banking

California bill encourages banks to work with pot businesses

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California legislators considered a plan Monday intended to encourage more banks to do business with marijuana companies that have been frozen out of thousands of financial institutions.

Most Americans live in states where marijuana is legally available in some form. But most financial institutions don't want anything to do with money from the cannabis industry for fear it could expose them to legal trouble since the federal government still considers marijuana illegal.

The conflict between state and federal law has left businesses in California's emerging legal pot industry in a legal dilemma, shutting many out of everyday services such as opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card. It also has forced many businesses to operate only in cash — sometimes vast amounts — making them ripe targets for crime.

An Assembly bill would authorize state regulators to share detailed sales, cultivation and shipping information collected from cannabis companies with banks, a step supporters hope will provide additional assurances to financial institutions that a pot shop or grower is operating within the law.

During the Obama administration, the Justice Department issued guidelines to help banks avoid federal prosecution when dealing with pot businesses in states where the drug is legal.

But most banks don't see those rules as a shield against charges that could include aiding drug trafficking. And they say the rules are difficult to follow, in effect placing the burden on banks to determine if a pot business is complying with all legal rules.

Cara Martinson of the California State Association of Counties told members of an Assembly committee that the bill represented an incremental step until a solution is reached at the federal level.

"This could help move the ball," she said.

The number of banks and credit unions willing to handle pot money is growing — it's over 400 nationally — but they still represent only a small fraction of the industry.

$350,000 in cash? California marijuana taxes still make growers - and tax collectors - nervous

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On tax days, it’s not hard to spot marijuana growers waiting to exhale in downtown Eureka.
They haul cash in grocery bags and boxes, making their way to a state office where they can pay their taxes.

One grower “holds his breath as he walks into the building,” said Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance. The distance is “no more than 20 yards, but the fact that he was holding $350,000 (makes it) ... a public safety issue.”

California still doesn’t have a better way to collect taxes from its burgeoning, licensed marijuana industry three years after voters passed an initiative to legalize recreational cannabis and 23 years after they sanctioned medical marijuana.

That won’t change as long as marijuana is considered an illegal drug by federal authorities, which makes banks reluctant to do business with the cannabis industry.

But from Eureka to San Diego, the state is making some headway in easing obstacles that kept cannabis entrepreneurs from paying their state taxes and fees on time.

For starters, California finally has state tax collectors stationed in the heart of the so-called Emerald Triangle, which produces most of America’s marijuana. The tax collectors work out of a Humboldt County building with support from state and local law enforcement officers.

That’s a big change. Until last year, state-licensed marijuana companies from Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties had to drive hundreds of miles with bags full of cash to pay their taxes at the nearest state offices in Sacramento or in San Francisco.

“It has been unacceptable that legal cannabis farmers have to drive up to five hours to pay their taxes or have a face-to face with their regulatory agencies,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “This isn’t safe for the farmer, it isn’t safe for the public and it definitely isn’t a good way to do business.”

On the opposite end of the state, California tax offices in San Diego County simply refused to accept money from cannabis companies in 2016 and 2017 after state workers worried their offices weren’t equipped for that kind of cash businesses.

Their fears persuaded elected representatives overseeing regional tax offices for what was the Board of Equalization to prohibit cannabis growers and retailers from making cash payments at state offices in their districts.

“You have to think about hostage situations,” former Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey said at a December 2016 meeting where she explained why she was reluctant to permit cannabis cash transactions at offices she oversaw without significant investments in security.

Her colleague former Board of Equalization member Jerome Horton at the same meeting suggested state workers should receive “combat pay” for working with hefty cash payments.

Russell Lowery, Harkey’s former chief of staff, said the Board of Equalization allowed alternate payment arrangements at the time, such as tax collectors meeting cannabis growers at banks and depositing funds directly into state accounts. Those visits were not promoted because of security fears, he said.

State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who was on the Board of Equalization at the time, said the state did not lose money because of the inconvenience.

“Everyone who was supposed to pay, paid,” she said. “They all knew they had to pay. They just had to hire more security or armored cars because they had to drive.”

The Board of Equalization no longer has power to allow varying tax collection policies around the state.

Its tax-collecting responsibilities have been handed to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, which reports to the governor instead of a board run by regional elected leaders.

Tax department Director Nicolas Maduors said cannabis companies now can make cash payments at 11 offices around the state. The department has invested security features at its offices and no one has been harmed.

“We recognized that cash acceptance is going to be a big challenge and there were certain places in the state where cash was not accepted,” he said. “We need to make sure that all taxpayers no matter where they live in the state have access to service.”

State workers are still nervous about the practice, and he asked that The Sacramento Bee not identify the locations that accept cash. Cannabis companies call ahead of time. Transactions take place in the presence of security officers.

“We’re doing all that we can with law enforcement, retrofitting facilities to make sure we can keep people safe,” he said.

Next month, several state departments plan to open a new “one stop shop” for the marijuana industry in Eureka. It’ll open in the Eureka Times Standard building with space for the Bureau of Cannabis Control, Department of Public Health and State Water Resources Control Board.

The tax department does not plan to move from its county-managed building with the other cannabis regulatory departments.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration projects the state will collect more than $500 million in marijuana-related taxes next year. It doesn’t all come in cash.

Many marijuana businesses have found ways to work with credit unions and other alternative financial institutions to pay tax. Lawmakers are working to expand those opportunities. Last week, a bill that would encourage charter banks and credit unions to work with the cannabis industry cleared a Senate committee.

Carver of from the Humboldt County Growers Alliance said the state had done a “good job” working with her industry.

“The complication doesn’t necessarily come from the state. The complication still rests on the federal level because a lot of our businesses are still unable to bank,” she said.


TD Ameritrade Urges Their Clients to be Cautious About Legal Pot Stocks

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Canada’s federal legalization of cannabis and the continued expansion of legal use in the United States have led to an explosion of interest in marijuana investments, this year especially. But the U.S. brokerage firm TD Ameritrade is warning their clients and investors in general to be cautious about legal cannabis stocks. In a video posted on the firm’s YouTube channel in late September, TD Ameritrade highlights the risks and acknowledges the seductive appeal of investing in marijuana. Many who’ve observed the cannabis market’s recent volatility feel TD Ameritrade is offering sound advice. Others say the bullish trends of the market are real and that TD Ameritrade is playing it too safe.

TD Ameritrade Video Warns Investors Against Straying Into The “Wild West” of Cannabis Stocks

Cannabis is rapidly moving from the black market to the stock market. But one investment firm is warning, not so fast. TD Ameritrade is urging investors to be cautious and do their homework before buying stock in cannabis companies. Their reasoning is simple: the market still carries significant risks.

The firm’s video begins with a brief history of legalization in North America. It then presents viewers with an image of the North American Marijuana Index which tracks cannabis companies’ stock prices and market capitalization, showing how the value of the index has nearly tripled since its 2015 inception. In short, the setup makes clear why so many investors are attracted to the cannabis industry. Its potential for growth is undeniable.

Then, the other shoe falls. The video says everything that’s exciting about the cannabis industry also suggests it’s a market bubble. It draws parallels between the cryptocurrency frenzy of 2017, the housing market bubble of 2008 and even the dot.com bubble of the early aughts. The bottom line, TD Ameritrade’s video seems to claim, is that the excitement around the industry is overlooking its uncertain regulatory future. And that leads to extreme volatility and in turn, high risk for investors.

Can TD Ameritrade’s Words of Warning Dissuade Young Investors

Exhibit A in TD Ameritrade’s case against cannabis investing is September’s rollercoaster ride for the Canadian marijuana company Tilray. Tilray was the first Canadian cannabis producer to raise capital through an IPO on the NASDAQ. So when trading went public in July at about $17 per share, Tilray’s stock price shot up to $300 per share by mid-September. But almost as quickly, Tilray gave up those gains. The stock was so volatile, in fact, that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) halted Tilray’s trading five times in a single day.

The SEC also issued an investor alert on marijuana investments and fraud in early September. And these, TD Ameritrade says, are signs that it may be prudent to hold off on significant cannabis investments until the industry matures. Yet it’s not clear whether investors, especially young ones, will heed the firm’s warnings.

Cannabis stocks are attracting young investors in droves. And it’s not only because legalization a generation-defining issue. Fee-free trading apps like Robinhood and TD Ameritrade’s own platform have made it easier than ever for young investors to buy cannabis stocks online. And they aren’t wrong, according to famous short seller Andrew Left. Left acknowledges that it’s hard to tell the difference between real players in the marijuana sector and fly-by-night scammers. But at the same time, he’s convinced the growth is real and here to stay.

So before you invest, make sure to do your homework. Research any company you’re considering investing in. Look up reports and SEC filings—anything you can find. There are also red flags that should dissuade you from investing. These include SEC suspensions, hyped up press releases and company insiders holding large amounts of stock.