The Obama administration has officially relaxed its marijuana rules on Feb. 15 by allowing the banking industry to finance and do business with growers. Marijuana is still illegal in most states, expect for Colorado and Washington.
The new changes will allow legal distributors to secure loans and set up checking and savings accounts with major banks that have largely steered clear of those businesses. The decision eliminates a key hurdle facing marijuana sellers, who can now legally conduct business in 20 states and the District.
So far, the Obama administration has dealt with the legal dilemmas posed by Colorado and Washington — where state laws now allow recreational marijuana use — largely by choosing not to enforce the federal statutes. Eighteen other states allow the sale of medical marijuana — though federal law does not allow that, either.
Last year, for example, the administration said it would not challenge Colorado’s and Washington’s legalization of the drug, as long as they kept a tight rein on marijuana businesses. The administration agreed in August not to prosecute legal dealers as long as they met eight requirements, including not selling to minors.
This was not, federal officials said, a change in the law itself. Marijuana was still illegal, as far as the federal government was concerned, in all 50 states. Instead, it was just a declaration that the Justice Department had bigger things to worry about.
On Friday, the administration went a step further by laying out a path for banks to bring marijuana commerce out of the shadows and into the mainstream financial system.
The Treasury Department issued new rules that could make it easier for banks to do business with marijuana dispensers. In separate guidance, the Justice Department directed U.S. attorneys not to pursue banks that do business with legal marijuana dispensers as long as the dealers adhere to the guidelines issued in August.
A senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, acknowledged that the decision could draw legal protests from anti-legalization groups. Some lawmakers have complained that the administration is enabling an industry that is in violation of federal law.
“Marijuana trafficking is illegal under federal law, and it’s illegal for banks to deal with marijuana sale proceeds under federal law. Only Congress can change these laws. The administration can’t change the law with a memo,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.