money orders and mail them off. Even my rent is paid in cash."

In response, law makers in the U.S. Congress are trying to get banks to work with the industry. Over the last two months, lawmakers introduced a pair of bills, H.R. 2076 and S.B. 1726, both dubbed the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015.

"As states make legislative determinations on marijuana," said Rep. Scott Peters, who cosponsored the House bill, "the sensible response is to allow licensed and regulated businesses, including those in San Diego, to operate in the light of day and accept credit cards, deposit revenues and use checks to compensate employees or pay taxes."

As the cannabis industry has evolved over more than a decade, banks and other financial institutions have been reluctant to do business with many entrepreneurs because financial institutions answer to federal regulators, who don't recognize state cannabis laws. As a result, according to industry representatives, cannabis storefronts, lacking a place to deposit profits, have become targets for criminals hoping to steal cash and weed.

"I've been representing this community for seven years, and during that time, there have been numerous incidents where these businesses are targeted by criminals," said Lance Rogers, attorney for A Green Alternative.

The legislation in Congress would prohibit federal regulators from taking action against banks for working with state-legal cannabis businesses. Under the same conditions, it would also shield financial institutions from criminal prosecutions and asset forfeiture.

This isn't the first time such congressional legislation has been introduced. However, while past attempts at reform have failed, backers hope the issue will attract more bipartisan support, especially from lawmakers in Washington and Colorado where legalization of cannabis for recreational use has increased the need for banking services.

Reform would be welcome news for Lazarus. A Green Alternative started accounts with Comerica Bank and Wells Fargo only to have the accounts terminated within a few months. Right now, the company keeps money in a $14,000 safe and shells out about $20,000 a month for an armed security guard at its storefront in Otay Mesa.

"It's almost like you feel you're being discriminated against," Lazarus said. "There was one bank up the street I tried to set up an account with, and he looked at me like I was a criminal."

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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