As promised, the Obama administration has now officially spoken on the matter of banks and pot dispensaries. According to a memo from the Justice Department, the Treasury will allow banks to accept accounts from marijuana shops. This announcement is meant to encourage banks to do business with legal state dealers, despite the fact that selling marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
It's unclear whether banks will take this encouragement to heart. As Ryan J. Reilly at The Huffington Post explains,
The DOJ memo falls short of expressly protecting banks that work with state-compliant marijuana businesses from prosecution. It states only that banks that work with businesses that don't violate one of DOJ's eight areas of concern related to the pot trade, like distribution of marijuana to minors, violence and the use of firearms, are less likely to be targeted by federal prosecutors.
In the memo, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote (emphasis added), "If a financial institution or individual offers services to a marijuana-related business whose activities do not implicate any of the eight priority factors, prosecution for those offenses may not be appropriate." That "may not" isn't going to help worried banks sleep at night. The Justice Department has lessened, but not eliminated, the threat of federal prosecution.
Still, this is a step in the right direction for legal weed dispensaries, who have been forced to deal almost entirely in cash. As Attorney General Eric Holder expressed in January,
You don’t want just huge amounts of cash in these places. They want to be able to use the banking system. There’s a public safety component to this. Huge amounts of cash — substantial amounts of cash just kind of lying around with no place for it to be appropriately deposited is something that would worry me, just from a law enforcement perspective.
The Treasury guidelines state that banks dealing with pot businesses should still file a "suspicious activity report," or SAR. The SAR would be "marijuana limited," which means that the bank does not believe the business is doing anything illegal besides selling marijuana.
Treasury officials expect that small and medium-sized banks may begin dealing with pot shops in light of these new guidelines. Bank of America still has a strict policy against accepting dispensaries as customers.
This story is developing and will be updated when more information becomes available.