Navigating the Confusing, Crowded World of Cannabis Payments

Navigating the Confusing, Crowded World of Cannabis Payments

When you’re a cannabis retail operator looking for electronic cannabis payment solutions you’re faced with a baffling array of options and it’s hard to pick out the ones you can trust and the ones that you should avoid at all costs. Every potential vendor is going to tell you that their solution is the best (trust me!) so you need to understand the basic landscape of cannabis payment solutions in order to know what questions to ask. There’s a lot of solid vendors out there that only want to help the industry but there are, sadly, those out there that prey upon a lack of familiarity with the crowded, confusing payments landscape to push solutions that are at best unsustainable and at worst fraudulent.

ACH transactions are a way for a person or a business to do direct bank money transfers.

These transactions are conducted on a computer network run by NACHA, the National Clearinghouse Association. Since these don’t run over the networks run by the credit card companies like Visa or Mastercard – known as “payment rails” – these transactions don’t violate their rules. While NACHA hasn’t officially made a statement either way about cannabis, their actions suggest they don’t have an issue processing these transactions over their network.

The downside with many ACH solutions is that they aren’t necessarily convenient for the buyer. Because a customer or patient can’t just pull out a bank card they are often required to download an app and provide banking details like account and routing numbers. This isn’t necessarily an issue from the second purchase forward, but this can be a bit of a pain for a customer or patient trying to use an app for the first time if they’re not expecting to have to go through an account onboarding process that might take several minutes. The upside to this is that there are platforms that allow the buyer to upload funds via ACH to an eWallet, which, after the initial transaction, will enable them to make instant purchases. Platforms also allow the buyer to automatically replenish their eWallet via ACH, allowing them to always have funds to make purchases. These purchases can also be combined with a store’s loyalty points program.

Questions to ask about ACH solutions:

  • What does a customer or patient need to do to use the solution?
  • How long does it normally take for the funds to transfer, allowing a user to make purchases?
  • Are there any contactless platforms that allow a buyer to purchase the product for delivery or curbside pickup?
  • Do you need additional hardware to display a single-use QR code specific to the transaction?

Cashless ATMs and PIN Debit solutions are among the most common electronic payment methods that allow customers to directly use cards.

To discuss the issues that go along with any card-based solution we need to take a step back and talk about how payments are processed. As previously mentioned, every credit card company has a set of rails used by merchants to process a sale over their network. Each transaction is sent as a packet of information that broadly contains the following information: name of business, location of business, any additional merchant information, and merchant category code (MCC).

Every transaction has to be associated with a four digit MCC used by the merchants to indicate the nature of the business and the transaction. The code that’s traditionally been used by cashless ATMs and PIN Debit solutions is 5912, reserved for pharmacies and “cannabis (where legal to do so)”. This is what’s used in Canada where credit cards are an option but it’s not an acceptable option in the US because the major credit card networks have clarified that their rails cannot be used for the purchase of marijuana. They do so by prohibiting activities associated with “controlled substances, or recreational/street drugs” (VISA) or even more broadly “any Transaction that is illegal” (Mastercard) in their operating agreements.

It’s important to note that you can’t just randomly choose an alternative MCC because miscoding constitutes fraud. You may remember a few years ago that California-based delivery company Eaze was prosecuted in 2019 for using MCC codes associated with things like “carbonated drinks, green tea, face creams and other products” in an attempt to obscure the fact that the network was being used for the direct purchase of marijuana.

It should be noted however that there are a few ATM networks out there that aren’t directly owned by the big credit card companies like NYCE, Allpoint, Star, and Moneypass. These companies have been relatively quiet regarding the use of their networks for the purchase of marijuana products, so there is an argument to be made that if card transactions are sent over those rails they’re not violating any operating rules, but anecdotally we’ve heard that some of these networks aren’t necessarily cannabis friendly and, as private companies, they’re able to change their mind (for or against) whenever they wish.

Questions to ask about Cashless ATMs and PIN Debit solutions:

  • What MCC code is the payment processor using?
  • What network is being used to process the transaction?

Credit cards are notoriously off-limits to cannabis because of the very public positions taken by the major card networks but that doesn’t stop companies from popping up offering credit card processing for cannabis purchases. Let’s clarify here at the outset – there is no way to directly purchase marijuana with a credit card in the United States with a credit card from American Express, Visa, Mastercard, or Discover.

So, with necessity being the mother of invention, some companies are trying out a new strategy to get credit card processing into dispensaries legally. Among them are solutions that take advantage of another MCC code: 6051. This code is associated with the purchase of “liquid and cryptocurrency assets” and some enterprising payment providers are using it to set up a structure where a customer isn’t “technically” buying marijuana. Instead they are “buying” what’s called a “stablecoin”, a form of cryptocurrency whose value is pegged 1:1 to the US dollar.

Questions to ask about cryptocurrency or stablecoin solutions:

  • What MCC code is the payment processor using?
  • What stablecoin is being leveraged?
  • How is the stablecoin preserving its value?
  • What will the offramping of funds from a crypto wallet to my DDA account look like to my bank?

Cannabis retail operators are faced with serious business and legal considerations when determining the payment processing solution provided to patients and customers. What solution will be the easiest for the customer? Is the solution compliant?

The cannabis industry’s evolving legal and regulatory landscape is challenging, especially with bad actors seeking to implement non compliant make-shift payment solutions intended to capitalize off of cannabis businesses seeking efficient and effective cannabis payment solutions. It is essential that you do your due diligence on cannabis payment solutions presented to your business to confirm that it will not cause an issue for you, the business and its patterns and customers. We hope that this article outlines considerations that will allow you to protect your business and its patients and customers.


Paul Dunford

Paul Dunford is Co-founder and VP of Knowledge at Green Check Verified. Paul is an active member of the cannabis banking regulatory community, contributing to trade publications and speaking virtually and in-person across the country on the subject.

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