by Todd Glider, MobiusPay, Inc
There is a lot of confusion about payment processing in the cannabis space because payment processing is somewhat confusing to begin with, and because, in the cannabis space, ambiguity is a way of life.
The title of this very blog post could, realistically, seem misleading to some.
So, to be clear, when I say, “Cannabis Space,” I mean the entire industry — from plant-touchers (CBD included) to the ancillary businesses built up around it.
The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill marked an exciting new chapter for the industry. Suddenly, CBD, or, more specifically, any ingestible cannabis product containing .3% THC or less by volume, was classified as hemp. And since it is marijuana, and not hemp, that is defined as a Schedule I substance under the United States Controlled Substance Act, the Farm Bill, technically, made products like CBD as legal as cow milk — federally, anyway.
The upshot of this new classification is that now, at least some players in the cannabis space can market their products to a national base of consumers and clients, and they can do so by accepting credit cards as payment.
However, the myriad Acquiring Banks across the United States have not exactly jumped for joy at the prospect of providing credit card processing in the form of merchant accounts to CBD retailers. Reticence rules. CBD is considered high risk, and four years on, only a handful of them have thrown their hat in the ring.
Jargon Alert I: Acquiring Banks and Issuing Banks
In merchant processing parlance, banks fall into two categories: Acquiring Banks and Issuing Banks. Acquiring Banks, or, Acquirers, provide merchant processing accounts to businesses wishing to accept credit card transactions. Issuing Banks, short for Card Issuing Banks, are banks that offer branded payment cards directly to consumers. For example, if your bank has ever offered you a Visa card, it is an Issuing Bank (not that it couldn’t also be an Acquiring Bank, too).
Jargon Alert II: CBD is ‘High Risk’
CBD is deemed high risk by the card associations (i.e., Visa, MasterCard, American Express), and when the card associations deem a product or industry high risk, most Acquiring Banks tap out. This is because financial institutions are, by nature, risk averse (subprime mortgage crisis notwithstanding).
So let’s talk for a minute about risk. High risk, that compound term, is a truncation of a longer phrase: ‘Higher risk of fraud or chargebacks.’
Why are CBD products at higher risk of fraud? It’s impossible to say for sure since the Visas and MasterCards of the world are publicly traded companies with their own trade secrets and IP, but there are several characteristics unique to CBD, or any cannabis product now federally legal, that likely figured into that decision.
Those FDA disclaimers that CBD retailers must print or paste on all product packaging and webpages are as good a place as any to start. They are mandatory because none of the benefits assigned to CBD have been clinically proven. There just isn’t enough data or testing at this point, and no big story there. That’s what happens when you demonize a plant for 100 years.
Consequently, from the perspective of the FDA, and the card associations, by extension, consumers are making CBD purchases with baked-in expectations based, exclusively, on word-of-mouth advice and anecdotal data. That’s a recipe for dissatisfied customers. And dissatisfied customers tend to charge back transactions.
The card associations, and the banks who provide merchant accounts, worry incessantly about fraud and chargebacks.
Too Close for Comfort
Dissatisfied customers aside, there are onerous legal nuances that make the prospect of boarding cannabis merchants, even those selling products that are federally legal, daunting for banks.
Selling a product with .31% THC across state lines is felonious. It is a federal offense. Violating a law like that could get a bank’s charter revoked, or, at a minimum, result in massive fines.
On the other hand, selling a product with .30% THC across state lines is 100% federally legal. As stated above, safe as milk, federally.
That is a heck of a distinction. If any product contains more than .3% THC by volume, it is ‘marijuana’ in the eyes of the federal government. From the perspective of the banks, that’s a little close for comfort. Furthermore, banks don’t operate laboratories. They must rely on testing data presented to them in the form of third-party lab reports — Certificates of Analysis or COAs for short — to verify that the products being sold are federally legal.
The last thing an Acquiring Bank wants to do is violate a federal law EVER. It could result in a loss of their charter, lawsuits, and massive fines. And it’s important to keep in mind that the Acquiring Banks out there offering merchant accounts to CBD retailers are not giant, publicly traded institutions like Bank of America or Wells Fargo. They tend to be much smaller, and therefore, have infinitely smaller war chests for court cases.
Still, separating the federally legal Tier I cannabis product from the federally illegal Tier I cannabis product should be pretty cut-and-dry. If the product you’re selling is .3% THC by volume or less, it is exempt from the Controlled Substance Act (CSA). If that threshold is documented in the product’s Certificates of Analysis (COA), you ought to be able to sell it.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. When bank underwriters look at percentages of Delta 8, Delta 9, and Delta 10 on the COAs that cross their desks, they’re frequently at sixes and sevens trying to figure the whole thing out.
From the perspective of the 2018 Farm Bill, a cannabis product is hemp if it contains .3% Delta-9 THC or less by volume, but what everybody says is “.3% THC or less by volume.” Consequently, when the compliance officer at the bank is performing her due diligence by inspecting the COAs corresponding to each product, she may encounter a lot of crooked numbers, and she may blanch at the results.
Those results, often, look something like the following:
Federally, the Delta-9 threshold is the only threshold that matters. The 2018 Farm Bill says as much, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California affirmed it in a ruling this past May. Therefore, in the example above, the Delta-9 threshold has not been crossed. It’s not even close. It is textbook HEMP, even if the Delta-8 threshold is off the charts.
However, if the compliance officer was provided the remit, “.3% or lower,” he’s likely to look at this and say, “Fail,” without realizing that the Delta-8 THC information is irrelevant as far as federal law goes.
Complicating the underwriting further is the fact that there is, to date, no standard template for COA reports. Every lab presents them differently. Bank compliance officers rarely moonlight as scientists. Like most of us, these CBD COAs are probably the first lab reports they’ve looked at since high school chemistry.
Furthermore, the banks can set their own rules. They don’t have to board CBD merchants. Few do, and those few that do have their own standards and practices.
Todd Glider has been an e-Commerce leader since the start of the Internet age. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami, and has served as CEO for small and medium-sized technology companies in Spain, Austria and the United States. As our Chief Business Development Officer, Todd introduces MobiusPay’s suite of award-winning financial services to new industries, and implements the development strategies and key partnerships needed to bring value to new customers.
MobiusPay, Inc. is a U.S.-based global financial services organization that is committed to empowering individuals and businesses. For more than a dozen years, MobiusPay has leveraged state-of-the-art secure billing technology, long-standing relationships with financial institutions and award-winning customer support to provide merchant processing and payment solutions to brick and mortar and digital businesses around the world.