An installation called a Cash Transaction Unit, which is a high-security operation with bullet-proof payment windows set up specially for marijuana businesses paying their monthly taxes in cash, is shown in a retrofitted office space at the Oregon Department of Revenue at its Salem, Ore., headquarters in February 2016. (Kristena Hansen, Associated Press file)

House GOP nixes bid to open banking for cannabis businesses

Failing in an effort to match the success of their Senate counterparts, House members on Tuesday watched as Republicans killed a budget amendment that would have prevented federal regulators from penalizing financial institutions that worked with legitimate marijuana businesses.

Though a Senate committee last week passed a similar amendment, House Republicans in the Rules Committee blocked any vote on the amendment proposed by Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Arvada, and Rep. Denny Heck of Washington to the Fiscal Year 2017 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act.

The bill makes appropriations to the Treasury, the Office of the President and other agencies.

“Frankly, I’m frustrated by this terrible decision, and the American people should be, too,” Heck said in a statement. “We’ve been pushing for this common-sense change for more than three years now, received bipartisan support … and now all the sudden this issue is labeled a ‘poison pill.'”

Both amendment sponsors pointed to a shooting Sunday at an Aurora dispensary where a security guard was killed during an armed robbery. Though banking proponents have pointed at the robbery as an example why the marijuana industry needs banking, law enforcement has not said whether cash or marijuana was the object of the robbery.

Neither cash nor marijuana was taken, and no suspects have been arrested.

Nevertheless, Perlmutter said an all-cash industry is ripe for attack.

“I’m appalled at House Republican leadership for denying the opportunity for a vote on the marijuana banking amendment which gets cash off the streets and prevents future crime in our communities. How many more armed robberies must we witness and security guards’ lives lost before we take action?” Perlmutter said in a statement.

Effort to open banking system to legal marijuana businesses stalls in U.S. House
Taxi cab driver Juan Molina pays his respects at a makeshift memorial for shooting victim Travis Mason at the Green Heart marijuana dispensary on June 20, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Perlmutter’s bill to allow banks and other financial institutions to work with marijuana businesses openly hasn’t had an easy road, either.

Last year’s effort failed to reach any debate in the House, a similar fate suffered in 2013 of a bill passed by the House and later stifled in the Senate.

The U.S. Department of Justice has said it wouldn’t spend time prosecuting financial service companies that work with legal marijuana businesses as long as they follow strict guidelines of compliance — but stopped short of offering blanket protection against enforcement. Many bankers worry that they could risk losing accreditation and face money-laundering charges if a marijuana business client turns out to be a front for the illegal drug trade no matter how diligent the bank was at vetting them.

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