Committee Blog: Cannabis Banking – Regulatory Outlook and Effective Compliance
By Bethany Moore
February 21, 2020
/ Community
/ Education

Committee Blog: Cannabis Banking – Regulatory Outlook and Effective Compliance

by Angela Lucas, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Sterling Compliance, LLC
Member of NCIA’s Banking & Financial Services Committee

During a recent webinar, we polled the audience on their current positions on offering financial services – traditional financial services – to direct marijuana-related businesses (MRBs). The results, as you might imagine, were mixed but we identified one common theme: The vast majority have taken action to address cannabis banking issues. This has been the theme we’ve been championing for years. The dichotomy between state and federal cannabis laws has placed our financial institutions in a precarious position: Bank the cannabis industry, be first to the market in doing so, create a non-traditional revenue stream and help to solve public safety and other logistical issues by solving the all-cash conundrum OR continue to watch from the periphery as others take the leap?  

We see the number of financial institutions – banks and credit unions – that offer financial services to cannabis businesses expanding, but not to the level suggested by FinCEN SAR data. There remains a critical need for financial services within the cannabis industry.

Why the hesitancy in tackling this issue?

The current regulatory environment is a critical factor. As it stands, our industry is relying primarily upon the FinCEN guidelines to offer financial services to cannabis-related businesses. These guidelines, coupled with a surge of proposed legislation and a regulatory perspective on risk-based risk-taking, have allowed financial institutions across the country to effectively provide financial services to cannabis-related businesses. There is a key term we’ve been using: cannabis-related businesses. Within this term, we encompass direct and indirect marijuana-related businesses, hemp, and CBD entities. The majority of those polled feel more comfortable with hemp and CBD entities primarily due to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Getting into the intricacies of how the Farm Bill and the USDA’s resulting interim final rule have added a layer of complexity to banking hemp and CBD businesses is more than we can cover in this blog post. Let’s focus instead on those providing financial services to direct MRBs, those that are state-legal, licensed cultivators, extractors, and dispensaries.

It IS possible to actively bank direct MRBs, to offer stable banking services that bring the cash off the street and provide a means for these businesses to operate more effectively and efficiently, and surely in a less costly manner than an all-cash business. The regulators are not criticizing financial institutions for providing financial services to MRBs; they review these services as they would any higher-risk, complex activity. When an institution takes on too much too fast or does not have sufficient controls to know whether it actually has a higher risk or complex business concentration within its customer base, the regulators will be critical… as they should be.

So, what are they looking for?

This goes back to the theme we mentioned: Financial institutions actively addressing cannabis banking issues.

Every financial institution, whether it intends to bank direct or indirect MRBs, hemp or CBD should have a Cannabis Banking Program that assesses the inherent risks of doing so, speaks to the controls necessary to effectively manage those risks, and determine whether they are well-positioned, or have a risk-appetite for, providing financial services to the cannabis industry. Conversely, if a financial institution that has no appetite for, or does not reflect sufficient regulatory health to bank cannabis, it must establish effective controls to ensure that position can be maintained.  

But, this post is about empowerment. It is about speaking to the regulatory environment in which we find ourselves. It is about providing the perspective that banking marijuana, hemp and CBD CAN be done effectively, safely and soundly. Yes, there is a significant level of infrastructure needed to do so. Yes, it does come with the need for ongoing, strong risk management and control enforcement. Yes, it can be a bit scary. By establishing a Cannabis Banking Program, comprised of a comprehensive risk assessment that drives an equally comprehensive policy, a financial institution can provide financial services across the spectrum of marijuana, hemp and CBD, and undergo regulatory scrutiny with confidence. Moreover, such a program has become a regulatory expectation to support a financial institution’s cannabis position. This is also not a program where a financial institution will set it and forget it. The risk assessment and policy must remain dynamic as legislation evolves, as regulatory perspective changes, and as a financial institution’s position or outlook may shift.

This is an industry that has already proven prolific. This is a time that will be ingrained within our nation’s history. Let’s be remembered as those who championed the issues, established the country’s infrastructure, and set the standard for those who follow.  

As a former Federal bank regulator and seasoned consultant, Angela’s knowledge of regulatory compliance, risk management and investment advisory services has established her reputation as a leading resource within the financial consulting industry, spanning consumer protection and anti-money laundering statutes, fraud and cannabis banking issues.  

Angela is the Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Sterling Compliance, LLC, a consumer compliance consulting firm based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Sterling specializes in consumer protection and anti-money laundering compliance within the community banking industry and enjoys a significant online presence with a client base spanning the coasts.  

In December 2019, Angela joined Integrated Compliance Solutions, LLC (ICS) upon the ICS acquisition of Sterling Compliance as an independent operating subsidiary.  Angela oversees the firm’s Compliance Strategies division, of which cannabis banking is a significant component. ICS is a financial technology, banking compliance and innovative payments solution provider helping financial institutions with complex solutions.  In joining the ICS team, Angela has continued the firm’s mission of bringing its complete SEED-TO-BANK™ solution to financial institutions and cannabis-related businesses throughout the United States, and has expanded the firm’s industry engagement as a well-respected authority on the regulatory and compliance issues surrounding cannabis banking.  


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