On Jan.1, Sean Azzariti became the first person to legally buy recreational marijuana in Colorado with his cash purchase from 3D Cannabis Center in Denver. Although the federal government recently gave banks a green light to offer services to the legal marijuana industry, the measure falls short of the legislative action many banks want to see before doing business with marijuana operators. That will be up to Congress to consider. (Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

Banks need more than marijuana regulators’ promises (editorial)

Federal guidelines intended to ease concerns of banks dealing with legal marijuana businesses are indeed a crack in the wall. But they don’t go far enough.

The reality is the only meaningful “guidance” for banks will come from federal legislation — a change in law rather than assurances from regulators that banks won’t be punished for working with pot businesses.

But a significant legislative change is doubtful considering the current partisanship in Congress.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., called the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act, would prohibit federal regulators from punishing any bank servicing marijuana businesses in places where it is legal.

The bill faces an uphill battle in the House, having 27 co-sponsors but only two Republicans — one of whom is Rep. Mike Coffman from Aurora, who has said he is not pro-pot but understands the need for the businesses to have banking services.

On Friday, when the much-anticipated guidance came in the form of memos from the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments, the marijuana industry celebrated. But bankers did not. Marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law and banks must follow all laws.

FirstBank, Colorado’s second-largest bank, said it would continue to decline pot business.

Don Childears, president of the Colorado Bankers Association, told The Denver Post his organization will advise banks “not to proceed at all.”

So how does the guidance help?

“It is an acknowledgment from the Obama administration that this issue needs to be fixed,” said Michael Elliott, director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. But he hopes Obama goes further.

If Congress won’t act, Elliott hopes the president will take executive action and remove pot from the federally illegal drug list.

If that’s the solution, however, it is going to be a long wait indeed until banks and marijuana businesses become cozy bedfellows.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com