A Colorado marijuana dispensary's bags of cash are handed to a security company for transport to state offices for payments in May 2014. (Hyoung Chang, Denver Post file)

Marijuana banking bill introduced in U.S. Senate

"The legal marijuana industry is worth nearly $3 billion nationwide. We shouldn't be forced to carry that around in duffel bags," says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner are part of a bipartisan group of senators that has introduced a bill to green-light banking for marijuana businesses.

The Colorado senators were joined by Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon — another state, along with Washington and Alaska, to have legalized recreational pot.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and banks could be found guilty of money laundering if they accept deposits from pot shops.

“As marijuana is legalized in states across the country, the federal government has a duty to ensure that this experiment can proceed safely,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper in a statement. “Providing marijuana businesses access to banking will protect the safety and well-being of our residents.”

The Senate proposal would stop federal banking officials from penalizing banks that work with marijuana businesses and would protect those banks from prosecution.

The Colorado Bankers Association on Friday expressed its support for the bill, saying in a statement it was “in favor of a carve-out from federal law for banks operating in states where marijuana has been legalized and there is an appropriate regulatory plan in place.”

Without bank accounts, pot businesses deal in cash held in safes, safe houses and basements. It gets ferried around the state by armored vehicles and armed guards.

“I know shop owners who dig holes in their yards to hide the money,” said Dylan Donaldson, owner of Karing Kind in Boulder. “We have stash houses and armed escorts.”

Similar legislation last year in the House didn’t make a committee hearing calendar. In April, about 20 Colorado business owners, bankers and government officials met with Esther George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, about the lack of banking services for the industry.

“The legal marijuana industry is worth nearly $3 billion nationwide. We shouldn’t be forced to carry that around in duffel bags,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, in a recent statement.

Daily Times-Call reporter Vince Winkel contributed to this report.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com