Thursday, January 30, 2014

A state bank and other marijuana-related bills being considered in Olympia

Posted By on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 2:02 PM

We've got a story in this week's issue about a few of the plans being debated in Olympia to overhaul the state's medical marijuana industry. It's a complex issue with passionate activists and legal gray areas around every corner. But it's not the only marijuana talk in the state Legislature this session.

State Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, is proposing the creation of a state-run bank for the recreational marijuana businesses that will soon open under the implementation of Initiative 502. While his bill, SB 5955, doesn't specify the exact structure of the bank, he says he envisions a state-owned operation that's mandatory for any recreational marijuana business and anyone who wants to buy marijuana and that tracks every purchase. Not only would that circumvent federally regulated banks, he argues, but it would allow the state to better ensure that it's not allowing the sale of pot to minors (one of the federal government's stipulations in not intervening with the creational of marijuana markets in Washington and Colorado).

The question of where marijuana businesses store their money has been a major one for both medical and recreational businesses. Because marijuana is still considered illegal under federal law, banks are reluctant to accept what is still, in federal terms, dirty money. (Check out this New York Times story featuring a Seattle medical marijuana dispensary owner who takes bricks of cash in brown paper bags to pay his taxes.)

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice and Treasury Departments would soon release a memo making it easier for banks to do business with marijuana sellers. The memo wouldn't change law, but could signal that cases involving marijuana businesses should be a lower priority for prosecutors.

But Hasegawa says his proposal is the only guaranteed way to protect money made by marijuana businesses from federal seizure. What happens if the feds change their minds? Or if the next administration hires a less marijuana-friendly attorney general?

"I don't think [other legislators] fully appreciate just how dire the situation is," Hasegawa says. "If we don't do anything and the banks aren't able to handle the money — i.e. until Congress changes the law — we're implementing a cash-based marketplace. To me, that is totally irresponsible."

Some argue that just because the state owned the bank it wouldn't be exempt from federal regulations on all the things banks process: checks, debit and credit cards, wire transfers. That means a state bank could be rendered nothing more than a giant safety deposit box.

Meanwhile, a lengthy list of other bills regarding marijuana have also been introduced.

Among them:

Varying approaches to try to prevent cities and counties from banning marijuana businesses, which the state attorney general says they can do.

• A bill introduced by Spokane Sen. Michael Baumgartner to commit $20 million of marijuana revenues to cities and $5 million to counties for extra law enforcement officers.

• A proposal blocking marijuana growers from receiving state agricultural tax breaks.

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Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...