WESTERN SAN JUANS — Owning and operating a retail or medicinal marijuana dispensary in Ridgway or Telluride could get a little easier in the coming months, thanks to recent statements made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who said that federal regulators may soon start allowing state-sanctioned marijuana dispensaries access to federally-insured banking services.
For medicinal and retail shop proprietors in the Western San Juans region, this is a welcome announcement.
“Access to banking would mean everything for us,” said one proprietor, who declined to be named because of the unsettled nature of the issue. “This is what we need, and this is what we don’t have. I run a legitimate business in Colorado, but we aren’t treated like one when it comes to banking.…We feel shunned a little bit.”
Holder’s comments did not provide specific guidance regarding what types of banking services will be made available to marijuana businesses. Instead of giving banks the green light to start accepting deposits from state-licensed shops, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said recently, the Justice Department will direct federal prosecutors not to prioritize prosecuting such cases.
Knowing this, Chris Maughan, Alpine Bank senior vice president and Telluride branch manager, is cautiously optimistic about Holder’s comments, even though he has not received any guidance from the bank’s federal regulators.
“As a locally-owned and operated bank, our mission is to serve the needs of the entire community,” he said. “The Attorney General’s comments are encouraging, but because we are a federally regulated institution, our policy on this issue is dictated by the FDIC. At this point, we have received no guidance from the FDIC that would allow us to bank marijuana business.”
Still, the unnamed proprietor said, the development out of D.C. comes as welcome news.
“Not having access to things like credit and regular deposit accounts is very difficult for us. It would help us immensely. We are a fully-legitimate business except for this one aspect of it. I think that Holder’s comments are a move in a positive direction even if nothing concrete has come from them yet.”
Because the drug is still illegal under federal law, banks, which are FDIC-insured, do not accept deposits from cannabis businesses for fear of possible money laundering charges. As a result, many dispensaries are left conducting transactions entirely in cash, or finding other, sometimes illegal, ways to conceal their business to access the banking system.
The fact that many of these stores must do business only in cash makes them prime targets for robberies, and Holder appears to be on the side of the pot shops in this regard.
“You don’t want just huge amounts of cash in these places,” Holder said. “…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.”
No marijuana dispensary in Telluride offered The Watch any comment into how they operate their business, aside from saying that access to basic banking services would alleviate many of their problems.