The pot-shy banking system is expected to be the top problem on the table when some 200 people flock to Ashland Jan. 30 for a "crash course" in advance of license applications for legal medical marijuana dispensaries in six weeks.
"Banking is a real problem for future dispensary owners," says Alex Rogers, organizer of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Business Conference, scheduled for Jan. 30-31 at the Ashland Springs Hotel.
Colorado shops took in $5 million in the first week of legal pot, and "a lot of them have no place to put the money, because of banking restrictions" that stem from laws designed to prevent money laundering from the sale of substances that are illegal under federal law.
Featuring leading figures from the cannabis industry, the Ashland conference will provide guidance for applicants on banking, insurance, lab testing, accounting and security, he said.
It will also describe related new opportunities in the marijuana business, including surveillance and security, as required by the Oregon Health Authority.
One of the speakers, Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said lack of access to banking "is the No. 1 issue and a public safety hazard," leaving sellers vulnerable to robbery and pilfering.
"We do see some resolution on banking coming from the departments of Justice and Treasury," said Smith, in a phone interview from his Denver headquarters. "It appears this won't require Congress. The second big issue is the outdated federal tax policy. It may be ordinary for other merchants to be able to claim deductions for business expenses, but we need this also."
Colorado's two U.S. senators and several House members wrote a letter to the Justice and Treasury departments noting the crime danger of a cash economy, as well as the difficulty of taxing, auditing and regulating a business that doesn't operate through normal financial channels, according to a Friday story in the Denver Post.
The NCIA is seeking changes in the federal Controlled Substances Act, which still regards pot as illegal, though the Department of Justice has said it will not make arrests if sales are legal under state laws.
However, says Rogers, banks still must operate with rules that keep them safe from money-laundering charges.
Rep. Peter Buckley, co-chairman of the Ways & Means Committee of the Oregon Legislature, and a participant in the cannabis conference, said participants are "trying to professionalize it, and the key is access to banking services. That will only take place as the federal government steps back and allows it to move forward.
"Something has to give. It can't be a cash business — for accountability, you want to be able to trace all the dollars ... and not allow it to slide out the back door" into the black market.
Banks in Oregon are holding off on providing services until federal officials change present laws, said Andee Rose, marketing and communications director for the Oregon Bankers Association in Salem.
"To be frank," Rose said, in an email, "this is an evolving issue which requires federal action. Changes in federal laws are needed to make it clear that banks are allowed to provide services to those legally engaged in state-approved and regulated marijuana business."
Kevin Christiansen, governmental affairs director of the OBA, said in an interview that Congress will have to change the Bank Secrecy Act, Money Laundering Act and several other statutes. A bill by Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter to legalize pot money in banking is not progressing, he adds.
People's Bank of Commerce President Ken Trautman, the chairman of OBA, said it is now illegal to provide banking services to anyone engaged in a federally illegal activity — such as selling marijuana — and federal officials "are not going to back off on this stance."
Backers of an Oregon ballot measure to create a state-owned bank — now gathering petition signatures and aiming for the November 2014 election — will also not be able to use the bank to get around federal laws, Trautman said, and will not be able to get FDIC coverage for pot revenue.
The Oregon Health Authority on March 1 will begin taking applications to license medical pot shops.
"Many people are interested," Rogers says, "but are unsure of how to do so or what is required. This (conference) is a crash course on ... the precise details."
In addition to Smith and Buckley, speakers at the conference will be Anthony Johnson, executive director of Oregon Cannabis Industry Association; Troy Dayton, CEO of The ArcView Group; and Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.