The SAFE Banking Act is back in Congress, and political momentum is swinging in favor of the cannabis industry’s need to normalize its relations with financial institutions.
Safe Harbor Services’ credit union banked $3 billion in cannabis funds last year, part of a vast but fairly under-the-radar ecosystem where businesses are building rapport with smaller independent financial institutions like regional credit unions. There’s a lot to know to make sure that it’s a productive relationship, and federal reform is only one piece of the puzzle. Much of the work falls to the cannabis business, of course.
Here, we spoke with Safe Harbor Services Vice President Amanda McComb about some of the recent trends and changes that she’s seen in banking the cannabis industry.
Eric Sandy: Could provide a bit of a biographical sketch of Safe Harbor, as of early 2021, and the scope of how the business is interacting with cannabis businesses?
Amanda McComb: We started our cannabis banking program in 2015 and have since gone through 15 state and federal exams. So, it's been a long haul, most specifically just for the cannabis program to make sure that we were staying in compliance and doing it in a safe and sound way. We also started a national [cannabis] program back in 2017. A lot of our clients that we bank here in Colorado were going out of state, and we wanted to follow them out of state because it's really important for us to see all of their business—to be able to stand in front of the money and say that they're legitimate businesses and that they're operating within compliance, within their regulations. So, we started following them out of state and realized really quickly that we couldn't be the only financial institution to bank the nation as a whole. We started working with other financial institutions to give them a compliance program that had obviously gone through multiple exams and had feedback from our regulators that we'd really tried to fine-tune.
So, we have about seven or eight different financial institutions that we work with throughout the nation. Here in 2021 we’re actually consolidating all of our cannabis-related initiatives into a new company called Safe Harbor financial. It’s combining those relationships with financial institutions and our relationships with cannabis clients and putting it all together in one company and then expanding the services that we offer to the industry. We're working on lending and other initiatives to support the industry and bring them more normalized banking, because, as I'm sure you know, they just haven't had a lot of normalized banking or lending or investments. The CEO of [Safe Harbor’s] credit union is essentially stepping down from the credit union and running this new company, focusing all of her efforts on all things cannabis-related and then moving into other ventures like virtual currencies and things that might be of use to the cannabis space at some point.
ES: What are some of the common misconceptions that Safe Harbor has run into? Are there certain banking-related questions that cannabis businesses are bringing to you that they haven't fully grasped yet?
AM: As the cannabis industry gets more normalized and more states pass regulations surrounding cannabis, there's the misconception that it could just be a regular bank account or a regular business account. Unfortunately, like we saw with the 15 state and federal exams, it just can't be a normal business account at this point. Even if the SAFE Banking Act were to pass, it's still so close to that black market history. There is still a pull because it's so expensive to be in the cannabis space—especially places like California where they had cannabis before they really had regulations.
Trying walk that back and put regulations on these companies that have been selling for some time is expensive and labor-intensive for the companies. When they go to get a bank account, we're very intrusive and we always consider ourselves the nosiest bankers around because we have had to ensure that they are legitimate businesses. There’s just so much compliance that has to happen on our end in order to protect the financial system as a whole, that it is more expensive. We can’t offer the variety of products that we could offer, quote unquote, normal businesses or normalized businesses.
ES: On the due diligence side of the conversation, what are some ways that these cannabis businesses might help prepare to work with a financial institution?
AM: We collect a lot of the same data that they would provide to get their license with their state. If they’re very organized and keep all of that together, it's a good place for us to start. Having sophisticated or at least up-to-par bookkeeping and accounting [helps], so that we can look through their financials—specifically if they haven't been banked. That’s one of the hardest parts: trying to prove that the funds that they've earned when they were unbanked are legitimately earned in their state. Having solid records so that we have something to rely upon when our regulators come in and ask, “How do we know that these are legitimate funds?” is important.
ES: Going back to those 15 state and federal exams, could you elaborate on what that looks like? And do those exams differ from state to state in any substantial way?
AM: Typically, a financial institution will be on a 12-month to 18-month exam schedule, and when we started our program, it was a lot of education for us and the regulators. It was a lot of discussion of what cannabis banking looks like. Not a lot of our regulators had experience in financial institutions that banked cannabis. The exams were very collaborative in us trying to figure out the safest way to bank this and to not make it impossible for the cannabis industry to bank—but also to ensure safety and soundness for our institution and for the financial system as a whole. It was a lot of back and forth, collaborative efforts that actually prompted us to develop our own compliance software in-house that we, from all of the feedback that we were getting from regulators, were able to streamline and male as easy as possible.
ES: One of the questions we've gotten pretty frequently over the years is from cannabis business owners trying to find credit unions who are willing to work with them in the cannabis space at all. So, how can credit unions signal to the cannabis industry that they're open to this business, and how do these relationships start?
AM: At this point, what I've seen is it's a lot of word of mouth. A lot of financial institutions are hesitant to come out publicly and say that they are banking cannabis because it does bring additional scrutiny. It can also be a reputation risk with our peers and with vendors that we work with. In my world, cannabis is more normalized just because I've had a front seat to it, but in talking to other financial institutions, they tend to be a lot more conservative with their risk. A lot of times it's word of mouth between clients, which can be difficult because a lot of them are under NDAs with financial institutions. Some of it is just seeing the checks, if you're getting checks from [financial] institutions. That’s not always super reliable, because the institution might not know that they're banking cannabis necessarily.
There are some things to keep in mind, though, as the cannabis industry is looking for bank accounts and really investigating the financial stability of the institutions. Most of that is publicly available information. A lot of institutions, especially smaller institutions, think that cannabis will be the solution to their financial problems or the recessionary possibility. Sometimes, those are the ones that go out of business quickly because they just don't have the capacity to handle all the compliance that's necessary. So, it’s on the cannabis industry to do a little research on the financial institutions that they start to work with.
ES: Given that, what were some of the prime movers for Safe Harbor, years ago, to be willing to step into this space?
AM: The biggest one was community safety. When we started talking to the industry, a lot of Colorado was unbanked. We were hearing stories about these entrepreneurs who hadn't been in a cash-intensive space. Working in a financial institution, we understand the risks of cash. We go through robbery trainings. A lot of my coworkers have been through robberies. So, we understand that level of risk. And when you're talking to the industry and they're going to ATMs late at night, shoving cash in ATMs and doing payroll in cash, the risk that we saw was very intimidating. We wanted to help in the sense of providing a place to put their cash—and they wouldn't have to manage it. The other thing is, credit unions were really founded to bank the underbanked and serve the underserved. There didn't really seem to be a more modern version of that than the cannabis industry, especially as they were being shut out of financial institutions and having to operate in cash. Those two are large driving forces for why we got into the industry.
ES: From your perspective, what sort of trends are you watching out of Washington—or what sort of aspects of federal reform, maybe in the SAFE Banking Act, are you looking for that would be legitimately helpful for the industry?
AM: The SAFE Banking Act will be helpful to institutions that are still willing to take on something that would be high-risk. FinCEN [The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network] is our ultimate regulator. I'm hoping that if something federally passes like the SAFE Banking Act, then FinCEN can respond and give us more detailed guidance on what they're specifically looking for in cannabis banking. They do have a guidance for us. It’s from 2014, so it's a little outdated, especially with how fast the industry is moving at this point. It allows for institutions to come in and bank [the industry] without being prosecuted, just because it's cannabis. Right now, with anti-money-laundering rules and BSA, what we're doing could be determined as money laundering since it's federally illicit funds.
So, a lot of working with our regulators was really being able to stand in front of that money and say, “No, this was legitimately earned in my state, and we are doing the best effort or a good faith effort to ensure compliance and ensure that it's all legitimate.” That side probably won't go away. While it does open the door for institutions to get in, they still are going to have to have the compliance resources to still stand up and say, “This isn't from the black market. It is legitimate money,” even if the SAFE Banking Act passes.
It's an interesting discussion to have with financial institutions, because most of us are federally insured and it is a complicated conversation to have. It’s not just the cannabis space where we're looking for money laundering and things like that, but it does have those close ties to the black market. We're just a few years outside of it, you know?
ES: California and Colorado have come up, but, just in terms of geographic scope, are there any major differences in how banking regulations are playing out in newer cannabis markets, like an Ohio or a Florida?
AM: With a lot of the newer states coming up, it's an interesting change in banking because a lot of our initial due diligence changes. We aren't trying to show legitimacy to their funds, because a lot of times it's just investment funds or owner contributions to get these licenses off the ground. With the newer markets, the initial due diligence is typically a bit easier because they're going through the licensing process, so they have all the documents handy. There isn't a lot for us to go in and validate. A lot of the states have learned from some of the mistakes that California and Colorado and Oregon and Washington and all of us made initially getting into it.
A lot of the newer states are a little bit easier. It’s funny, though, because a lot of [the new cannabis businesses] are the ones that think that it should be normalized banking because they just haven't had that history of not having banking. What’s also interesting is new states like Florida and Michigan and others, they have very sophisticated backing. There’s Fortune 500 and there's a lot of this sophistication in their management and control. It’s different from some of the mom-and-pop shops that we saw initially, and it’s very fascinating to see where the industry is going as far as being publicly traded in Canada and all of the international aspects that are coming into the cannabis industry.